This post considers the recently published article arguing to have identified the first firm evidence of a Viking warrior-woman in the archaeological record: Female Viking warrior confirmed by genomics. The story was widely reported and circulated on social media and via global media outlets. But do weapons = warriors in early medieval graves? Do weapons with a female skeleton = a female warrior?
In 4 previous blog posts I’ve outlined my response to the article and the associated media frenzy as follows:
- 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.
- how experts responded to the story and offered comments to the media.
In this fifth and (for now) final post, I will try to consider what might be the crucial interpretative challenge surrounding the original academic article from a perspective of a burial archaeologist. I am not going to discuss specific details of the burial context and its 19th-century discovery, the issues raised regarded the osteological and DNA evidence, or historical and literary analogies. For comments on these and other points, see (in addition to the aforementioned):
I’m interested in the question – in fact a series of nested questions – at the crux of the article.
In the context of early medieval burials, do weapons in a grave confirm a warrior identity/occupation? Linked to this question: does a wealthy weapon burial with other symbols of status make a war-leader/high-ranking officer? Combining these, is it convincing for the authors to argue that a female buried with weapons is a female warrior/military commander?
I don’t often use this blog to explore individual academic publications and this feels really awkward doing so now. I do so here reluctantly, but in detail, because this is a rare example where the original article touches on three of my research interests: burial archaeology, early medieval archaeology (including the Viking Age), and the public archaeology of death. I find the article fascinating and worthy of the exposure and debate it has received and I’d like students and non-academics to get a sense of why I have reservations. This isn’t a knee-jerk reaction and I’m not dismissing the article, but I do think there are interpretative problems to be faced with the article’s claims.
The Problematic Premise that Weapons=Warriors
The AJPA article sets out with a clear argument: the weapon assemblage and female sexing of the skeleton from the Birka chamber-grave should be interpreted as a convincing example of a female warrior/high-ranking officer in the Viking Age.
In querying this argument, it is important to outline precisely what the article says and in the order this happens. I will therefore comment sequentially on each key statement relating to the issue of whether a weapon burial equates to a female warrior. I appreciate this makes for a rather meandering piece of writing, so feel free to jump to the conclusion as you prefer. I start with the Abstract.
In the abstract, the authors call the Birka chamber-grave (Bj 581) excavated in the 19th century and the subject of the study a:
‘well furnished warrior grave’.
The term ‘warrior grave’ is used throughout the article as opposed to the more accepted and neutral terms ‘weapon burial’ or ‘weapon grave’. This assigns an interpretation to the occupant of the grave from the start in terms of function/occupation/activity. This is a massive warning sign for any reader since it has long been problematic in early medieval archaeological literature to use this phrase. While it might persist in colloquial use, it tends to be discarded from discussions of burial practice in early medieval Britain. For Scandinavia, I’m less sure, but at least for English language literature, it seems already rare. For instance it is telling that Neil Price’s high-profile 2010 article in the journal Medieval Archaeology doesn’t use the phrase at all, even though it discusses a complex interpretation of the staged deposition of weapons with single and multiple cadavers in Viking-period graves from Scandinavia.
This is not nitpicking about terminology: it is a term with specific interpretive baggage and underpins the entire article’s argumentation. Admittedly, archaeologists use lots of misleading terms for convenience, including ‘Viking’ and ‘Anglo-Saxon’ to define periods and regions and (most misused of all) for cultures. Yet you won’t find many reports calling weapon graves ‘warriors’ anymore: it is a hangover from 19th-century romanticism. Equally, no one refers to ‘housewife graves’ when describing the burials of adult females with a rich range of artefacts linked to the household. We don’t talk about ‘mariner graves’ for those male- and female-gendered funerary practices involving the burial or burning of boats or ships. To take it to ridiculous extremes to emphasise the point, we equally do not talk about ‘hairdresser graves’ to describe those graves inhumed or cremated with a simple or composite antler comb! Likewise, the term ‘Viking burial’ merely assigns a chronological/geographical attribution, and maybe for some a Norse affiliation/origin, not an indication that the grave’s occupant had participating in raiding activity. Equally problematic, we cannot equate all graves without surviving grave-goods, especially for cremation burials where many artefacts are destroyed or heavily fragmented beyond identification, or might be retrieved from the pyre before burial, as ‘slaves’ or ‘thralls’, since for a variety of reasons high-status individuals might be interred with little or nothing surviving. So assigning occupations to the dead is a bit of an antiquarian nonsense and needs to be questioned.
Indeed, most burial archaeologists had already discounted a ‘role theory’ approach to burial data by the early 1980s. For a valuable introduction to these debates, see the work of Heinrich Härke. Concerning weapons specifically, the influential 1990 article by Härke in Past and Present must be read and should have been cited. Furthermore, there is a long trail of literature debating the challenges of interpreting weapon graves as ‘warriors’ and identifying alternative ways in which weapons operate in mortuary contexts. Take, for example, my 2005 article on the circulation and mortuary treatment of weapons in relation to early Anglo-Saxon mortuary practices. For the Viking Age, Neil Price and others have argued for the performative nature of artefact deposition: sometimes to honour the dead person, but involving the consignment of artefacts into graves that needn’t relate to a static identity, but the transformation of identities during the transition from life to death (see also Harris et al. 2016). A useful review of a non-representational approach to burial practice, in which grave-goods are about flux and negotiation, not depicting a static identity, can be found Williams 2013.
There’s also the issue of whether burials with artefacts represent a single agency or event. Especially for chamber-graves and boat graves, funerals created spaces that might be accessed on multiple occasions; these have been discussed by archaeologists as fluid spaces incorporating multiple acts of artefact deposition and retrieval by the survivors, as discussed in Williams 2014. Hence, we now have plenty of evidence for the complex circulation of artefacts into, and ‘robbing’ out of, Viking-period burial contexts, as recently discussed by Alison Klevnas.
Likewise, when bones are absent, archaeologists are justifiably cautious about assigning a gender to burial data, as for example, discussed in relation to my co-directed dig of a Viking boat-grave at Skamby (Rundkvist and Williams 2008). Likewise, for the Viking burial site of Cumwhitton, Cumbria, the lack of surviving bone means that authors do make an assumption that weapon assemblages equate to a male-gendered identity, but they are rightly cautious in equating this with ‘warriors’. This recent report’s writers deserve quotation to support this point:
It is, however, impossible at this remove to determine whether or not the weapons placed in the graves were symbolic of status, or were a genuine indication that the men buried in these graves were themselves warriors (Williams 2015).
(Paterson et al. 2014: 133).
Of course from the perspective of the AJPA article, we shouldn’t presume a male-gendered identity for weapon graves, but neither should we presume a warrior status.
Archaeologists are currently interpreting weapon burials in terms of intersectional identities (of the kinds mentioned at the end of the AJPA article), including a recent book chapter on this very topic by Stephen Harrison (2015). Harrison reviews interpretations of the burial record, showing that already by the 1980s, weapon burial was considered a complex social statement, not an indication of warrior status (Harrison 2015: 301). Regarding Insular furnished burials of the Viking period, Harrison concludes:
…the view that these individuals were primarily, let alone exclusively, ‘warriors’ needs to be called into question
(Harrison 2015, 315)
Another recent discussion of note is by Harris et al (2016) whose recent report on the Ardnamurchan boat burial, without sufficient surviving bone for an osteological sex determination, tends to assume it is a male-gendered assemblage. Yet even here we find Harris et al creating a nuanced interpretation of grave-good deposition as performative and transformatory, rather than reflecting a static, singular identity:
A consideration of identity rooted in notions of performativity allows us to engage with the ways in which concepts of masculinity are cited through the weapons in the grave, the absence of jewellery and so on. Whether the body itself would be biologically sexed in the present as male or female is of less importance than the kinds of identity produced through the assembled grave goods
(Harris et al. 2016: 201)
These articles have different foci and emphases, but nowhere is there an equation of weapon burial with warrior status simplistically defined or argued for. The AJPA article therefore seems to begin on a false premise that weapon burials without osteological sexing are presumed male and that they denote ‘warriors’. Despite this, the article’s authors regard the chamber grave as:
‘the identification of a female Viking warrior’.
This amounts to the AJPA article resurrecting ‘warrior graves’ in a somewhat misleading fashion for those unaware of this other literature.
The Article’s Introduction
We now move to the article itself.
Mischaracterizing previous research
The Introduction begins by claiming that Jesch (1991), Jochens (1996) and Gardeła (2013) ‘dismiss’ warrior women as a mythological phenomenona. This might be a little misleading: Gardeła’s cited article, for instance, does explore a range of graves associated with weapons that might be gendered female, and a range of possibilities for their interpretation.
Burial Location as ‘Martial’
The martial association is emphasised with the following ambiguous sentence:
‘Prominently placed on an elevated terrace between the town and a hillfort, the grave was in direct contact with Birka’s garrison’.
The spatial location of the grave in terms of status, display and affinities is surely important and its association with the ‘garrison’ in the hillfort is fascinating. However, this sentence affords a strange equation of burial location and martial association that isn’t fully explained. One humble example of how we might attempt to read Viking Age mortuary geography can be found here by Williams et al. (2010), but there are plenty of other discussions about the importance of burial location, inter-plays with topography and monumentality that move beyond a literal reading of proximity to fortifications as indicative of a martial status in death. Put it another way: had the grave come from the other side of the island, or from a neighbouring island, would that somehow denote the grave was less martial in its significance and connections to this distinctive trading and production centre? There is a valid area for argumentation here, but this is too brief for the case to be made.
A Complete Assemblage?
‘One warrior grave, Bj581 stands out as exceptionally well-furnished and complete’
So here integrated into the article’s archaeological context, not simply the Abstract, is the use of ‘warrior grave’. This is combined with the suggestion it is well-furnished. While the grave is indeed wealthy by any standards and for the Viking Age and Birka, there is no sense for the reader of how wealthy and in comparison with what. The unsupported argument that the assemblage is somehow ‘complete’ is also made, but not substantiated. Why is 2 shields ‘complete’? Why is two horses ‘complete’? As for the artefacts themselves:
The grave goods include a sword, an axe, a spear, armour-piercing arrows, a battle knife, two shields, and two horses, one mare and one stallion; thus, the complete equipment of a professional warrior.
The focus here is on completeness, although that this is an entire assemblage and therefore the ‘personal possessions’ of the deceased. The seduction of ‘completeness’ is reified through the envisioned grave-plan and artist’s reconstructions accompanying the article, as discussed here. To be fair, the authors never claim they are ‘personal possessions’, but it is implied by the claim that they reptain to a single ‘professional warrior’. Indeed, in a 2015 public lecture videoed and online here, Neil Price makes this precise argument, and he echoes this in his comments to the press about this article. These are seen as the items used by one person in life, placed with them in death, and they define the person’s ‘profession’. This might well be the case, but it needs to be argued for, not asserted. Indeed, it only works, of course, if we ignore all the historical, literary and archaeological evidence for the complex circulation of material culture through trade, gift-giving and inheritance, assume the dead buried themselves, and assume that there was an historically attested ‘profession’ of a warrior, which in itself might be misleading without context. Moreover, if this grave depicts a ‘complete’ warrior for mourners to gaze upon in grief, what does that tell us about the majority of weapon graves in the Viking Age that are less rich? As Harrison (2015) shows, most weapon graves surely contain only elements of a set of weapons in Insular and Scandinavian contexts: they were selections of weapons. Were these then the graves of ‘incomplete’ warriors? Or are simply poorer ones? ‘Unprofessional’ as opposed to ‘professional’ warriors? Or was the presence of weapons nothing directly to do with warrior status?
Furthermore, a full set of gaming pieces indicates knowledge of tactics and strategy, …stressing the buried individual’s role as a high-ranking officer.
The interpretation of board games in mortuary contexts has recently been the subject of a high-profile peer-reviewed journal article of its own (uncited in this paper) by Mark Hall. I refer readers to this for comparison with the assertion here. My point would be: gaming pieces are not gender-exclusive nor are they exclusively martial.
Denial of Female Agency?
Though some Viking women buried with weapons are known, a female warrior of this importance has never been determined and Viking scholars have been reluctant to acknowledge the agency of women with weapons
This sentence conflates a number of arguments, and presents the idea that a failure to identify ‘a female warrior’ derives from a bias beyond the evidence, namely a reluctance to consider females as potential warriors when evidence points to it (this is not actually true and there are examples cited by Gardeła where this interpretation has been proposed). And yet simultaneously, it is accepted that no previous burial is so demonstrably a female warrior. Furthermore, it is overtly claimed that this is a ‘warrior’ and the osteological sex and DNA analysis will show whether this ‘warrior’ was male or female. In the results selection, the skeleton is actually called ‘The Birka warrior’ and then ‘The Viking warrior female’.
What about ‘agency’? There is a whole article to be written here about agency in mortuary practice. What of the agency of the dead person as a ‘dead person’, as opposed to their role as a once-living person? What of kin, family, friends – male and female, adult and child? How did they shape the funeral and decide what was deposited? What of the agency of the material culture itself, including ancient artefacts and newly fashioned pieces afforded significance because of their design, materiality and associations both social and symbolic?
So the ‘agency’ argument opens a can of fascinating worms. However, I would suggest that questioning the warrior-woman argument is not a denial of the agency of the dead person. I think the authors are right to say that we cannot ignore the biological identity in our interpretations (contra Harris et al. 2016), but this still leaves open many interpretative possibilities. The weapons might be hers, or they might denote relationships with others, gifts from others, items inherited, a selection of the items due to be inherited. As such, the deposited artefacts could have sat in a nexus of multiple agencies.
The Article’s Discussion
Having presented the scientific evidence, the article then moves to the Discussion and makes the case that previous work has discounted an association of weapons with female-sexed grave occupants:
Similar associations of women buried with weapons have been dismissed, arguing that the armaments could have been heirlooms, carriers of symbolic meaning or grave goods reflecting the status and role of the family rather than the individual (Gardeła, 2013).
I would suggest this is not a fair reading of Gardeła’s article, but I leave that for readers to judge for themselves.
A Level Playing Field?
Then there’s the key point make about parity of interpretation:
Male individuals in burials with a similar material record are not questioned in the same way.
I fully agree with the authors that we shouldn’t presume weapon burials are ‘male’ and this is an important cautionary tale others should take note of, including Paterson et al (2014) cited above. So I agree with the AJPA authors, we shouldn’t apply special pleading and special criteria to explain away a female-sexed skeleton in a rich chamber grave. However, their argument is that archaeologists have hitherto unquestionably equated weapon graves with warriors and martial elites. From the cited examples, this isn’t the case at all. Indeed, in a well-argued piece on weapon burials from the British Isles, Stephen Harrison (as mentioned above) has addressed this very issue and argued to the contrary. The AJPA authors state again:
Do weapons necessarily determine a warrior? The interpretation of grave goods is not straight forward, but it must be stressed that the interpretation should be made in a similar manner regardless of the biological sex of the interred individual.
This caveat is necessary and I respect the authors for including it. However, it won’t be clear to the reader what this means and no pertinent literature or alternative hypothesis are even mentioned, let alone considered. I suspect this has been heavily edited down, but the fact remains that this is not sufficient to explain the interpretative problems faced in equating grave-goods with gendered identity from and for a single grave.
Lack of Female-Gendered Items?
This is linked to what the article argues are a:
total lack of any typically female attributed grave artefacts
Notwithstanding this presumes all items were discerned and recovered, when the dress and many organic items that would have populated such a lavish chamber grave – leather, textile, wood etc. – might well have vanished. It also presumes that gaming pieces, horses, and other items including the weapons might not have been considered anything other than ‘warrior’ equipment. Finally it presumes that female-gendered items in death denoted female identity in life, and those without these items in death were somehow not female. Hence, we encounter a circular argument: the items are all ‘male’ and ‘martial’ and therefore this cannot have female-gendered associations. A stance akin to that adopted by Harris et al. (2016) might have been more profitable, allowing the multiple characteristics of the identity performed in the grave to be addressed, rather than forcing everything into a warrior occupation interpretation.
Gender Fluidity and Mortuary Inversions/Subversions
Now we haven’t even touched on gender fluidity: that maybe it isn’t a socially perceived ‘female’ in a weapon grave at all: a point raised by multiple commentators as discussed in previous posts. Moreover, it gives the sense that people were defined by their artefacts, and mourners were not signally the complex social networks of the deceased; their spouses, kin, parents and children. It suggests that the mourners couldn’t manipulate, subvert, parody or invert. It also presumes that Birka constitutes a stable and typical burial community with a typical audience. Who’s in denial of human agency here?
Furthermore, the exclusive grave goods and two horses are worthy of an individual with responsibilities concerning strategy and battle tactics.
There is a separate argument regarding how exclusive these weapons are in themselves and what they might tell us about the Birka communities diverse origins and affinities. There’s another regarding the association of horses with ‘strategy and battle tactics’ that needs to be fleshed out. The long-term association of horses with elite transportation, hunting and warfare, but also afterlife journeys and other forms of movement – physical and metaphorical – needed to be cited and developed, and their significance not only in Scandinavia but among Slavic peoples and others with whom the ‘Vikings’ traded and interacted with. The famous Oseberg grave has horses and no one has claimed a warrior status for this grave. However, as presented, the case isn’t made.
This article is a fascinating microcosm of the challenges we all face in interpreting early medieval furnished graves, and in that regard it is really interesting and important to discuss it. There are other Viking Age graves with weapons out there, and this is going to be a fascinating debate to follow how we interpret these graves in relation to the broader range of variability in Viking-period mortuary practice.
Please note: I appreciate this is an exceptional use of my blog to offer critical comment on a single recent publication. I would say that it might not appear ‘fair’. However, I do this in goodwill as an attempt to further debate, not to disparage the authors’ work.
For me, I don’t have a problem with the possibility of women involved in early medieval martial activity, but to get to this conclusion from this single grave, the article has to omit and dismiss some key issues, and overlook some important recent archaeological literature.
As it stands, this article is ripe for misinterpretation and, by design or accident, I suggest this might be what has happened in the popular reception of the piece. I would argue that the suggestion by the authors that they have discerned a ‘warrior woman’ at Birka needn’t be wrong, but the case is asserted, not ‘confirmed’, from the burial evidence. Had this been a piece of showmanship for a popular magazine article, I wouldn’t consider it necessary to query further and write such a long blog post about it. However, for a peer-reviewed academic piece, without clear qualification it looks either like the authors are unaware of some key burial archaeological debates, or they have conveniently disregarding them in order to make their case. In all honesty, I suspect neither is the case and that this is actually the result of some bad editing and unhelpful refereeing which failed to steer the authors through these challenges. Still, the fact remains this is what has been written in the published article. Moreover, the authors have not qualified this argument, but extended their argument, in their comments to the press . Disappointly, on social media many commentators have thus uncritically revelled in the possibility that they might be right, while others have reacted with unfair incredulity and willed the article to be wrong.
The dead don’t bury themselves, nor are they irrelevant in mortuary practice. The article proposes a stark and simplistic reading of the evidence that, if these are the correct bones and the chamber-grave hadn’t been later robbed of other occupants, might indicate we have a single adult female buried with a rich assemblage of items traditionally regarded as ‘masculine’. The burial of a ‘warrior-woman’ is one interpretation from a range of possibilities. Yet I think this article needs to be read in conjunction with the article they cite, by Leszek Gardeła. The same author has a popular piece written on this in Medieval Warfare and forthcoming articles developing on this theme. In addition, I suspect and hope the AJPA authors themselves will follow up with a more fleshed out article in a venue where they can respond to critics and extend their arguments. Still, on the face of publication to date, rather than jumping to equate weapons with a female professional warrior or high-ranking officer, there are fascinating other possibilities regarding how social identities were performed in the composition of this rich chamber grave at Birka and what kinds of ‘warrior ideals’ and other identities were articulated. We might suggest that rather than a ‘female warrior’, we see a distinctive, complex social and political identity, perhaps relating to multiple individuals living and dead as well as mythological ideas, materialised in this rich burial.
References (other than those cited via hyperlinks)
Harris, O. J. T., Cobb, H., Batey, C.E., Montgomery, J., Beaumont, J., Gray, H., Murtagh, P. and Richardson, P. 2016. Assembling places and persons: a tenth-century Viking boat burial from Swordle Bay on the Ardnamurchan peninsula, western Scotland, Antiquity 91: 191-206.
Harrison, S. 2015. ‘Warrior graves?’ the weapon burial rite in Viking Age Britain and Ireland, in J. Barrett and S. Gibbon (eds) Maritime Societies of the Viking and Medieval World, Society for Medieval Archaeology Monograph Series, 37, Leeds: Maney, 299-319
Paterson, C., Parsons, A.J. Newman, R.M., Johnson, N. and Howard Davis, C. 2014. Shadows in the Sand: Excavation of a Viking-Age Cemetery at Cumwhitton, Cumbria. Oxford: Oxbow.