Having previously discussed the significance, appeal and academic/media/popular reception of the 2017 AJPA article “A female Viking warrior confirmed by genomics”, here I review the academic argumentation and the reception of the follow-up journal article: ‘Viking warrior women? Reassessing Birka chamber grave Bj. 581’, published in Antiquity in February 2019. This peer-reviewed academic journal article is by the same research team, but this time lead-authored by Professor Neil Price. This research is very important because it is interesting and thought-provoking in itself, but also because it has become an unprecedentedly high-profile case study in public engagement with early medieval mortuary archaeology. Further still, since the research combines multiple strands of evidence – archaeological, osteological and aDNA – it prompts reflections on the interdisciplinarity of early medieval burial archaeology.
Before I proceed, here’s a quick summary of my 9 previous posts:
- Part 1: a discussion of the open-access Sept 2017 AJPA publication, its media reception, and its popular appeal;
- Part 2: a review of the use of images of Viking warrior women in news stories about the AJPA article
- Part 3: an assessment of digital comments adjoining media stories by members of the public
- Part 4: a commentary on academic commentaries on the AJPA article;
- Part 5: my review and queries about the AJPA article;
- Part 6: a discussion of my responses from the public to my talk about Viking female warriors;
- Part 7: a review of ‘Legends of the Lost with Megan Fox’: the first TV show featuring Bj581 and other evidence for ‘warrior women’ in the Viking world;
- Part 8: my ‘reviews the reviews’ of ‘Legends of the Lost with Megan Fox’;
- Part 9: an assessment of the media portrayals of warrior women by actresses and their make-up within LOTL and Doctor Who, set against other filmic and TV female warriors;
This post aims to build on these other commentaries by offering a critical perspective on the ongoing academic and popular dimensions of the research.
Reviewing Price et al. 2019
The title and pitch
The pitch of the new piece is significantly different. The assertive 2017 ‘confirmed by’ title which seemed both stark and problematic to some has now been replaced with a more conciliatory question mark: ‘Viking warrior women?’. The article promises a reassessment of the 10th-century chambered weapon grave excavated in the 1870s and subject to revaluation as containing an adult female based on osteological and aDNA evidence.
I presumed, at first, that the subtitle meant that this piece would be a reassessment/revision of the 2017 preliminary findings, given my anticipation that peer-reviewed academic journal articles in Antiquity required originality in their content. However, it quickly became clear from the abstract that the title actually means it offers a ‘reassessment’ of previous interpretations and a ‘reiteration’ of the 2017 interpretation with more supporting detail.
The authors begin by noting the stereotypes that pervade modern perceptions of the ‘Vikings’ and recognise that both supernatural and human warrior women attract a ‘special fascination’ within the ‘tangle of history, myth and cliche’. They then introduce their AJPA article of September 2017: reporting on an 1878 excavation and the modern osteological and aDNA evidence from bones considered to be from this grave. The article identifies Bj581’s occupant as biologically female, accompanied by a rich-range of weapons, a gaming board and pieces, and two sacrificed horses. They then point out the staggering scale of the reception of the 2017 article: ‘covered by 130 international news agencies’ and discussed across some ‘2200 individual online accounts, accessed by millions of followers’, and thus reaching millions of readers. They then state that: ‘This level of interest took us by surprise and raises the important question: why did this one single grave generate such global attention?’ Given the ‘special fascination’ with Vikings, and with warrior women in contemporary culture, this doesn’t quite ring true, although it is difficult to imagine anyone could anticipate it would prove to have been quite so popular. Sadly, they never reflect or return to the public archaeology of their research, but one might do well to read Dr Simon Trafford on this subject here.
They then promise what to expect in this article, including ‘greater interpretive depth’: how they understand the grave and its implications for Viking-period societies. They state that the new article is accompanied by ‘extensive online supplementary material (OSM) that presents the burial in greater detail, along with a discussion of the source-critical issues regarding its recording, archiving and analysis’ (more on this below).
The archaeological evidence
The main body of the article is comprised of a more detailed review of Birka, its graves, previous scholarship on the site, and then Bj581: one of only 75 weapon graves from among over 1,100 excavated graves. The fact that this is one of only two burials with such a large range of weapons, misleadingly and without support called a ‘full complement’, doesn’t stop them arguing that this was the ‘equipment of a professional’ given the skill required to use the weapons, and their quality. The absence of finds ‘of a more domestic character’ and female-gendered items (brooches, weaving equipment etc) is also noted, while the eastern influence of the ‘Rus cultural sphere’ is indicated by the cap.
The text reviews the argument for the grave being high-status and of ‘commander’-status. Also they state that: ‘As far as we are aware, this warrior interpretation has never been challenged’: the person was therefore a member of an ‘elite warrior class’. The spatial proximity to the Birka hillfort – interpreted as a refuge and garrison – and other weapon graves (which they still insist on calling ‘warrior graves’) is again used as supportive of a warrior status for the chamber-grave’s occupant.
This is very much a reiteration of the evidence already presented in the AJPA article, with greater and more rigorous citations. The article contains a rich range of images including artefacts and a clearer location map for the grave. In these regards, it is an improvement from the AJPA piece.
Regarding wider implications of the female warrior interpretation, they recognise there was ‘controversy’ regarding their 2017 article, but do not outline its character and form. They concede that burial interpretation is complex and that ‘the interpretation of all burials must be undertaken with care, and that we should be naturally cautious in assuming that items buried with the dead represent their own possessions’. This is an important, if limited, qualification in comparison with the stark assertions of the 2017 piece. A further change from the 2017 article is the removal of the mischaracterisation of Leszek Gardeła’s work: in the introduction of the AJPA article his 2013 article had been deployed as a straw man argument.
Price et al. note that we cannot be sure the person in Bj581 was perceived as a woman in her lifetime in a ‘gendered sense’. The authors also concede that a warrior was a ‘social construct’ in any case, and that her status might have been ‘symbolic’. These are pitched as qualifiers, but disappointingly the piece proceeds regardless to see no reason to doubt that a warrior status is the primary/only message to be read from this rich chamber-grave. They regard their conclusion as ‘obvious’ and ‘logical’ and evoke Occam’s razor. They claim other interpretations are ‘possible’, but do not present or evaluate alternative interpretive scenarios.
One addition of note, however, is the rather stark dismissal of the possibility that the occupant held a non-binary gender/transgendered identity. They state that such an inference cannot be made since it is based on problematic applications of a ‘modern politicised, intellectual and Western term (‘transgender’) to the remote past’! Conversely, they admit a spectrum of gendered identities might have existed in the Viking world, and do not discount any of them, but nor will they discuss them. Many readers will be none the wiser about this and who decides which modern politicised intellectual and Western gendered terms we are allowed to impose on the past. and which we cannot…
Subsequently, Price et al. claim we must question our biases and prejudices as scholars. I agree, but unfortunately they aren’t talking about themselves and any self-reflection on their part since Sept 2017. Instead, what they seem to be saying is that if you disagree with their interpretation, it’s simply your problem and your cultural baggage, not theirs. I find this ironic since the article doggedly refuses to open the grave to new interpretive possibilities. More than that, the authors seem to regard the retention of the ‘warrior grave’ hypothesis as a badge of scholarly integrity rather than seeing it as perpetuating a problematic and widely discounted inheritance of an antiquarian functionalist reading of burial assemblages. I’m struggling to understand why the biological female aDNA and osteological data cannot instead be the starting point for a broader wholesale revaluation of weapon burial in Viking-period Scandinavia, rather than continuing to shut them into a late 19th-century interpretive model. In short, the article argues that since no one has previously suggested a different interpretation of their particular grave – Bj581 – they are under no obligation to present alternative interpretive scenarios informed by the last 30-40 years of gender archaeology or burial archaeology.
Hence, despite the single sentence recognising the possibility of different readings of the weapons as other than an indicate of ‘warrior’ status, they state: ‘To those who do take issue, however, we suggest that it is not supportable to react only now, when the individual has been shown to be female, without explaining why neither the warrior interpretations nor any supposed source-critical factors were a problem when the person in Bj.581 was believed to be male.’ I can only agree that it beggars belief that the warrior status has been accepted as scholarly consensus for interpreting weapon burials in Viking-period Scandinavia, whether the individual is sexed as male or female or without a definite osteological determination. It was problematic then, and it is problematic now! Are Price et al. honestly saying that no academic working in Viking-period Scandinavia has gone beyond a 1970s role-theory approach to grave-goods or earlier more anecdotal readings of identity from interred artefacts? It leaves me wondering where Swedish Viking scholars have been hiding during the last 30-40 years of discussions of social, symbolic, mnemonic and other interpretive approaches in burial archaeology? Similarly, are they claiming not to be aware that leading scholars on Viking burial in the Insular world, including Stephen Harrison, let alone those writing on other parts of early medieval Europe, notably the work of Bonnie Effros and Guy Halsall among many others, have long abandoned a simple equation between grave-goods in death and social (including gender) roles in life? Of course, I’m not suggesting the scholars are ignorant, but neither will their readership be so easily fooled by this stance!
The most striking addition to this article in visual terms is the inclusion of an artist’s reconstruction of the occupant of Bj581 by Tancredi Valeri. Elsewhere, I’ve discussed the interpretive power of furnished grave-plans and artist’s reconstructions to create a seductive mortuary ‘portrait’ of a person together with items often presumed to be their ‘possessions’. This image is the evocation of the preferred interpretation of Bj581 in the most stark and memorable form because it is an example of what I’ve elsewhere called the ‘living dead’ school of artistic grave reconstruction (Williams 2009): the cadaver is ‘re-animated’, dressed with all the items found in the grave. In the context of the article, this image is doing some heavy lifting.
Online Supplementary Material
A further frustration with the article is that one has to go to the OSM for more than supporting information, but many key stages of the author’s argumentation. Languishing here are interesting and rich mini essays but presented without even a proper spacing of paragraphs. I don’t really understand whether these sections are part of the peer-reviewed article scrutinised by referees and Antiquity‘s editors, or not? Like the artist’s reconstruction, this OSM has to do a lot of heavy-lifting for the main article. I’d honestly have rather this supplementary material had been published in its own right, and perhaps it will in due course. It’s here that the contents and context of the grave are outlined, where the arguments are made that they analysed the correct skeletal remains, the possibility that there was more than one body is argued against, details are presented regarding the osteological sex determination, parallels with other archaeological finds, and an historical and literary context is surveyed. All of this is valuable, individually and together. Indeed, it really is the meat of what people want to know more about.
That’s all I can say really since, disappointingly, since neither in the article itself, nor in the OSM, do the authors address any of the queries and issues I raised in my critique. So I must simply refer readers back to my Part 5 blog-post and await these points being considered by future publications, I suspect by other authors rather than these ones.
Media Reception of Price et al. 2019
The media reception was very passive: some didn’t go beyond the 2017 article. Others reviewed the new piece and recognised that the Price et al. 2019 Antiquity article is very much a ‘doubling down’ of their previous inferences (Mail Online). Some pieces are particularly good at surveying the argument (Live Science). What I found fascinating was the characterisation of the scrutiny from other academics as portrayed as ‘unrelenting’, when to my knowledge I saw only a handful of detailed academic responses and many supportive of it. Key media reports include:
- ‘High-Ranking Viking Warrior Long Assumed to Be Male Was Actually Female’ – History.com, 19 Feb 2019;
- ‘Yes, That Viking Warrior Buried with Weapons Really Was a Woman’ – Live Science, 20 Feb 2019; – NOTE: this is perhaps the most detailed survey, and does a great job (better than the article itself) of structuring the argument, drawing on the published article and the online supplementary material;
- ‘The grave of a FEMALE Viking warrior: Researchers confirm 10th century skeleton buried in Sweden with the decorations of a high-status figher was a woman’ – The Mail Online, 21 Feb 2019;
- ‘Researchers Reaffirm Remains of Viking Warrior Tomb Belonged to a Woman’ – Smithsonian Magazine, 21 Feb 2019;
- ‘Scientists Have Proven That The ‘Disputed’ Female Viking Warrior Really Did Exist’ – Science Alert, 21 Feb 2019;
- ‘Controversial Viking Warrior Remains Proved to be Female’ – Vintage News, 24 Feb 2019
Also, to reiterate my point that images used in academic articles can be powerfully redeployed in news articles, the Price et al. 2019 Figure 8 – the portrait of the ‘warrior woman’ risen from her grave with all her items with her, is widely deployed as the lead image to fix and project the interpretation of the female warrior, her arms crossed in defiance against all alternative interpretations.
Notably, the wider archaeological community do not seem to have been interviewed about this press release, in contrast to the situation in 2017.
A further addition that must be noted at this point is how Viking warrior women are alluded to in a further TV documentary – Britain’s Viking Graveyard – as a potential component of the Great Heathen Army, including visual representations of warrior women by female re-enactors and an interview with Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson about Bj581. It is certainly evidence that other scholars are entering the debate and the wider media exploration of the topic is unlikely to slow down for some time.
Academic responses to Price et al. 2019
In my Part 4, I reviewed academic responses to the 2017 piece and I think it is legitimate to evaluate these in response to Price et al. 2019 as well. Unlike the 2017 AJPA article when a fair number of scholars put their heads above the parapet and commented on the article in one way or another, given the furore subsequently, it is perhaps not surprising that only two academics dared to step forward and provide a public response to the Antiquity piece aimed at popular audiences.
In February, days after the academic publication and the news stories based on its press release, medieval historian Professor Matthew Gabriele picked up the story of the Antiquity publication for Forbes. With over 8k views at the time of writing, he has done a service to medieval studies at large by reporting on the Antiquity article in such a public venue. He begins by presenting a succinct two paragraphs of introduction about Birka and its graves and describes the occupant of Bj581 as ‘clearly the grave of a high status [sic] warrior’. He characterises the response to the 2017 AJPA article identifying the occupant of Bj581 as female based on genomic evidence as ‘mass media coverage’ but he also notes ‘professional criticism of the author’s methods’. He hails the new article as confirming the 2017 study that Bj581 was a ‘Viking warrior woman’.
I have two principal criticisms to make of Gabriele’s article. First, I would like to take issue with how he summarises critics of the 2017 AJPA. Here he is obscure and, to my mind, unfair when he says the academic reaction was as follows: “We knew too much about the Vikings to allow that there was a woman warrior, the thinking went. There must have been some sort of mistake.” Whose thinking and where, is left without citation, but if this is in any way an attempt to characterise Jesch’s response, it is extremely misleading. Gabriele leaves the reader with the image of a horde of nay-saying traditional academics who are simply too old-fashioned to accept the new research because of their own prejudices. This is a neat straw man characterisation for Gabriele to make, but it does a tremendous disservice to other academics, is patronising to many members of the public, as well as being frankly untrue. Whatever one might think of the 2017 article, there were genuine grounds for giving this research attention, questioning and debating a study which rests on 19th-century archaeological evidence, including querying whether the correct bones have been tested and whether the 19th-century records and images of the grave were reliable. It is equally an important question to consider whether other bodies were once present, and whether we should interpret the burial assemblage, including the weapons and gaming pieces, primarily in martial terms.
Gabriele is an experienced historian, so I doubt he would advocate relying on 1880s translations of Norse sagas without careful qualification and recourse to more recent translations and the historiography of scholarly debate in secondary sources. Should we rely on 1870s scholarship regarding Gregory of Tours and just bolt on a scientific methodology to it? So why is he so keen to cast all critics as basing their concerns on knee-jerk prejudice when, in the case of Bj581, we are dealing with a complex situation of interpreting pre-modern records and using multiple strands of archaeological, osteological and aDNA evidence?
To be fair, I suspect Gabriele is pitching this piece to counter some of the chauvinistic, alt-right and white supremacist views expressed online about this story (see my Part 3 post) who were among those most ‘triggered’ by the Bj581 ‘female warrior’ piece. In that regard, I sympathise fully with Gabriele’s endeavour. However, in doing so, we are left with the misconception that academic doubters and any amateur readers who find themselves cynical of this research are simply old-fashioned snobs and/or must be motivated by political extremism and/or male chauvinism.
My second point of criticism is Gabriele’s uncritical acceptance of the article’s argumentation. Gabriele calls the Antiquity piece ‘thoughtful and thorough’ and claims the article ‘addresses some of these criticisms and confirms their earlier findings’. He notes that Price et al. (i) recognise that sex and gender are not equivalent, (ii) admit that DNA evidence cannot allow an inference about how the occupant of Bj581 lived their life, and (iii) a ‘warrior’ was a social construct. These are fair points that are indeed touched upon in the Antiquity article as I state above, but like its authors, Gabriele is not particularly interested in pursuing them and identifying alternative scenarios to interpret Bj581. He is instead keen to validate their inference that the grave was of a ‘female professional warrior’ without any further clarification or caution, quoting Price et al.’s conclusion directly after stating: ‘That said, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it might be a duck.’
Now I wonder if Gabriele would apply this version of Occam’s razor to the reading of the bizarre inversions and representations found in medieval manuscript marginalia so passionately embraced by #medievaltwitter? Would he take the same literal ‘common sense’ approach to interpreting Western European medieval chroniclers’ descriptions of distant times and far-off lands (or indeed the miracles of contemporary saints and the deeds of contemporary rulers)? Equally, would he take that approach to the interpretation of the architecture of medieval castles: if it has towers with crenellations and a moat, it must have been a military work pure and simple? These examples from medieval scholarship obviously cannot be taken at face value as a window onto past social conditions and circumstances, they need a refined and expert reading based on careful analysis of the sources, contexts and motives behind their creation, as well as a detailed understanding of the extant historiography!
If Gabriele were a journalist crafting simple reportage, this uncritical acceptance of the academic work would be fine since it relays what Price et al. themselves seem to be saying. However, Gabriele is writing an academic commentary for a popular audience. In doing so, he is given it a stamp of authority and claiming expertise regarding the subject matter: validating the findings. As a result, he seems to be telling his audience that either specialist expertise isn’t required to interpret early medieval mortuary archaeology, unlike other fields in medieval studies, or that he possesses this expertise as alluded to by his piece’s title and tone.
The ‘big picture’ takeaway points Gabriele considers of wider significance are fair, but ironic in light of his uncritical review and mischaracterisation of the 2017 ‘controversy’: (i) we should do further DNA testing of existing remains, (ii) we need to be rethinking ‘… how scholars have derived meaning from the ritual symbolism scholars of these graves’ [I don’t understand what this means, but perhaps it relates to ‘rethinking how we interpret the symbolism of graves’?] and (iii) we should not look to the Middle Ages for confirmation of a world we anticipate to find. I can certainly agree with the first and final points. However, I would suggest Gabriele isn’t in a position to tackle the middle point as burial archaeology isn’t his specialism, and I would suggest Gabriele revisits this last point himself.
Viking ‘warrior women’: Judith Jesch, expert in Viking studies, examines the latest evidence, 4 March 2019
Having taken flak for writing two blog-posts in response to the 2017 AJPA article, BBC History Magazine invited Professor Judith Jesch to respond again to the Antiquity piece. After all, the Price et al. 2019 cited Jesch as a critic of their work directly, so this seems fair.
Jesch writes a critical but far more cautious response compared with her 2017 blog-posts. She begins with the Latin history of Saxo Grammaticus as inspiration for the popularity of warrior women in the Vikings TV show, arguing: ‘Once you have seen Lagertha, it has hard to unsee her, and a strong belief in Viking women warriors is now rife in many quarters of cyberspace’. In this regard, I would add that my minor spat with US archaeologists (see Parts 7 and 8) – bright archaeologists well-versed in de-bunking myths and fraudulent pasts – hinged on the fact they insisted that ‘we always had archaeological evidence of Viking warrior women’. They found female warriors plausible from their perspectives as US liberal academics, so that’s the way it must have been! Meanwhile, any doubters must have a problem with women, plain and simple.
Jesch is somewhat conciliatory, recognising the authors have now introduced a question-mark into their title, but rightly she makes clear that they ‘do not revisit the scientific conclusions of the earlier study, but concentrate on the archaeological interpretation’. She judges the interpretations ‘better explained this time around’, including discussions of what a ‘woman’ and a ‘warrior’ might mean. This is, for Jesch, a ‘toning down of the originally rather sensationalist claims’.
However, she still regards them as making too much of ‘slim evidence’, including:
- the still unconvincing inference regarding the gaming board;
- the lack of discussion of the ‘eastern’ aspects of the grave;
- the approach to research by the team, and Price’s work more generally, are seen by Jesch as speculative and imaginative, which can result in blurring the line ‘between primary research and public presentation;
- Jesch queries the quality of the online supplementary material: ‘The status of this survey in an archaeological journal by archaeological authors is not clear’.
Jesch concludes by pulling multiple punches: she doesn’t really take them to task for what is basically a stark repetition with additional sentences and citations of the same argument: i.e. there is no reassessment. She does not critique the supplementary material either. This is to some extent fair, since it isn’t clear whether this has been peer-reviewed and how this material relates to the principal argumentation based on burial archaeology and aDNA. Still, the open questions regarding the survival of the bones, the quality of the excavation, the possibility of grave disturbance/grave-robbing and the inferences of equating grave-goods to social roles are unaddressed in her review. Most disappointing given her expertise, Jesch refrains from using this piece to evaluate the literary evidence presented by Price et al in the OSM. While she concludes by firmly and fairly stating that: ‘one female ‘warrior’ is only the first step in what will need to be a much longer conversation’, one is left with a sense that she regards this article as an improved argument over the 2017 AJPA piece. While I would agree in archaeological terms, this remains only possible because Jesch has diplomatically skirted many of the remaining interpretive hurdles of the both the 2017 and 2019 articles, particularly concerning her literary specialism. I respect her stance here given the social media and academic uproar from some quarters regarding her 2017 blog-posts, but I feel the authors have been let off the hook to some extent.
Where’s the archaeological response?
So what’s the point in criticising Gabriele and Jesch if archaeologists can’t pipe up and debate this prominent new research, published as it is in one of their discipline’s leading journals for themselves? I’d say this is a collective abdication of responsibility, not because we should all be writing blog-posts and rejoinders to every new peer-reviewed journal article, but because this particular story is such a ‘flagship’ for the discipline, particularly early medieval archaeology, and especially regarding the use of aDNA research in archaeological interpretations from burial data. In this regard, silence really isn’t an option.
Having said that, I wonder whether this might be a little too harsh on my Viking archaeology colleagues. After all, the very reasons that make this story popular also seem to have inhibited archaeologist’s popular response, whether they are bioarchaeologists, burial archaeologists, gender archaeologists and/or early medieval specialists. We’ve all seen a trial-run of the same online discussions in 2017, so most scholars, particularly more junior ones, are simply letting this pass now and moving on. Many others might not see a problem with the work. Still, anyone who comments critically on this story will:
- be seen to be criticising some of the leading scholars in Viking-period research at this time, whom have additionally assembled an impressive range of academics, including archaeologists and historians in their Acknowledgements;
- coming into conflict with the authors’ complex and far-reaching social media and conference network, making it difficult to be critical of their work without being seen to align against the entire community of scholarship;
- seen as taking on Antiquity: one of the ‘leading’ journals in world archaeology, and the journal maintains an active media presence, which might both foster as sense of legitimacy to its content and stifle scholars, particularly junior ones, from expressing publicly views on research contained within;
- be entering the weird world of social media and its obsession with all things ‘Viking’. At present this topic is attracting all manner of angry and extremist views regarding race, gender and sexuality, and any commentator would need to be wary of: (a) being seen to align with or fuel such viewpoints, and (b) risk online abuse from those that disagree with their criticisms (as the authors of the 2017 AJPA paper and Judith Jesch – who was cast as the main response to their work – can attest).
To my mind, this is perhaps why no archaeologists have responded. Or perhaps it is because the media haven’t asked for a response? Either way, that’s the situation we find ourselves in, but I’d very much like to see many more voices join the discussion.
Where this leaves us
And so this ‘female warrior’ saga trundles on and it is fascinating to observe and comment upon. The interpretation of gendered martial identities in the Viking Age is clearly an ongoing field of controversy and debate and, as I said before, it merits discussion not so much because it matters whether Bj581 is biologically female and a warrior, but because this research serves as a microcosm of broader mortuary archaeological debates regarding how we interpret furnished inhumation graves, and how we integrate archaeological, bioarchaeological and aDNA data.
Let me be clear about my perspective: I have no particular interest in whether Bj581 was or was not a ‘female warrior’, that doesn’t really fascinate me that much. If female warriors were an historical reality in the Viking Age and burial evidence can be found to support this, I have no issue. Instead, I am interested in the interpretive standards and character of our burial archaeological analyses and their dissemination in popular culture. This is the stuff I’ve been teaching and researching for two decades, including delivering undergraduate modules on the archaeology of death and burial, programme leading the MA Archaeology of Death and Memory, supervising doctoral researchers on mortuary archaeological topics, and as and author and editor of over 100 scholarly works, many on funerary archaeology and the archaeology of memory.
From this perspective, I believe there remain significant questions regarding the way both the 2017 and 2019 articles have constructed their arguments drawing on aDNA, osteological and artefactual evidence in relation to the grave and its landscape context. Each article charts an oddly old-fashioned path of burial archaeological interpretation with recourse to assertion and a refusal to outline, and then argue for or against, alternative scenarios for the interpretation of the distinctive 10th-century chamber grave. At present, I feel many of the key criticisms raised in 2017 by Androshchuk, Jesch and myself remain unaddressed. Sorry to repeat myself but for those interested, please go back to my Part 5 blog-post where none of the points I have raised have yet to be considered or addressed in any depth. I’d be more than happy to see someone counter these points in whatever venue as part of the ongoing constructive discussion.
These articles encourage us to debate what might have happened in the Viking Age, but also to reflect on the ethics and popular culture of mortuary archaeology, including how new research articles are handled by editorial boards and the peer-reviewers, and how these open-access digital publications are being titled, composed, envisioned and promoted by their institutions, publishers and the media and how they are rapidly disseminated and debated by academics. Concerning the situation in 2019, I have noted how the media and archaeologists have accepted this new publication, and how only two academics to my knowledge have commented on the piece in public fora, and neither are archaeologists. Gabriele and Jesch deserve credit for writing to a broad audience on this topic, but I mean them no disrespect when I suggest that, for different reasons, neither of them are well-positioned to evaluate the key archaeological interpretive debates.
That’s the story of Bj581 as of the middle of 2019. However, I haven’t discussed everything. For example, I haven’t discussed how a ‘warrior woman’ constitutes one of the portraits in the Danish National Museum’s new controversial display, as discussed on this useful new video by Mathias Nordvig. I haven’t evaluated the TV show ‘Britain’s Viking Graveyard’ since there is a conflict of interest: I appear in it! I’ve skipped the recent publication by Fedir Androshchuk in Viking and Medieval Scandinavia who extends his 2017 review of the AJPA article, focusing on his concerns about the integrity of the 19th-century excavations, the correct identification of the bones, and the possibility of a ‘missing’ further occupant. Likewise, I’d like to note that a new article by Duncan Sayer et al. in the European Journal of Archaeology point out that the sword’s positioning in Bj581 is actually quite at odds with other weapon graves from 10th-century Scandinavia and this has implications requiring further reflection about the identity of the dead person. Equally, new headlines have been produced about other possible female-sexed weapon burials, notably Leszek Gardeła’s work on a Danish inhumation grave from Langeland. Each of these articles/stories has a direct bearing on the ongoing interpretation of Bj581. However, those articles are for someone else, or a future blog-post, to deal with! One thing is certain: ‘Lagertha’ from Vikings and Bj581 are recursively related as part of a wider cultural conversation that is set to run and run.
Reference (others included as hyperlinks)
Williams, H. 2009. On display: envisioning the early Anglo-Saxon dead, in D. Sayer. & H. Williams (eds) Mortuary Practices & Social Identities in the Middle Ages: Essays in Burial Archaeology in Honour of Heinrich Härke. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, pp. 170-206.