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Female Viking Warrior from Birka

How the burial might have looked just before it was closed in Viking times.
Credit: Drawing by Þórhallur Þráinsson; Copyright Antiquity Publications Ltd

(click on the images to enlarge)

in 1897, Hjalmar Stolpe uncovered an unusual burial from one of the cemeteries surrounding the emporium at Birka.

The burial had been placed in an underground wooden chamber, and the body was dressed in Eurasian steppe-style clothing. The remains of a mare and a stallion, their legs tucked under them, rested at one end of the chamber. Sharp weapons surrounded the deceased: a sheathed sword, an axe, a fighting knife, two spears, two shields, a quiver of 25 armour-piercing arrows and a small iron knife.

There was also a bag containing three antler dice and 28 gaming pieces, including a king piece marked with an iron nail, that sat on the deceased's lap. Moreover, the burial was the westernmost grave in Birka and was originally marked with a large boulder, which would have been visible to the settlement.

Because of the grave goods, Stolpe assumed that the grave was that of a male, but in the 1970s, an anatomical analysis of the bones suggested that they belonged to a female, and in 2016 a second analysis confirmed these findings.

So in 2017 a DNA analysis was carried out. In this study, which is published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson, an archaeologist at Uppsala University in Sweden, and her colleagues did a genetic analysis. They found that the so-called male warrior had XX-chromosomes and so was biologically female.

The interpretation of this grave as a warrior burial was never challenged until the burial was revealed to be that of a woman.

While the woman does not have any known injuries preserved in her bones, as other warriors who went to battle do, she was buried in an area that "reinforces a warrior interpretation — being situated outside the gate of the Birka hill fort and adjacent to two other burials containing numerous weapons," the researchers wrote in the study.

The functional weapons buried with the woman are also suggestive of warriorhood, but the researchers acknowledged that it's impossible to know if these items were actually her possessions or reflected her activities.

However, the researchers concluded that the most straightforward interpretation is likely correct:

"Many other interpretations of both funerary treatment and gender are possible, but Occam's razor would suggest that to reach for them as a first resort is to attempt to 'explain away' what seems to be the most obvious and logical conclusion," the researchers wrote in the study. "In our opinion, Bj.581 was the grave of a woman who lived as a professional warrior and was buried in a martial environment as an individual of rank."

See also:

A female Viking warrior confirmed by genomics