So you’ve found a Viking warrior’s grave…

Reconstruction of what the grave may have looked like to begin with. Credit: Uppsala University

Recent evidence has come out that a Viking-Age grave in Uppsala Sweden contained a woman buried with arms, armor, horses, and a tactical board game.

Looking at the evidence as a lay person, I feel like that’s all you can really say about it that cannot be disputed. However, combined with literary sources that mention women warriors and commanders, it seems likely that she was a woman warrior. Widows of wealthy and powerful men in Viking-Age Scandinavia were sometimes known to command their dead husband’s warriors. While in the lists of virtues in theĀ Eddas, young men and women had very different aspirations–bravery and good housekeeping, respectively–the virtues that older men and women could aspire to were the same: wisdom, fair dealing, strategic thinking.

There seems to be a bit of circular reasoning in much archaeology, as it purports to tell us how people lived: a grave found with weapons in it must be a man’s, therefore only men were warriors. Similarly, a grave with household goods in it is necessarily a woman’s grave, therefore women mostly tended the household. This circular reasoning is more likely than most to uphold our current social biases. It is good to have DNA evidence that gives evidence of more possibilities.

Still, we have good evidence that this woman would have been unusual. (If she truly was a warrior; of course, I love to think that she was! But we also have literary evidence that women were given swords to hold in trust for their sons, so a woman might be buried with weapons for symbolic reasons, not necessarily martial ones.) Most of the literary evidence does point to a sharp division between the sexes, especially allowing for the fact that literary sources are more likely to highlight unusual and dramatic circumstances than prosaic ones.

Articles like this make me more glad than ever that I’m in the business of writing fiction, not history. I like to think about the breadth of what is possible–to me it’s always seemed likely that there were some Viking warrior women–without worrying about whether there is verifiable evidence of every possibility I’ve imagined.

For more on the roles of women in Viking literary sources, check out this essay I wrote for LitHub: “To Live Like the Women of Viking Literature”.

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