Academics might be vain, but it is not altogether naive. It is right and good for them to regard one of many ways by which they can engage with the public about their research and expertise in their chosen field is to talk to the national and international press. One of the ways this happens is for them to respond to requests to comment on news stories reporting new academic research.
This fourth response to the reception of the ‘Viking warrior women’ news deriving from the American Journal of Physical Anthropology article relates to how academics spoke to the press about it. For context, in previous posts, I’ve already attempted to explore three facets of the public engagements of this striking piece of research proposing that a 10th-century chamber grave excavated in the 19th century contained a high-status female professional warrior and perhaps a military commander:
- why this story has appeal and significance, how it has operated as a piece of public mortuary archaeology, together with an outline of the key news stories and responses by academics in their own blogs;
- a discussion of how the story has been envisioned in the media, including a discussion of the power of the image of the grave itself, as well as images of female warriors from the historical drama Vikings;
- a consideration of what ‘below-the-line’ comments on these media stories reveal about its popular reception, including how the story has been co-opted into transphobic and misogynistic narratives.
As with previous posts, I’m less interested here in the merits of the research itself, and more interested in how the research has been received.
Approached by the media
Big news stories like this are relatively uncommon for early medieval archaeology and I at least rarely get asked to comment. Yet clearly the breadth of interest in this particular story meant that media outlets were casting their net widely and even I got asked to respond.
So on Monday 11th September I received an email from Newsweek asking me to comment on the story.
At that point, I hadn’t written on my blog and all I’d done is share media stories of the report. For those wishing to trawl my social media comments on this story, I had indeed expressed my surprise at the stark nature of the argument regarding “weapons = warriors”. I had also noted scepticism at some of the other inferences in the original article and omissions of context, notwithstanding the short nature and scientific journal context of the piece. I also later responded to multiple colleagues who implied that questioning the research was tantamount to institutional sexism, namely that the ‘same questions wouldn’t be asked if the bones had proven to be male’ (notwithstanding the fact it wouldn’t be an international media frenzy if that were so). Furthermore, I tweeted that I have a forthcoming piece on the portrayal of funerals in the television series Vikings, which has already depicted a queen gifted with multiple weapons onto her funeral pyre. I’ll come back to these points in Part 5 of my response where I’ll attempt to comment on aspects of the research itself.
Anyway, back to Newsweek. I told them I was away at a memorial event but would be happy to talk to them the following day. This was too late for their deadline, so I was told ‘better luck next time’. This of course presumed that I regarded it as a privilege to talk to the press and maybe implied that I had wanted to gain benefit.
I consider this a bullet dodged for three reasons:
- it isn’t my particular area of expertise, although I teach Viking mortuary practice and have published in this field on themes and arguments demonstrably of no interest to those working on the Birka grave;
- I was wary of the fact that I have recently been accused within academia, in communications with an entire editorial board of an archaeological journal, of harbouring some kind of personal grudge against at least one of this paper’s authors. This is something that I have had to refute in the strongest terms to multiple colleagues, since it simply isn’t so! This made me wary that anything I said about this new publication might be taken as personally motivated. More still, I feared it might lead to some kind of public spat;
- I hadn’t made up my mind yet what I thought about the piece at that time;
Others had greater (or less) luck and did agree to talk to the press. Here’s what they said, with the usual caveats that their words have been edited and the context in which they said them may have been lost or obscured in the journalistic re-telling.
Academics commenting on the Birka grave story
First up, I won’t comment in detail on how the authors – Professor Mattias Jakobsson and Dr Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson – themselves have dealt with the press, other than to say that they were quoted in initial interviews with The Local and the Daily Mail making unequivocal statements about the implications of their research findings and these have been repeated widely:
“Aside from the complete warrior equipment buried along with her – a sword, an axe, a spear, armour-piercing arrows, a battle knife, shields, and two horses – she had a board game in her lap, or more of a war-planning game used to try out battle tactics and strategies, which indicates she was a powerful military leader. She’s most likely planned, led and taken part in battles,”
Added to this, Professor Neil Price, a further co-author of the paper, said to Phys.Org:
“Written sources mention female warriors occasionally, but this is the first time that we’ve really found convincing archaeological evidence for their existence.”
Second, before proceeding, I also want to make clear that I think it unfair to quote or critique the social media comments by academics that I’ve read. Informal responses on social media I’d like to consider not worthy of detailed consideration in the same fashion as considered statments made to the media. I appreciate this is a somewhat false distinction and contradicts my earlier blog where I discuss below-the-line comments. Perhaps someone else can explore these in the future?
Third, academics have themselves pitched in supportive and critical comments via blog posts and articles posted on Academia.edu. I’ve already outlined the key blog posts written about the story:
Now for the commissioned comments from others in the media and what they might tell us about the story’s reception.
The first comments by academics outside of the authorial team came actually in the aforementioned article in Newsweek. The one person who was able to comment (i.e. not me, as outlined above) was a PhD candidate at the University of Oslo. She gets quite a lot of space (for a short article) as follows and what she says about the research deserves quoting in full:
“It isn’t the first female warrior, but it is definitely the most incontestable one, so it is spectacular,” Marianne Moen, a Ph.D. candidate in archaeology specializing in gender in the Viking age at Norway’s University of Oslo, tells Newsweek, in response to the Swedish research.
According to Moen, Viking women who got to the high-ranking status reached by the Bj 581 warrior may have had an existing high social status and learned to navigate the system to advance further.
“In the Viking age, you had women involved in trade and high-status positions but they are usually brushed aside and talked about as wives and mothers, connected and dependent on men. That’s just because of what we expect, really. We have to try and rid ourselves of this idea of finding gender roles somehow inevitable and natural,” Moen says.
The presence of women among the ranks of the ancient society’s elites isn’t a phenomenon unique to the Vikings. A female mummy discovered in Peru in 2005, known as Lady of Cao, showed that women could attain leadership status in the prehistoric Moche civilization, which historians had previously believed was patriarchal in structure. Since the discovery of the Lady of Cao, archaeologists have uncovered more Moche female mummies, which suggest women in the civilization enjoyed high political and religious standing.
According to Moen, while a predominance of Viking warriors were men, there are missed opportunities to identify female warrior graves because osteological analysis isn’t carried out in every case.
Even then, weapons are traditionally associated with warrior status for men, whereas for women they are considered symbolic of their status. “When you find a woman [buried with] weapons, you have to think about what this means for this particular person, for society at large and for men, if women could have these roles as well,” Moen says.
“We need to start thinking about [gender roles] as a bit more fluid and less strict and stop talking about men and women in different ways when they are buried in the same way,” she says.
Moen therefore fully supports the findings and adds context in terms of the history of the problems of assuming the gendered identity based on grave-goods, and an example from South American prehistory is provided. The inference regarding grave-goods should be the same, regardless of biological sex, is Moen’s view. The equation of high-status females as a means of questioning a patriarchal social structure is rather inexplicable, and I’m quite sure that Viking Age scholars haven’t ‘brushed away’ women’s roles as wives and mothers since the discovery of the Oseberg ship, but this is media hyperbole and must be regarded as such.
Next up, The History Channel had a series of select quotes available by academics embedded in pre-existing video about women’s roles in the Viking Age commissioned for their show Vikings. They promote and celebrate the results, as they vindicate the portrayal of warrior women in their television drama. Again, this is part of the largely positive and accepting nature of the media response. Given the quotes are not a response to this particular story, I won’t comment on them further here.
Then we come to the National Geographic story where archaeologist (archeologist) Davide Zori of Baylor University (Texas, USA) comments:
“It was held up before as kind of the ‘ideal’ Viking male warrior grave,” says Baylor University archaeologist Davide Zori, who wasn’t involved with the research. “[The new study] goes to the heart of archaeological interpretation: that we’ve always mapped on our idea of what gender roles were.”
Viking lore had long hinted that not all warriors were men. One early tenth-century Irish text tells of Inghen Ruaidh (“Red Girl”), a female warrior who led a Viking fleet to Ireland. And Zori notes that numerous Viking sagas, such as the 13th-century Saga of the Volsungs, tell of “shield-maidens” fighting alongside male warriors.
Zori then adds context to the Birka site:
Perhaps as a result of the flow of goods and peoples, Birka’s gravesites bear a distinctly international flair, says Zori. Burial practices at Birka run the gamut, from burning the corpses to seating them in chairs.
“[Birka] tied the Viking world together—it’s about trade, about exchange, about people moving around not just to kill each other,” he adds. “Depicting [the grave’s] kind of martial ethos in a trading site is also important: it’s tying two important parts of the Viking world together.”
Zori notes that it’s possible, albeit unlikely, that the woman’s relatives buried her with a warrior’s equipment without that having been her role in life. Given available evidence, though, Zori says he’s fairly confident in the study’s results.
“This is something that has generated a lot of interest through time, because of some of the texts of female warriors… and now we’re getting new technologies that can bring those texts and that archaeology into closer contact,” he says.
Here, Zori has provided helpful context to the site for an international readership, and also providing support for the results of the study. His comments on the links between trade and warfare are key and go beyond what is actually said in the original article. Likewise, his comments allow readers to understand something of the exceptional nature of the site and its graves.
Next, The Guardian produces the first article to get quotes from multiple academic individuals outside the authors.
Dr Becky Gowland is first up with:
“It is exciting because the traditional images of Vikings are masculine and war hungry – with the women at home baking, or looking after the kids,” says Becky Gowland, a lecturer in archaeology at Durham University. “This burial is clearly of a high-status woman. The fact that she’s buried with weapons indiciate this. It doesn’t indicate that she’s a warrior, but if we interpret [male graves] in that way, why not women as well?”
This is a rather rhetorical statement since it is extremely unclear where Gowland gets her ‘traditional image’. Any Viking scholar will know that traditional stereotypes of high-status Viking Age females were nothing of the sort. That point aside, her inferences is akin to Moen’s – we must interpret it the same way as an adult male buried with weapons if we are not to perpetuate sexist biases in our thinking. What Gowland adds, however, is a clear statement that it doesn’t necessarily mean she is a warrior. Her comments are clearly not actually about this particular grave, but how we interpret burial evidence more generally. I worry that her quote might not be read in this fashion. She goes on:
“Because it was buried with weapons, [people assumed] it must be a man,” Gowland says. “I think that’s a mistake that archaeologists make quite often. When we do that, we’re just reproducing the past in our image.”
This comment is juxtaposed with comments by the authors of the research and then a quote from Carolyne Lavington:
So how many more warrior bones have been presumed male that might be female? In Poland, “archaeology is really getting to grips with a number of anomalous graves”, according to Carolyne Larrington, professor of medieval European literature at Oxford University. There are thought to be further anomalies in Norway and Sweden.
“We are getting quite a lot of evidence that the gender roles may have been more fluid in the Viking period than we thought, and that it’s quite possible women may have been regarded as socially male even though biologically they weren’t – and might have been able to assume positions of military leadership,” Larrington says. “We don’t tend to imagine the women sitting on the longships. But they must have been there.”
Larrington cites therefore a far bigger context for the find in terms of other graves, and raises the important alternative explanation of gender fluidity: long established in the literature but undiscussed in the original article. This was partially and briefly mentioned by Moen, but here explained in a clearer fashion.
Next, we come to Science News who have another pair of archaeological commentators in addition to the authors. This is the first piece to publish on doubts about the research by a series of authors. The first published and clearly sceptical response is by Søren Sindbæk:
“Have we found the Mulan of Sweden, or a woman buried with the rank-symbols of a husband who died abroad?” asks archaeologist Søren Sindbæk of Aarhus University in Denmark. There’s no way to know what meanings Vikings attached to weapons placed in the Swedish grave, Sindbæk says
I’d like to hazard a guess that this second sentence from Sindbæk is a simplification of a more nuanced statement he made to the press: I suspect Sindbæk isn’t a mortuary nihilist and does regard weapons as meaning something, just not a simple message. The abrupt nature of this quote is perhaps unhelpful and misleading.
This is juxtaposed against quotes from Jesch’s aforementioned first blog critique of the research. It is also balanced by Moen, who is back with the following:
Women could have been warriors during the Viking age, whether or not the Birka woman fought alongside men, says archaeologist Marianne Moen of the University of Oslo. Research over the past 30 years shows that Viking women were landowners, farmers, merchants, traders and participants in legal proceedings. Graves of two other Viking-era women, both in Norway, contain various weapons.
What’s important is not to hold women to a different standard than men when assessing comparable weapons placed in their graves, Moen asserts. The Birka find “was a warrior grave until it was sexed as female,” she says. “Now a lot of people would like to call it something else. That is where the danger lies here.”
Here Moen acknowledges crucially a far wider set of research on the complex and varied roles of women in Viking-period society than the article and its media coverage allows, including but extending far beyond the ‘traditional image’ of Gowland.
Subsequently, articles quarry Jesch for criticism, but there are some with further quotes from period experts. Next, we have the Washington Post who quote twice from Cat Jarman:
“This is exactly what you would expect from male warrior graves,” said Cat Jarman, a British archaeologist not associated with the discovery. “There’s nothing that says it was a woman. … [The contents] were not exactly domestic.”
and the key qualifier:
One of the major arguments against assuming the grave belonged to a woman is that “she could be someone who lived like a man,” Jarman said. “Someone buried her,” but what she was buried with might not have been of her choosing. “That’s who she was in death, but it doesn’t mean that’s who she was in life.”
Jesch makes this point in her blog too, but it is important that it is stated clearly here by someone else, and from someone who cannot be dismissed for being an ‘historian’ (as I’ve heard Jesch dismissed as by some academics on social media).
Finally, we have a piece that is able to conduct real back-and-forth between the authors and detractors. Hedenstierna-Jonson and Jakobsson respond and reject Jesch’s critique and invite her to send it to a peer-review journal. Meanwhile, the piece concludes with an historian’s perspective:
Dick Harrison, a historian at Lund University, called the discovery “the latest chapter of a major wave of rethinking of the Viking age from a female point of view.”
Dr. Harrison, who was not involved in the study, said many preconceptions about the Vikings had been formed in the 19th century. “What has happened in the past 40 years through archaeological research, partly fueled by feminist research, is that women have been found to be priestesses and leaders, too,” he said. “This has forced us to rewrite history.”
This is valuable context to the article, but it doesn’t quite flesh it out: a press story rarely can do this.
Right, what does all this tell us about this story? Here’s a few general positive points to throw out there for debate:
- The quotes afford the reader with the sense that the wider academic community has appraised the story positively, particularly the comments by Harrison, Zori, Moen and Gowland;
- some offer context (particularly Zori and Larrington) to the grave in question: to the site of Birka and the burial practices found there.
- other quotes, beyond the debate between the authors and Jesch – identify further scenarios and issues regarding interpreting the identify of the burial of the individual, including quotes by Larrington, Jarman and Sindbaek;
- the issue of gender fluidity is raised by Moen (briefly) and then Larrington, making audiences think of what we don’t know about how this person looked and was perceived by contemporary society;
- a forceful argument is put forward by multiple quotes that the story reveals our biases about gender in past research: the research shows us overcoming gender biases and a pervasive institutional sexism (Moen and Gowland);
- this is tied to an assertion that the story yields a positive message regarding the complexity (with Moen mentioning briefly fluidity) of gendered identities in the past and the ability of this evidence to create new stories (Harrison);
- The negative and critical responses are fairly reported in general, if perhaps too abruptly, as is the story itself on the whole, but the balance in most stories remains positive and supportive. The qualifications by Gowland, Jarman and Sindbaek that weapons needn’t make this grave a ‘warrior’ perhaps won’t fully made sense in the brief form they appear;
- Finally, I’d like to point out as positive that relatively junior researchers, including postgraduate researchers, are fully vocal in responding to this story and rightly treated as authorities by the media. This isn’t a series of older scholars responding at all. I regard this situation as very healthy and those conducting primary postgraduate research should be vocal commentators in such stories.
In all these ways, quotes by academics unconnected to the original research do benefit the public readership of these news stories. Balanced against these, here are some more critical comments one might make:
- One can get far more sense – positive, critical, or a mix of the two – from blogs about this story by academics themselves. I’m not sure the media stories allow for a helpful debate at all. In short, are media stories now (at least partly) redundant and the public can find out more from academic blogs? We are operating in a new landscape of public engagement where the tradition of approaching select academics for quotes on new research appears antiquated;
- Conversely, it is in blogs, where longer and more refined statements can be made, that constitute the most useful and principal medium for serious academic debates regarding research online. I’m not saying they replace peer-reviewed journal articles and books and social media has its place too. However, here I agree with Jesch and counter Jakobsson: for comment and critique Jesch was right to outline reservations and shouldn’t have ‘shut up’ about a subject she doesn’t understand, as multiple colleagues have put it to me. Nor is she ‘just an historian’ unable to handle the material, as other archaeologists who claim to be specialists in gender debates have publicly stated. Moreover, we don’t need to wait for Jesch’s comments, or those of other responses, to be subject to peer-review to be countered. The authors can either counter Jesch and others (even me if they wish) in the same medium or not bother. In any case, is Jakobsson’s line-by-line response to Jesch – which he claims is being composed – going to appear in a peer-reviewed context, or in his own blog, or as a series of tweets? The authors create an open-access high-profile article, but in their response to the New York Times, it appears they don’t want responses to their work outside of peer-reviewed venues. It seems odd to denounce blogs as not part of the public engagement and debate.
- If you do blog about research findings and media stories, expect these to be mined for quotes by jorunalists, and sometimes afforded comparable status by the media to peer-reviewed academic journal articles. You cannot blog and then pretend you are not part of a public debate;
- I’m rather concerned that the rhetoric of this piece of research. This is being set by the authors and by some of the commentators quoted above. It is typified explicitly in a recent piece by Norton in The Guardian. Together, it is being claimed that this research is overcoming a prolific male bias and institutional sexism in Viking studies. Whether this bias exists or not (and I certainly think there might be multiple issues here, and in medieval studies more broadly), I’m not quite sure how this research overcomes such biases. Still, this isn’t my principal concern. What is my concern is that this might be taken to infer that any criticism of the research must be motivated by a desire to retain or perpetuate this sexism. In this regard, quotations from some commentators in the media in gleeful support of the research might be deeply misleading for many other specialists and the public regarding the motives of detractors.