What can we learn about modern attitudes to the Vikings, gendered identities and mortuary practice by exploring ‘below-the-line’ comments responding to media stories about reporting on the Viking ‘warrior-woman’ from Birka (Bj581)?
In previous posts I’ve explored “why is this news?” and the reporting and academic responses to the scientific research paper. Subsequently, I considered the images used to convey the story in the press. For this third Archaeodeath response, I go into really dangerous territory: below-the-line comments! I hope to sink to the murky depths and rise again triumphant, like Beowulf into the mere and back out again. Unlike Beowulf, I doubt, however, I will slay any monsters and return with treasures and trophies. Still, I do hope my sanity (already a tattered mess) lasts while I do this. It might be the most heroic of my Archaeodeath posts to date!
Archaeologist Dr Duncan Sayer (UCLan) and sociologist Professor Tony Walter (Bath) have recently written a coherent and fascinating research paper called ‘Digging the Dead in a Digital Media Age’. It is published in the (notice the plug) fabulous book called Archaeologists and the Dead, co-edited by me and Dr Melanie Giles.
They explore the media coverage and responses to three recent British burial archaeology stories:
- the burial campaign to raise the profile of the reburial problem in England;
- the discovery of a cow and woman buried in the same grave in the 5th-/6th-century cemetery from Oakington, Cambs;
- the King Richard III debate and the disputes surrounding his final resting place.
Their method aims to explore ‘below-the-line’ comments in order to see what these reveal about public responses and attitudes to mortuary archaeology, contextualising this in relation to broader trends on funerary archaeology’s popular engagements on television and in the media.
Digital environments provide new contexts for the modern public to experience and respond to mortality, faith, society, and identity through the lens of the distant dead retrieved and studied by archaeologists. Admittedly, internet fora aren’t unbiased. Sayer and Walter recognise this, but they suggest that these fora ‘do reflect cyberspace as a new “public square” for the exchange of ideas and offer up a number of avenues that can be researched.’ (Sayer and Walter 2016).
Of particular note, there are close parallels between the recently reported Viking warrior-woman from Birka story and Sayer and Walter’s discussion of the Oakington cow-woman – an early Anglo-Saxon furnished grave of an adult female buried with a cow – namely:
- it relates to a broadly similar period with comparable relationships to the present-day: proto-historical, ‘pagan’ and early medieval, namely the early Anglo-Saxon period (5th-6th-century) and the Viking period (8th-11th centuries);
- both relate to interpreting relatively wealthy furnished inhumation graves: unburned human remains and their associations with artefacts and other grave-goods, grave furnishings and structures;
- they each relate to the interpretation of female gendered identities in the past.
So the responses follow an existing, studied trend. To reveal these more clearly, and for parity, I want to do the same as Sayer and Walter who considered two news stories’ below-the-line comments: the Mail Online and the Huffington Post. Here I looked at the Daily Mail and The Guardian to see what we can learn about responses to the Viking warrior-woman story in so doing.
Wish me luck! I’ve put a few screen captures from Vikings Season 4 part 2 to cheer up the otherwise spartan text.
At the time of viewing, 16-09-17, the article was closed to comments. In total, there are 168 comments on the Daily Mail story. Most people have made up their location, but they seemingly do contain individuals from all over the world. Both genders are represented, but a majority seem to be made by males. The majority are negative, denying, picking holes or just using it as a platform to criticise women and transexuals – whether in support and agreement with the story or not. In particular, there are a range of alt-right phrases and mysogynistic and transphobic comments, and those that clearly see this as a ‘progressive’ lie attempting to re-write history.
Positive and Vindication
The role of Vikings in configuring expectations for the story is clear:
“How timely. My husband keeps saying Vikings is too PC because of Lagertha (and other women) fighting in battles with men and later becoming an earl. I will enjoy this.”
“those of us who have been watching Vikings know that there were female warriors”, but perhaps this is said in jest.
this finds parity and extension in two comments by the same person:
“Wow, they’ve found Lagetha”
“My dear wife, Mrs Aggelos, is a Norwegian from Narvik. We have been married for almost fifty years now and I have never had any doubt that the Vikings had female warriors!”, says Aggelos from Wiltshire, United Kingdom.
This is an interesting pairing, showing that archaeology vindicate this individual’s personal experience and televisual experience.
And the Anglo-Saxon historical parallels are overlooked in official narratives, says a further commentator:
“Quite so, Athelflaed (The Lady of the Mercians) should be remembered as one of the greatest English leaders, beating the Viking Army several times but is just a footnote because she was a woman…shame, all English School Children should know of her…”
Biblical perspectives come in here too:
“Why is it so hard to imagine females were in leadership positions? After all, Jezebel was pretty much literate and the commander in chief while her husband fell into depressed lulls in which he hid and refused to eat. The Queen is a woman”;
We then move onto science. The authority of the archaeological investigation is celebrated: science gives a certain result:
“DNA doesn’t lie”.
Meanwhile queries regarding her lack of injuries (see below) are countered in triumphant terms:
“The fact that she had no trauma to her body only says that she was Victorious in battle.”
Future work should spring from this study, says one self-proclaimed feminist writer, so that ‘impartial DNA testing can be used to question assumptions about gender elsewhere:
“I wonder how many burials sexed as female [she means determined to be female based on grave-goods] turn out to have actually been househusbands?”.
The relationship to modern politics is vaguely alluded to:
“Known fact there were female warriors among the vikings. Sweden needs to remember the vikings BADLY”
Then we move onto positive responses against detractors:
“So many experts on here correcting the people who do this for a living. Is your masculinity offended by one female Viking?!”,
This final comment is fighting against the overwhelming cynicism in the face of the story, as we shall next see. Still, there is a sense here that the story does reflect pre-existing expectations that women could and would be warriors and warleaders in the human past. The influence of Vikings is clear.
Doubts and Denial
We begin with outright denial and outright outrage:
“I have consulted with huggin and mummin [Odin’s ravens] and concluded that this is bs”
Then there are those that want to identify alternative scenarios, together with asserting the article as ‘fake’:
“This person could have been an XX male. This person could have been the wife of a warrior lost at sea and was buried with his artefacts. The truth is – we don’t know and making extrapolations like she was a warrior is dubious.”
Another embodies the overriding sentiment that this is ‘progressive’ fantasy:
“Not proof at all. All politically inspired supposition. Unscientific. Women lack the testosterone to fight on an equal footing particularly with weapons wielded physically. This is a purely ceremonial burial. She was a high standing woman in her community. Life isn’t like Game of Thrones it never will be. This is progressive claptrap.”
A gangster analogy immediately springs to one reader’s mind:
“A gangsters moll is often found with a gun of her man but it doesn’t make her one of the boys.”
My favourite, non sequitur however, is:
“Supposition is not proof. She may have been a warrior, but just as likely to have been the wife of a Chief. Just like many of the supposed stone implements in museums are probably just natural stones.”
We now move from the questions regarding the possibility of the artefacts not matching the identity of the deceased, to those doubting the physical abilities of women to be warriors. Many wanted to know if there were any skeletal changes indicative of battle training with bows or swords. This is a common theme in the comments seen on this and other sites. Another questions that women would have ‘realistically’ fought on ‘frontlines’: claiming they would be a ‘liability’. He dismisses the suggestion of warrior-women as down to ‘rabid Feminist conspiracy theories’. Where is all the other evidence he questions and elsewhere asserts “that’s why today women are not allowed into Frontline Special Operations units”. Likewise, another asserts “Now the female ‘vikings’ are standing around 5ft” – which presumably is self-evidently dismissive of warrior effectiveness. Another questions whether she would have been tall at the time. Yet another asks:
“Just because a weapon or weapons were found in a grave does not a WARRIOR make! She had no battle scars on any of her bones? Then it is impossible that she was ever in a battle. Another lie and falsehood propagated by people with an agenda.”
Some of these deniers clearly have specific intepretative problems with the argument’s contents, rather than simply dismissive of the concept of a female warrior. As such, they show at least some attempt to engage with the article and other information about the Viking Age;
“How many ladies and gentlewomen could play chess yet weren’t commanding troops? She may have fought but wishful fictions shouldn’t be presented as science. I read somewhere that the Anglo-Saxons were horrified about the unhealthy Scandinavian practice of bathing, even once a week. Some vikings became Normans and civilized England.”
This comment is one of many that randomly side-tracks into a half-remembered piece of historical information but is unable to link it up.
“OR she was someone’s beloved wife, and she was buried with all her husband’s most valuable possessions because he wanted to honor her and make sure she was well provided for in the afterlife. Maybe the game was included because she loved to play it. To assume that it somehow proves that she was a military strategist is so far fetched and ludicrous. It’s like saying that it proves she knew calculus. Wtf??”
Another takes exception to the term ‘Viking’, proud of their detailed historical knowledge:
“What makes her a “Viking”? Vikings raided by ship, she was found in Sweden, she may have never left Sweden. No signs of any past wounds may cast doubt that she ever trained or served as a warrior. Call it evidence, not proof.”
Another reader takes on the archaeologists involved with:
“Hedenstierna-Jonson has not even got the Valkyrie in context, they were Norse spirits so why would she compare them to skeletal archaeological remains. They were not female warriors but mythological helper spirits who, in the name of Odin decided which of the fallen should go to Valhalla and then carry the souls there from the battlefield. I think a Christian equivalent would be angels. So if a Christian knights remains were discovered it would be the same as her saying that they bear no resemblance to those of the arch angel Gabriel.”
“The skeleton image shows the horse heads facing each other. The sketch shows the horse heads facing in the same direction. Whom is in charge of continuity when presenting these images? Yes, there has always been women warriors in every culture. No big secret, that’s for certain”.
A further point is aimed at the journalists, rather than the archaeologists:
“dear dm journalists who never research anything, Valkyries were not mortal, you went thru the trouble of copying from wiki but didn’t go far enough.”
These comments at least show that the news story isn’t hitting a complete vacuum, even if the air is full of smoke and confusion.
The particular glee of commentators lies in the fact that, in order to make its inference, the article has discarded non-binary gender issues. This is jumped on in a variety of ways and used as ammunition against this being a female warrior grave:
“How DARE you assume this person’s gender of choice was female and that her preferred pronouns were she/her, lol.”
“Are you sure it wasn’t a trans-man? That’s right, science determines gender by science, not by what someone thinks they are.”
“Perhaps they just identified as Viking men? I’m sure that is a real thing…. lol
The idea of gender fluidity is clearly no more than laughable:
“What about gender fluid Vikings???? They’ll be kicking off soon”.
and yet again:
“So Scientists say it was a Woman? but what if she was TS who identified herself as a male?
Others take a slightly different take, and parody the entire concept of a trans identity:
“Yeah, but what if she identified as a man? Nice they assume her DNA/Skeletal features are female. DM your really slipping on the social justice warrior stuff.”
“Uuuuhh…hello….i thought our children are being taught that DNA doesn’t determine whether or not you are a girl….ITS A CHOICE (FYI…sarcasm!!)”:
And of course Jenner has to find her way into the comments:
“Just think in a thousand years if they dig up Bruce/Catlin Jenner.”
It’s very clear these comments are aware of the article’s disengagement from trans identities, but equally this is merely ammunition to use against trans people, not the article itself.
Misogynistic Humour and Snide Comments
The large number of comments above might be written tongue-in-cheek, or in parody. It is often difficult to tell. Still, there are many that are overtly humorous in different regards, some reasonably mild, others showing all manner of misogynistic viewpoints relating to present-day ‘political correctness’:
“Do you suppose the Vikings had to lower their physical requirements so she could become one of them like they have to do today?”
Women’s characteristics are stark and simple:
“She was a warrior. She nagged her enemies to death.”
Another guy clearly likes the idea of a warrior woman instead of the females he experiences online:
You would not find her posting titillating selfies for the guys.”
“back when there were real women who didn’t need help to gain status”.
Another reader sees the story as vindicating feminists are wrong to claim women have been suppressed:
“For decades feminists have been claiming that throughout history men kept females under their thumbs and women were never allowed to lead or do anything. Yet here is a female warrior of high standing to prove them wrong – yet again.
Another seems to think the entire thing might be staged to create a Kill Bill parallel:
“The need to dispel the image that Vikings were raw and as alpha male as you can get is a bit sad. So we now find a female warrior who was more respected and, apparently, survived the endless battles which made it nigh on impossible to live beyond the age of 27 as a male Viking? Who paid for this research – Quentin Tarantino?”
The possibility of glamorous accessories to ‘feminise’ the items is explored:
“The Bedazzled sword really gave it away”
Lord Muck is trying to be hilariously and endearingly 1950s with: “Carrying the weapons so the men were fresh for battle. I did the same thing with the wife, she always carried the shopping.”
The Goon Show joke gets recycled here:
“skeletal traits indicate it was a woman? Her mouth was open, lol nagged till the end…”
” someone had to do the cooking and cleaning on Viking ships”.
Getting gets carried away:
“they should widen the excavation – just in case in another grave nearby there is a gigantic male skeleton covered in horrific axe-wounds surrounding with brooches and combs and intricately-crafted kitchenware”.
The menstrual cycle is to blame:
“the pms is strong in this one”
At the risk of outrage, I have to confess these are two favourite bad jokes:
“A Viqueen perhaps”
and my favourite of all, clearly from an embittered male who has separated from his former wife methinks:
“It’s the female Viking, after the divorce.”
Incidentally, somehow anti-Muslim jibes get shoe-horned in:
“How ironic a Viking town called birka ..lol”
“From B/irka to B.//ur//k/a in one easy move”.
Endearingly and revealingly, the horses are more of a concern for some: vividly represented through their skeletons and their artistic reconstruction:
“Sad they killed the horses”
Clearly, animal sacrifice is a disturbing feature of these graves for modern viewers, more than the social structure of human societies under discussion
Most liked/Most Hated
“In 1,000 years from now, when they dig up a body, the DNA show that of a CIS-Gendered, Snowflake with a bad case of Acne and a Cell Phone clasped in it’s hand.”
“Vikings were cowards. Fully armed men of war raiding coastal villages who weren’t warrior-like. Ransacking Christian churches that couldn’t defend themselves.”
The character of the comments mean that the same headings as the Mail Online simply won’t work, but I’ve tried my best. There are 76 comments with various responses to wade through and they each tend to be mini-essays.
There are some stout straightforward positive comments, such as:
A True Valkyrie
They found Lagertha!
One reader sees it as part of a broader picture:
Is this really such a surprise? There have always been great women leaders- in Britain Boudicca, in Ireland Maeve and Grainne to name just two. There were all Celtic and women had close to equal rights in Celtic society. Viking society was very similar to Celtic and they certainly influenced each other a lot. I am actually surprised that there wasn’t more evidence of Viking women warriors before this
I can’t say it’s surprising. Throughout history women have taken up the sword. Perhaps not as common as men doing so, but it happened.
Got me thinking of the rubbish I was told at school about vikings in their horned helmets and their nasty and brutish ways. They got a bad press didn’t they and a lot of people still believe it.
Viking Women did play their parts and did exist. We know that already. However, these so called “findings” are/could in my strongest opinion be another feminist agenda to gain further grounds and Ill justification to exploit societal norms and change traditional roles. I don’t buy it! Surely, characters like Lagertha in the TV series Vikings as well as real life did walk the plains of earth. History lesson has also done the Vikings no justice, as they were painted as savages.
A rather random quote, but it isn’t clear what the point is:
“Married women had an exalted, respected position in society. Upon marriage, the woman became the key bearer, responsible for the family’s treasures, and she wore the household’s keys on her dress as a symbol of her power. The keys hung in a highly visible location from her tool clasp, worn outside her clothes, or on a metal chain, a textile band, or a cord from one of her beautiful brooches”.
There are stories about women leading Viking expeditions. I remember reading about one to an extremely rich monastery in Ireland. But those were obviously myths in the eyes of earlier generations of historians and archeologists.
Sure, shield maidens were not uncommon (like female warriors in many cultures), The game pieces is from a game used to teach stategy and tactics, This might symbolise she was responsible or at least involved in planning raids etc.
There are many previous examples. Women were buried with weapons during both the Viking Age and earlier periods, sometimes the weapons might be symbols of power, but probably not when it´s a simpler grave with a weapon and not much more.Some examples:In Norwegian Kaupang a woman was buried at the helm of a ship with an ax and a shield beside her.Another woman in southern Norway brought a complete set of weapons – archaeologists found remnants of swords, axes, shields, spears and arrows.In Birka (the same island as in the article) archaeologists have dug out at least four other femaale graves that contained weapons as swords and spears.A woman on the island of Öland was buried with an iron rod of the kind that the person who had the floor at a formal meeting held (these rods were designed as the spinning tools women used and symbolized how the godesses span the threads of every persons destiny. This grave also contained an ax and equipment for a war horse.
…and we are also familiar with female weapon graves from much earlier parts of the Iron Age:
It may be possible she was a good commander, Don’t you think folks?
People are drawing a lot of conclusions from not much in the way of information here…. What do we know? She is a she. She was buried with high status accoutrements for a warrior. The article itself talks about evidence to suggest she was a warrior but doesn’t go into detail about whether she showed signs of prior injury or signs of being in a purely command position. It doesn’t talk about that either way. She could’ve been a very skilled warrior, one who after having proven herself became a leader, or one who was given power for other reasons which we also can’t speculate on. Either way, we’ll just have to wait and find out more if it’s shared… hopefully in a scholarly journal.
A reader has a complex theory to spin from this warrior woman story which is best to leave quoted but without further comment since responses were all about misogynism:
Maybe this legacy of women warriors is why people of Northern European descent typically have men who are passive and women who are dominant in family dynamics. Men who are married to women warriors typically become passive aggressive workaholics. They may be successful in their careers, but in their personal lives, they are passively codependent to a dominant mate who is a mother figure. They often take on the Dr Jekell Mr Hyde persona. Dr Jekell stays at work, while Mr Hyde goes home. He is child like and submissive to his dominant wife. Maybe this is why our society has become so dysfunctional – Daddy’s Girls marrying Mama’s Boys?
But why those fairy stories are required? It is a part of the information war against Russia.
Doubt and Denial
There are some valid analogies, questioning whether dressing like a warrior made you a warrior:
Our queen often dresses up in the uniform of a ‘high ranking’ member of the forces but she never went to fight during WW2 even though she was old enough by the end of it. Just because someone is buried with a sword doesn’t mean they were a warrior. She might have been, but that is pure speculation.
This is followed by a discussion of myths not being taken literally with another reader stating:
it is very dangerous to use myth to interpret archaeological finds – we don’t do that anymore, in fact we very rarely even use history to confirm archaeological sites…too much confirmation bias and cultural bias
Good point but this is a bit more than just a sword.
“a sword, an axe, a spear, armour-piercing arrows, a battle knife, two shields, and two horses in the grave”.
Too much to be a lady who did some dressing up.Queens who dress in armour (Eleanor of Aquitaine; Elizabeth I; Catherine I & II of Russia; Elizabeth I now) do it on special occasions for political or military purposes.
It’s not their normal dress, and they wouldn’t be buried in it.
Burial with weaponry was a mark of status: a sword was laid along side the body of a Saxon child with spina bifida as an indication that he was from the warrior caste, perhaps the son of a thegn.
the important word here though is “he”. The logical concclusion from the number of female “warrior” burials is that weaponry wasn’t used as an indicator of caste status, therefore the most likely interpretation of the find has to be that she was a warrior herself or certainly important in some martial way.
It was the Normans that degraded the woman’s role in a property grab. Why? Because all of the men were dead.
“This type of reasoning takes away the agency of the buried female . . ” First point is that the dead have NO agency. Secondly, the statement (and tone of the article) suggest that researchers were deliberately trying to misgender her because “patriarchy”, when they were just working in “new” territory – there had been no such find before, i.e. she is the only one.
Because the Iceni had Boudicca, does that make all their women warriors?
She was only 5’6″,She couldn’t slay a hog…..
Misogynistic and Transphobic comments
As with the Daily Mail, but far fewer in number, there are misogynistic and transphobic comments:
One angry man can’t contain his rage and the existence of this story:
Wow! a woman! back then I never thought they existed! Perhaps history is wrong and the Vikings were actually predominantly amazonian hordes! Maybe even Black too!
I’m sure they’ll find some were also LBGTQ+ or some other Marks and Spencers sandwich acronym.This isn’t front page news, it’s an attempt at alt-history – breaking news the story of Olaf the gender fluid, sensitive viking who refused to wear leather.
Likewise there is a posing body-builder with this comment:
Oh wow, another ancient discovery that supports a modern agenda. They’ll dig up some Vikings that identify as Norse-Fluid next.
Politics and Jokes
Jokes are even less ‘funny’ than the Daily Mail it must be said:
But what did her husband do, what did she wear and who looked after the children??…sorry, just my ‘hilarious’ joke on how we report on modern day female leaders.
I used to think that ‘new editions’ of well known historical history books were the result of new findings, but I now see that we just like to rewrite our history to suit every new narrative the gov sees fit to foist upon us all.
One female is positive about the story and has a contrived political slant:
Quite right! It’s going to take all of us women to take down another – Mrs May – as the men don’t have the balls to do it.
Christ this has upset the pencil dicks out there.Why doesn’t this story trigger my fears.maybe it’s because women don’t frighten me .Grow a pair you bunch jessies.
My brain is now completely numb! Why did I even attempt to do this!? I’m not sure I’ve survived immersing myself in only two sets of comments on the news stories.
There is certainly a bigger project for someone more intelligent and psychological robust than I to explore this further. However, as a homage to Sayer and Walter, we can discern some clear narratives. Beyond the political comments, the misogyny and transphobia – and it will be no surprise that these are rife – there are some genuine and some informed critical concerns about the research paper being voiced in responses to the stories in the Daily Mail and The Guardian. The strong influence of the TV show Vikings in supporting the narrative is clear. Also, the baseline of Viking stereotypes are revealed but also criticised by commentators.
In terms of more critical comments, there are serious points to be raised too. The ‘dead don’t bury themselves’ and the ceremonial role of martial women come to the fore as areas needing discussion. Also, while used against trans folk, the binary approach to gender was ripped bare by commentators. The ability of readers to seek out historical and archaeological parallels was interesting too, something the academic paper doesn’t begin to attempt.
I’m sure there is more to be seen in this anthology of below-the-line comments – over to you, dear reader, to add your thoughts!
Sayer, D. and Walter, T. 2016. Digging the dead in a digital media age, in H. Williams and M. Giles (eds) Archaeologists and the Dead, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 367-395.