The last week has been a fascinating and disturbing time for Viking mortuary archaeology in the public sphere.

On 8th September 2017, an international academic peer-review article was published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology authored by Hedenstierna-Jonson et al., reinterpreting a single skeleton (i.e. not multiple skeletons from the same grave) from a 10th-century chamber grave from the Viking Age trading settlement of Birka. It was discovered in the 19th-century excavations at Birka by Hjalmar Stolpe (in 1877). The Bj581 chamber grave contained a skeleton in a flexed position on its right side suggesting the person had originally been interred in a seated position. The body had been furnished with rich apparel with Eastern links, weapons, gaming pieces and two horses at the foot of the grave.

This grave’s occupant has been shown through multiple skeletal determinations to be a ‘female’, and the article proves this by presenting the osteological sexing and the DNA analysis. Stable isotope analysis suggests a mobile early life.

In its Discussion, the article is straightforward in its interpretation of the results. This grave, once presumed to be a male ‘warrior’ or ‘chieftain’s’ grave, should now be considered to be occupied by a female warrior/chieftain/warlord. Other interpretations are possible, but why should we consider them? The article states uncompromisingly: had it been sexed as male, we would have called it a ‘warrior grave’, so we should now infer the grave was of a female professional warrior.

I found the article startling for its structure and style of writing, resulting from, and restricted by, the necessarily abrupt, data-focused reporting of a US science journal. Still, the resulting lack of nuance, consideration of only binary genders, inferential jumps, and limited contextual analysis is a tad unnerving. I suspect it is also somewhat unnecessarily misleading for non-specialist readers. I’ll come back to these points in a future blog post: I don’t want to focus criticism on the article itself here. What I want to consider in this post is what this publication and its subsequent reception in the press tells us about ‘public mortuary archaeology’, particularly of the Vikings, in 2017.

The Story’s Appeal

Why is this ‘news’? I’d like to suggest this story is appealing because of a particular mix of issues, some overtly played to in the style in which the article is titled and written. As a result, unsurprisingly, this has captured the public imagination.

To be fair: this article wasn’t composed in a vacuum. Other exciting news stories this year of Viking-period discoveries make a ready route for this story to be disseminated: Vikings sell! Not only that, but people know stuff about the Vikings – or they think they do. It is important to remember that sagas are widely disseminated in many media: books, television series, films. Hence, beyond archaeology, there is a popular appreciation that some legendary Viking-period women were remembered in tales as warriors and as war leaders in some later medieval written sources from Scandinavia and Iceland. There are also the mythological supernatural female warriors of Norse mythology: valkyries. Moreover, Vikings – men and women – are replete on 20th/21st-century popular culture as warriors, especially and most prominently in the Marvel Thor comics and films. The popularity is also because female warriors – particularly Lagertha but others too – have featured in the popular television show Vikings. Hence, discussions of ‘warrior women’ have been fervent in recent years, as in here. Further still, some academics have already proclaimed ‘warrior women’ as a likely historical reality. Here’s Professor Neil Price speaking about the artefactual, pictoral and funerary evidence, with essential caveats, in 2015.

Dropped into this context, the article achieves the perfect marriage of journal title, striking images, simple message, and purported myth-busting story. De-bunking and de-mystifying are powerful media tropes. It is also ‘science’ doing the de-bunking and ‘historians’ are those in the wrong.

There are further reasons why the story appeals. The interpretation is seemingly about an individual. As such, it speaks to Western desires to identify and celebrate individual agency and autonomy in the past.

A sealed funerary context matters too. The story draws its power from a vividly illustrated funerary context, where (although lacking fleshed remains) we are afforded the sense that we can get close to that once-living person: their life and their treatment in death. When I say illustrated, I not only refer to the 19th-century illustration, but the striking artist’s reconstruction accompanying the article and appearing in some of the news stories commissioned by Neil Price: one of series in which he has used art to effectively enhance and convey academic interpretations of Viking-period graves.

Through its description and depiction, the furnished grave is thus seductive and memorable. It gives the sense (to a Western modern audience) of an individual buried with ‘personal possessions’ – a practice now common in Britain and the US (at least as far as the crematorium when cremation is involved). Therefore it chimes not only with independent modern living, but independent modern materialist and emotive mortuary ritual.

The story is also appealing because it is about personal power, wealth and martial skill. The elite of the past are always a draw: since we imagine if we were to ever live in the past, we would be special, we would be the chosen few who enjoyed luxuries.

Beyond all of this, the concept of warrior women chimes with ever-popular Western male heterosexual romantic and sexual fantasies about barbarian liberated females. Simultaneously also, it speaks to various feminist social, and lesbian sexual, fantasies about the same. This is about gender politics though, not just fantasy. The story hits  the double whammy of being air-punchingly liberating and empowering for some women, satisfying a desire for exemplar of women in positions of power from the past to validate the quest to tackle modern inequalities in society. At the same time, it is starkly and downright infuriating for male chauvinists who might contend that the Viking Age was a ‘time for men’ in which women did nothing worth mentioning while men ‘did stuff’ like raid and ‘make history’. For this latter perspective, polluting the sacred battlefield with female bodies is sacrilege.

The story is also about violence and who inflicted it – a woman who either killed or led those into battle who killed for her. Hence, above the gender, status and individual dimensions, the story speaks to the celebration of interpersonal violence in Western society, re-jigged only slightly and made all the more disturbing and fascinating by seemingly showing this was not restricted to adult males.

A further point is that the story appeals because the site is well-known: this is Birka, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a site known to history, known to archaeology, with many finds in the National History Museum in Stockholm and where you can visit in the summer months. In other words, it is not a find from an obscure cemetery in a peripheral Swedish province.

There is also the race angle, that cannot be left unmentioned, especially given recent arguments that medievalists are complicit in celebrating a white European medieval fantasy. I’m not pitching this at the authors, but at us all. The Vikings were northern ‘white’ Europeans, and while some in the far-right are happy to see women as subordinate, there is the danger of a simplistic stereotype of gender roles to be appropriated too by the far-right. The ‘Viking’ warrior woman (despite the Eastern dress and potential for this person to have originated far from Scandinavia), might serve to celebrate a proto-democratic pagan white utopia in a comparable fashion (but with better women’s rights) to the long-term celebration of Greek democracy in the West.

All these dimensions come together in this story and are part of its archaeo-appeal. Simultaneously, they render it ripe for archaeo-misuse.

Media Stories

Obviously this is a story about only one grave, and the authors themselves acknowledge it is part of a bigger picture of how we view address gendered identity in the period. Still, this is a publicity success story for early medieval archaeology as a whole, in that it has raised awareness of complex academic debates and research topics in archaeological science, early medieval archaeology and mortuary archaeology. Also, it is a fascinating example of digital public archaeology: the dissemination of a mortuary archaeology story to a wide audience and extremely rapidly. All the more intriguing: it wasn’t based on a new dig, but the re-analysis of a 19th-century find.

Speed of dissemination and responses key here. This is an example of the new, fast-pace arcahaeological dissemination in the digital age, where academic and popular outputs are blurred in their aims, contents and audiences. In this case, a short succinct open-access journal article was published in a prestigious venue (and presumably a large fee was paid for its open access status). Then, it was picked out by a wide range of media outlets and sparked a wide range of comments by readers. Here are the principal ones I’m aware of as of 14-09-17:

These stories take a range of emphases and styles, and I’d like to come back to discuss these, how images have been used, how academics have provided comments, and the range of below-the-line comments to them, in a future post when I get time. However, most are pretty much straightforward reporting of the facts, with the inevitable toning and emphasis regarding its wider gender implications identitifed in The Mary Sue and Jezebel. The focus on new scientific evidence de-bunking previous misconceptions by academics is key. Few can be accused of misrepresenting the academic discoveries in my view, even if titles and images, and the structuring of reports will inevitably condense and emphasise dimensions over the others. The starkness of the media stories really reflects the nature of the original article.

Also, it has been widely debated in public on social media by academics, researchers, amateur enthusiasts and members of the public across a wide spectrum. Between the strong knee-jerk celebration of powerful women and hatred that women might have had positions of power, authority and martial skill in the past, there has been a lot of informed debate by non-academics, many of whom have read up on available historical sources and archaeological evidence in order to pitch in.

This is positive in itself, and perhaps more so than the media coverage. For many, it will energise interest in the Viking Age. For others, particularly some media ‘historians’, and other academic figures in the public eye with many social media followers, the warrior-women story has been merely another thing for wannabe intellectuals and media rentamouths to pour forth their half-baked opinions to fulfill their existing academic agendas in other areas. In other words, those without seemingly having done any reading on the issue, or possessing little or no knowledge of the Viking period, have found their academic credentials and media profile qualify them to use Twitter and Facebook to claim and co-opt the story. This has involved attempts to pass their interim judgements and appraisals not only on the story, but on others – professional and amateur – who are responding to the original publication and its media dissemination. In more helpful cases, comments have included citing parallels and problems, and raising relevant issues and questions.

Yet among the many voices, Viking-period specialists are beginning to project their responses. These are also extremely varied thus far and I’ve seen Viking specialists with literary, historical and archaeological backgrounds raise strong views in support as well as critical of this article. It really is dividing opinion among specialists! I’m among them, although I’ve tried hard to keep quiet until now. To my knowledge, there have been 5 immediate stories written on blogs for public consumption by academics. 2 largely reporting the story in a neutral and positive way:

The third and fourth has been more critical, and Professor Jesch was the first outspoken voice by an academic, taking on the article from literary, historical and archaeological angles.

Still, an important and tangential second blog post has attempted to counter the equation of power with warfare in the Viking Age.

Now there is a fifth, casting doubt on the relationship of the bones to the context by Fedir Androshchuk, asking whether a second body had been present, and whether the bones are indeed from this grave:

As with the article itself, these critical responses from academics, who have rapidly engaged with the publication, should be lauded, regardless of whose ‘side’ we take and their different perspectives. This is now a public debate and it has been made so by the publication itself and the media available. The more views the merrier!

In turn, these academic responses have started to fuel media stories of their own, questioning or doubting the female warrior story. So far, these have followed Jesch, and two try to balance the debates:

Conversely, two thus far relish de-bunking the de-bunking myth:

Concluding Remarks

This is the story so far. The AJPA paper has been controversial, but a digital public archaeological success nonetheless. In this regard, I’ve written this first post as much as a compendium of media outputs for me to consult in future as anything else. Please add further links as they come out. I suspect this story is going to run, and run, and run….

For my part, I’m going to watch how responses unfold, since this isn’t now really primarily a story about whether women wielded weapons in the Viking Age. Instead,  it has broader ramifications in the public sphere; this has become a story about modern identities, and perhaps also about the crisis of academics attempting to be both digital public archaeologists and public intellectuals.

Further commentaries

In addition, as of 18-09-17, Professor Judith Jesch has posted a second entry about the kerfuffle which is worth reading regarding issues of academic responsbility and peer-review: Some Further Discussion on the Article on Bj581.