Viking Warrior In Famous Grave Was A Woman

By Gemma Tarlach | September 8, 2017 1:07 pm
Fierce warrior Lagertha on the show "Vikings" is fictional, but a genetic study confirms the warrior buried in a Viking-era grave was a woman. (Credit History Channel)

Fierce warrior Lagertha on the show “Vikings” is fictional, but a genetic study confirms the warrior buried in a Viking-era grave was a woman. (Credit History Channel)

This one goes out to all my fellow shieldmaidens: researchers have confirmed through ancient DNA testing that the warrior buried in a famous Viking grave was a woman.

Researchers have excavated hundreds of Viking-era graves at Birka, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Sweden. One of the graves, originally excavated in the 1880s, was particularly noteworthy for both its position — on a prominent terrace adjacent to what had been a garrison — and for its grave goods, which included a variety of weapons, from a sword to armor-piercing arrows, and two horses.

The grave, archaeologists believed, belonged to a high-ranking warrior. Although the individual buried in the grave was assumed to be male based on the grave goods, some researchers argued that the skeleton belonged to a woman. Controversy and the usual academic kerfuffle ensued.

But thanks to ancient DNA analysis, researchers confirmed this week in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology that Bj 581, as the grave is formally designated, belongs a woman who was at least 30 years old when she died.

Artist reconstruction of the Viking warrior buried in Birka, Sweden. (Credit Þórhallur Þráinsson, © Neil Price)

Artist reconstruction of the Viking warrior buried in grave Bj 581 at Birka, Sweden. (Credit Þórhallur Þráinsson, © Neil Price)

Sisterhood of the Traveling Lance

While other women of the the Viking era have been found buried with weaponry, none had a grave suggesting a status as high as Lady Bj 581. Among the grave goods, for example, was a game board and full set of game pieces; but we’re not talking Chutes and Ladders here. Researchers believe the game set indicates she was an officer and involved in tactics and strategy.

They ain't playing Candyland with this game board and pieces. (Credit HBO)

They ain’t playing Candyland with this game board and pieces. (Credit HBO)

In addition to extracting and sequencing her genome, the researchers conducted a strontium isotope analysis on three of her teeth. This kind of testing can, like a chemical breadcumb trail, reveal where an individual had lived early in life. Although the results did not identify any specific geographic areas, the team believes that the woman was not born in the Birka area. (Genetically, she was most closely related to present-day populations in the British Isles and Scandinavia and, to a lesser extent, the eastern Baltic area.)

It’s not too surprising that a woman from somewhere else in northern Europe would end up at Birka; from the 8th through 10th centuries, the site was a flourishing trading center. Bj 581 itself dates from the mid-10th century.

Cry Havoc and Let Slip The Skeptics!

I know, I know, I can hear objections being raised to the idea that Bj 581 is the grave of a Viking warrior woman. You wouldn’t be the first to fuss over this. As the authors behind today’s study point out, when women and weapons have turned up in other Viking-era graves, it’s been assumed that the weapons were symbolic, a family heirloom, perhaps, and that mention of lady-fighters in the sagas and some historical sources are all just flights of fancy.

The researchers note that Bj 581’s skeleton did not have any signs of trauma typically seen in someone who died in combat. But then again, of 49 confirmed males buried at Birka, only 2 did have signs of sharp force trauma. Back in the day, not every warrior died in battle. Disease, infection and a variety of other ailments were all ways to shuffle off this mortal coil without getting your ticket to Valhalla punched.

There are also no signs that there was ever another body buried in Bj 581, so skeptics who want to argue that she was buried with her man don’t have any evidence to back that up.

Can we be sure without a shadow of a doubt that the woman in Bj 581 was a battle-ready badass? No, we can’t. Just like we can’t be sure that all those Viking-era men buried with swords but no signs of trauma ever saw war. But thanks to today’s study (which is open access, so go nuts), we can be sure that the individual buried in Bj 581 with a load of warrior grave goods was a woman. And that alone is pretty cool.

Or, as the the authors close today’s study:

Then the high-born lady saw them play the wounding game, she resolved on a hard course and flung off her cloak; she took a naked sword and fought for her kinsmen’s lives, she was handy at fighting, wherever she aimed her blows. The Greenlandic Poem of Atli (st. 49) (Larrington, 1996)

Yes, I know JRR Tolkien had Saxons more than Vikings in mind when creating the people of Rohan, but that's not going to stop me from using this! (Credit New Line Cinema)

Yes, I know JRR Tolkien had Saxons more than Vikings in mind when creating the people of Rohan, but that’s not going to stop me from using this! (Credit New Line Cinema)

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts
MORE ABOUT: aDNA, archaeology, Viking

Comments (37)

  1. Lady Bj 581” Snap snap, grin grin, wink wink, nudge nudge, say no more?

    Historic: Youtube v=dQ_-rmuPZC4
    Modern: Youtube v=fUdx2siotUo 1:15ff

  2. Mike Richardson

    Unless it’s not intact, wouldn’t the pelvis give a clue as to the sex of the buried warrior? As I recall, that was one of the techniques forensic pathologists used.

    • GemmaTarlach

      The pelvis was actually one of the osteological clues that made some researchers back in the 70s say “hey, dude looks like a lady.” (Yes, I have been waiting to use that.) But general consensus was still it had to be a man because of all the weapons. The pelvis i.d. is not foolproof; there have been many false positives, so it’s really only looking at her DNA that has provided certainty.

  3. lump1

    Let’s clone her. I mean, she had swords *and* a gameboard? We can’t let that kind of awesomeness escape from the gene pool.

    • John C

      It didn’t. Go to any Comic Con

    • OWilson

      Maybe she was gay?

      Just sayin’

      • Alexandra Stanford

        I am not gay. I have been a fighter all of my life. After joining the National Geographic GENO project, l found out that I have roots in the Russian and Nordic heritage. The women in my line led battles and are still kicking ass. Alpha doesn’t mean male. The Germanic peoples honored women. Women can be strong and still be women. Most men flee from strong women. Maybe y’all outta step up a bit. Come on and do some ax fighting with me.

        • OWilson

          No thanks! 🙂

          My comment was meant actually to question an apparent current scientific gender bias.

          Many branches of science, like Anthropology, Neurology are still dividing study subjects into either “male” or “female” categories.

          When you and I both know that gender differences are far more subtle than that! I personally would be happier to go through some real physical threat with some women I know, rather than some of the males I know.

          But you also have to be aware that praise of a particular population can be construed as racism too.

          A little story to illustrate:

          In Toronto, we had a very liberal Toronto Star celebrating the “diversity” of the city’s population specifying what each ethnic minority had contributed.

          White anglo saxons were ignored, as to be expected, given the thrust of the article.

          They praised the Italians for their “work ethic”, having built most of the city over the years.

          They praised the East Asians, for their mathematical skills, the Jews for their accounting and medical contributions, and so on.

          They apparently could not find anything equally warm to say about a certain other large ethnic population who seemed to have more trouble with the law, than most of the others.

          Didn’t even compliment them on their music, sports ability or cooking! 🙂

          So be careful! By praising one ethnic group for a hard work ethic , you maybe unintentionally implying that the “other” group is lazy!

          • Alexandra Stanford

            I’m not going to babysit anyone. If you have a chip on your shoulder due to your race or gender, there’s nothing that I could say or do that will make any difference. It’s not like I’ll go out of my way to purposely insult you. I am aware of the sensitivities that are currently surfacing. Too many injustices have gone on for way too long. There’s been a conscious awakening and the old is over. I just think that everyone should look into themselves first before freaking out. I have had my own issues. Usually, after a good double espresso, I contemplate the matter(s), consider how good my life really is, and make an adjustment. JUST KEEP ON KEEPIN’ ON! We’re all on this together. TAKE A CHILL PILL! Find another person and acknowledge them. You will probably have a better day afterwards. It’s only a movie. Create a script that is uniquely you. Make it a success story. Watch Steel Magnolias and Forrest Gump. Shut up and eat. Don’t listen to negative people. That’s a weanie way out. Crybabies suck and are annoying as Hell! Get a life and get out of mine! Does this help any???????
            PS: In a 100 years, none of your crap will matter.

          • OWilson

            That should be framed, and hung up in every classroom!

            (And on Hillary’s fridge door!)

          • Erma Maw

            Your arguments ring true with me….. you seem to have open eyes… many don’t.

          • Small_Businessman

            Very well said, Alexandra. OWilson – it should be framed and hung up in every classroom.

        • temporary guest

          Alexandra … please know that I am not trying to hack on you for what you said. I’m just presenting a mans’ thoughts on the subject. Hopefully, you can see a little humor in my remarks… and some truth as well.

          “Most men flee from strong women”

          I can’t speak for “most men”, but I can speak for myself: I was married to a harridan (synonym for “strong woman”? … another synonym would be “control freak”) once and I never fled because I had two kids and I don’t believe divorce solves as many problems as lots of folks seem to think it does … but, when she left one day with her boyfriend, I went to the manager of their favorite restaurant and set him up for a free steak dinner the next time he came in.

          “Most men flee from strong women” is a myth propagated by feminist who think any man you can’t walk on is a pig. Likewise, “Men are afraid of intelligent women” is also a myth. I should know. After 25 years of being married to a woman who was incapable of being right about anything at all, the company of a woman who is both strong and intelligent enough to know that men also like to be accepted for who they are is a prize that money can’t buy and any intelligent man would love to have.

          The “battle of the sexes” is a bummer from either side of the battle field. Happy are the man and woman who do not feel the need to drag the other onto that battlefield.


      • Bruce Kopetz

        What’s the meaning of “just sayin'” ? I’ve always wondered what the author had in mind. If it’s, “This is but the opinion of my unworthy self”, why not just type that?

        • OWilson

          Sorta like. “ever thought of another way of looking at things?”

          (Don’t ask me about “sorta”) 🙂

          • Bruce Kopetz

            Verständlich. “Just sayin'” = “I humbly offer this as a possible alternative”. Thanks, Wilson !

  4. Alan Hubbard

    Pretty cool discovery. Too bad there is no written record as to her status.

  5. Carl Jacobson

    No surprise here – probably a noblewoman or born into a warrior aristocracy.
    What’s the surprise?
    They’ve already found at least one female roman gladiator skeleton and other warrior female skeletons in central asia.

  6. Candace Craddock

    Viking are known for their fierce women. Think about it. Needed defense for rape, polar bears and reindeer. All three of these in particular the animals don’t discriminate against who they attack.
    They say I have a British ancestor from the 5th century named Caratacus who is the first in written recording to have allowed women to participate in battle. The Roman scribe Tacticus wrote about it.

    • Erik Bosma

      Geez man, there are as many (if not more) fierce women than there are fierce men – at least in my 64 years of observations.

  7. Erik Bosma

    I’m still amazed that many of our first impressions when finding evidence of strong women from the past is that she must be related to some man or some man’s actions. Euro-centrism and misogyny are STILL two of the biggest handicaps facing, in this case, archaeology even today.

  8. jupe77

    I’d like to think she was one of my ancestors. 😉

  9. Raimo Kangasniemi

    Viking warriors who died in battle naturally won’t appear in graves in Birka – they were buried at or close where they died.

  10. Bud Johnson

    This is extremely fascinating from the DNA standpoint alone, but throw in the possibility that there could have a been woman who was an officer that many years ago is powerful. Unfortunately, it just bring up more unanswered questions such as how did she get herself to be in such a prestigious position. Could it have been like a Joan of Arc moment, disguising herself as a man?

  11. Rebecca Riehm

    What about physical evidence from her bones of muscles used in daily activities. If she trained as a warrior, wouldn’t there be evidence on the bones? If she was a “housewife” wouldn’t there be evidence in her bones and teeth as she used these in washing, sewing, etc.?
    I don’t see how there could be physical evidence of childbirth in her skeleton, but the manner in which the muscles attached provides some empirical evidence of activities.

  12. vickysamster

    I am surprised it was just DNA — didn’t the skeleton give clues as to her physical fitness too? If she was a warrior, wouldn’t there be some difference between her skeleton and that of another woman from the same era?

  13. James Brown

    NO S..t, I have always felt that a women led the show in those years…Why would “MEN” get off there but, give up drinking, visit “new” lands and fight for food? The women pushed the men to work, Just like to day…

  14. lost miner

    ironic, tries to be historic yet it shows leather armor and bunted mail.


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