I recently saw an article pop up on my facebook page that immediately had me excited.
Better Identification of Viking Corpses Reveals: Half of the Warriors Were Female.
This was followed of course by a very aptly chosen picture of Lagertha from Vikings… which I have also used… shamelessly.
But the more I read the article and all of the accompanying comments, the more I realised that only a small part of the story was being shown. I decided to have a quick hunt around for more info and this is what I came up with.
Thanks to researchers at the University of Western Australia, the way we look at sex in burials, specifically for the early medieval and Viking period, is set to change. Previously, skeletons were classed as male or female based on what they were buried with: men with swords and shields, women with their oval brooches. The team at the Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies at UWA however, have looked at the osteological signs as well (i.e. differences in bone structure such as women having wider child rearing pelvises etc). This has led them to the discovery that approximately half of the remains they studied were actually female warriors, given a proper burial with their weapons.
But before you go shouting the praises of the Shieldmaidens conquering England beside their men, read on.
Though the study marks a healthy turning point, the study group was made up of only 14 skeletons from a corner of eastern England. Six of these skeletons were indeed women, one was indeterminable, and the rest male. At a site in Repton Woods of the three female burials discovered, only one was buried with a sword and shield.
Though the results are a step forward in how we categorise and study burials, we cannot presume to say that half of all Vikings coming to England were women, or even that many of them were shieldmaidens.
There is also a remark in the study that there was, “An increase in the number of finds of Norse-style jewellery in the last two decades (which) has led some scholars to suggest a larger number of female settlers. Indeed, it has been noted that there are more Norse female dress items than those worn by men”. Similarly, I would caution against presuming that only women wore jewellery, just as for so long we have been saying that only men were buried with weapons.
I especially like this comment by Andrew W made on Tor.com by a reader and his views on the article
I’m a historian who studies burial in the early middle ages, and the burial of women with weapons is one of my specialties! I’m in the process of publishing research about a woman buried with a spear in the 6th century, and am excited to see this important topic being discussed here outside the ivory tower at Tor.com.
The bad news first: while many women have been found buried with weapons, the evidence doesn’t support the claim made in the title of equal gender representation on the battlefield. The 2011 study that the article cites concludes: ‘Although the results presented here cannot be used to determine the number of female settlers, they do suggest that the ratio of females to males may have been somewhere between a third to roughly equal.’ The key thing to note is the word ‘settlers’: the article is arguing that women migrated from Scandinavia to England with the invading Viking army in the 9th century. Several of these women, the article notes, were buried with weapons, but they are still far outnumbered by the armed men. Most of the women settlers mentioned in the study were buried with ‘traditional’ female outfits: brooches that held up their aprons.
The good news, though: while women buried with weapons are rare, they *are* being found, and this is in large part thanks to an increased willingness to trust the bone specialists. Archaeologists have been using bones to identify the biological sex of skeletons for the past century, but when burials were found which didn’t fit their notions of ‘normal,’ they tended to assume that the bone analysts had made a mistake. This is not entirely unreasonable, because bones are often so badly decomposed that it is impossible to tell the sex of the person. But I can point to cases where the bones clearly belong to a woman, and the archaeologists insisted that it had to be a man because only men were warriors. That’s modern sexism plain and simple, and bad archaeology. But thankfully, archaeologists in recent decades have become aware of this problem, and as a result, more and more women are showing up with weapons!
But women with weapons are still a minority, usually fewer than 10% at any given cemetery. Sometimes there are no women with weapons in a cemetery at all. So they existed, but the evidence suggests weapons were still most commonly associated with men.
There are a few things to conclude from this.
First, we’re just talking about graves (because that’s what survives for archaeologists to dig up). Just because a woman is buried in an apron, does not mean she wasn’t a warrior before she died. There was no rule (as far as we know) that warriors had to be buried with their weapons. What if they wanted to leave them to their daughters instead? And who says a warrior woman can’t wear a dress to her own funeral? There might be many warrior women who are invisible because they were buried in ‘traditional’ female outfits.
Second, we can’t be sure that everyone buried with a weapon was a warrior. We find infants buried with weapons sometimes; they clearly weren’t fighters (though perhaps they would have been had they grown up?). Weapons were powerful ritual objects with lots of magic and social power, and a woman might be buried with one for a reason other than fighting, such as her connection to the ruling family, ownership of land, or role as priestess or magical healer.
Third, we shouldn’t rush to map our modern ideas of how gender *should have been* onto the past. We should study the past for what it is, whether that’s good or bad. Archaeologists who ignored evidence that Viking women weren’t all housewives caused great harm, but going to the other side and saying that men and women were equal on the Viking battlefield isn’t really any better. It minimizes the reality of gender inequality that Viking women had to struggle against, much like the inequality faced by their modern counterparts.
But finally, we do need to continue to reimagine the world of sword and sorcery to reflect the real role played by women in the past. Because some women *did* fight, even if they weren’t in the majority, and that’s incredibly important. And shoot, when we write fantasy, why not imagine that 50% of the warriors on the battlefield were women? That might not be how it was, but this is fantasy, and we can write the world as it SHOULD be.