As It Happens

Viking warrior woman? DNA test reveals female remains in military grave

Scientists in Sweden may have uncovered something that was previously only known to exist in fiction and ancient mythology — a Viking warrior woman.
Canadian actress Katheryn Winnick plays the Viking shieldmaiden Lagertha from Norse mythology in the History channel series Vikings. (History channel )
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Scientists in Sweden may have uncovered something that was previously only known to exist in fiction and ancient mythology — a high-ranking Viking warrior woman.

A DNA analysis shows that a 10th-century skeleton, long presumed to be that of a male Viking warrior, is actually female.

"I do think that it opens our eyes to the complexity of prehistoric society," Uppsala University archeologist Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson told As It Happens host Carol Off.

Hedenstierna-Jonson is the lead author of a study examining the genetics of a skeleton first unearthed in the 1880s in the Swedish town of Birka, home to a large Viking gravesite.

Already in the early middle ages, there were narratives about fierce female Vikings fighting alongside men.- American Journal of Physical Anthropology 

Early on, she said, some researchers posited the remains were female due to the skeletal structure, but this was dismissed as implausible. 

"This particular grave is extensively furnished with weaponry and stands out as one of the most complete warrior graves that has been excavated in this site," Hedenstierna-Jonson said.

"And I guess that's why we had always thought it was a man, because nobody actually took the care to look at the skeleton. It was just so obvious that this was a warrior."

An illustration of how the supposed warrior's grave looked when it was first discovered. (Evald Hansen)

The skeleton was found surrounded by fine weapons — a sword, a battle axe, armour-piercing arrows, a battle knife and two shields — as well as a set of gaming pieces that indicate a deep knowledge of war tactics. 

Hedenstierna-Jonson admits the woman's burial alongside military equipment doesn't prove conclusively that she was, indeed, a warrior. But she says there's plenty of other evidence to suggests she was. 

For one, she was buried in men's garments. 

"Why this is interesting is [because] we do have burials with women and weapons, but then the women have their female dress accessories, so it was quite easy to archeologically see that it's a woman," she said.

An artist's rendition of how the grave from Birka might have originally looked. (Þórhallur Þráinsson/© Neil Price)

She was also interred alongside two horses, which would have been sacrificed for her burial.

"And these two horses also give an indication that there's something special because, of course, not everybody got horses within their burial, but when we do find them, they are generally stallions," she said.

"In this particular case, one is a stallion but the other is a mare, so they made a choice to have one female and one male horse. That may also strengthen this argument that it's to show her special role and special position within a very martial society."

Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson says the evidence suggests the remains from a Viking burial site belong to a high-ranking female warrior. (Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson)

In the study, Hedenstierna-Jonson and her colleagues say they have discovered "the first confirmed female high-ranking Viking warrior."

"Already in the early middle ages, there were narratives about fierce female Vikings fighting alongside men," the study, published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, reads.

"Although, continuously reoccurring in art as well as in poetry, the women warriors have generally been dismissed as mythological phenomena."

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