A Female Viking Warrior Interred at Birka

In archaeology, we distinguish osteological sex from artefact gender. Osteo-sex is with very few exceptions (odd chromosomal setups) the same thing as what your genitals are like. Artefact gender is the material correlate of a role you play according to the conventions of your time: e.g. whether you keep your genitals in Y-fronts or lacy knickers. We judge these two parameters from separate source materials. Your skeleton can’t tell us anything about your gender, and your grave goods can’t tell us anything about your osteo-sex. They are in principle able to vary independently.

Nevertheless, 1st millennium Scandinavians seem to have been quite conventional about this: mismatches between osteo-sex and artefact gender are extremely rare. The graves are clearly divided into osteo-female jewellery graves and osteo-male weapon graves. If you exclude cremated bones and poorly preserved inhumations that can cause misdeterminations, the number of mismatches shrinks even more. And when you do see a mismatch it’s typically partial: e.g. a male skeleton buried with a full set of weaponry and horse gear, plus a single ladylike brooch. I was until recently not aware of any well-preserved and richly furnished Scandy inhumation of the 1st millennium with a complete mismatch between osteo-sex and artefact gender. But now we have one.

Birka’s grave 581 is one of the famous chamber inhumation graves where this Swedish Viking town’s 10th century elite buried their dead. It has loads of high-quality weaponry and two horses. It has no hint of any female attire. And it has the skeleton of a person whose funny bent position suggests that, like in many other chamber graves, the individual was buried sitting on a chair and then keeled over inside the chamber.

In the 1970s, the skeleton had become disassociated from the artefact finds, and an osteologist (sadly uncredited in the paper discussed below) quietly identified it as female. In 2014 osteologist Anna Kjellström identified the bones as belonging to Bj 581, the famous weapon burial, and agreed that the skeleton is female. Certain archaeologists have replied that they don’t believe this because of the weapons. Others have suggested more diplomatically that maybe the bones represent two individuals, or that a male body was removed while still articulated. Others again have simply dismissed the whole issue with reference to 19th century sloppiness in keeping the Birka bones correctly labelled grave by grave.

Now a team of researchers, of whom I am proud to count half as my professional buddies, have sequenced the genomes of the bones. Yes, plural. To test if the skull and one arm are from the same person. There is only one person there, and just as Kjellström said, she’s biologically a woman. I am extremely happy with this investigation, because it gives us our first real female Viking, and it shows that osteologists can indeed judge osteo-sex correctly on well-preserved ancient skeletons. Very commendably, the paper is available online in full for free: Open Access.

Here’s a few notes.

  • The grave was selected for analysis because of the controversy over its osteo-sex. It is not a randomly chosen weapon burial that happened to prove female. If you pick a random Birka inhumation, this is not the result you are likely to get.
  • Assuming that burial furnishings speak directly about a person’s role in life (which is always debatable), we don’t know if the dead person was perceived as a cross-dressing woman, or just as a man. In other words, we have no way to tell if she was “out”. There are examples of both from later centuries, where for instance Joan of Arc never tried to pass as a man despite wearing armour and commanding an army.
  • The plan of the grave shows which bones were well preserved. This should be enough to counter the charge that maybe the skeleton currently labelled Bj 581 is not in fact the one found in this weapon grave. This the authors should have written a few sentences about. I take their silence to mean that having already published her arguments about this elsewhere, Kjellström considers the issue uncontroversial.
  • We still can’t rule out the early removal of an articulated male body. But such an argument ex silentio would demand that we place similar female bodies in all other weapon graves as well. We can’t just create the bodies we want in order for the material to look neat.

The “Discussion” section hasn’t been properly copy-edited.

  • I don’t know what “The archaeological material provides a reference for the Viking Age” means.
  • Because of the odd phrasing, I don’t know what the authors are trying to say about earlier scholarship here: “Although not possible to rule out, previous arguments have likely neglected intersectional perspectives where the social status of the individual was considered of greater importance than biological sex. This type of reasoning takes away the agency of the buried female.”
  • “Grave Bj 581 is one of three known examples where *the* individual has been treated in accordance with prevailing warrior ideals lacking all associations with the female gender” : “The” here should be “a female”.

Hedenstierna-Jonson, Charlotte et al. 2017. A female Viking warrior confirmed by genomics. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 2017. DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.23308

I discussed the issue of shield maidens in 2013, the year before Anna Kjellström went public with her identification of the female skeleton with Bj 581.

Viking Imagery Contested On Pizza Box

Eslöv, home of the Viking pizza

A buddy & colleague of mine took this picture in an Eslöv pizza place, commenting drily that it’s a fine example of how the cultural heritage can be used. We’ve got Thor’s hammer, we’ve got two cartoon Vikings, we’ve got Swedish flags, and note the three yellow crowns on a blue background: the arms of the Kingdom of Sweden, a strong nationalist statement.

Rural Eslöv municipality is one of the anti-immigration Swedish Hate Party’s strongholds, with 22% of the vote in the last election. Vikings and Scandinavian Paganism are of course much beloved by the extreme Right, and stylewise the logo’s design is straight out of white supremacy iconography.

But, but, but. Naples’ priceless gift to world cuisine, the pizza, was completely unknown in Sweden before the 1960s. And Pizzeria Viking, as is the rule with Swedish pizza places, is owned and staffed by non-Italian immigrants. The proprietor Idris Husein is from Mardin in Turkish Kurdistan, not far from Diyarbakır. Mr. Husein and his family has been running restaurants in Sweden för 20 years. And when I look at their company logo, I get the feeling that they have a both a fine sense of humour and a keen eye for political imagery.

Metal Detectorist Tattoo #6 – Kvanli

Detectorist John Kvanli is the chairman of Rygene detektorklubb and one of Norway’s most prominent proponents of collaboration between amateurs and professionals in field archaeology. Of course he has a tattoo! It’s an Urnes brooch from c. AD 1100, in the final exquisite Christian style of Scandinavian animal art.

John tells me he has found several fragments of these fragile objects, but the one inked onto his upper right arm is a settlement excavation find from Lindholm Høje, across the fjord from Aalborg in northern Jutland. The needlework was done by the Martin Tattoo Studio in Bangkok, Thailand.

For more about the Urnes style, see my entry about René Lund Klee’s tattoo. For the general blog series about detectorist tattoos, see Aard’s tattoo tag.

Viking Crucifix

Viking Period crucifix found at Aunslev on Funen in March 2016. 10th century.

Metal detectorist Dennis Fabricius Holm made a pretty sweet find yesterday: the third known Birka crucifix.

These little wonders of 10th century goldsmith work are named for the first find, made in 1879 when Hjalmar Stolpe excavated in the cemeteries of Birka near Stockholm. In addition to the crucifix grave 660 contained, among other things, two other fine silver filigree pendants and a bronze-capped iron wand that may have served pagan religious purposes.

Crucifix from grave 660 at Birka, Uppland, Sweden.
Crucifix from grave 660 at Birka, Uppland, Sweden.

In 2012 Silke Eisenschmidt identified fragments of a second Birka crucifix among the finds from a wagon burial at Ketting, excavated by Jens Raben in 1927. This is on the island of Als on the south-east coast of Jutland, just across the sound from Funen, and the new find is from Nyborg municipality on the east coast of that island. (I was there for a castle conference last August.) The two Danish sites are less than a day’s sailing and rowing from the town of Hedeby, which suggests to me that this is where all three crucifixes were made. They’re too similar for more than one or two people to have been making them. Birka and Hedeby seems to have shared an itinerant population of craftspeople and traders.

Fragmentary crucifix from a wagon burial at Ketting on Als, Denmark.
Fragmentary crucifix from a wagon burial at Ketting on Als, Denmark.

Many thanks to Dennis for letting me publish his photographs! Note that by not cleaning the find thoroughly, Dennis is doing the right thing: this is a job for the finds conservator.

The reverse of the newly found crucifix.
The reverse of the newly found Aunslev crucifix.

Update 13 March: My friend and collaborator Tobias Bondesson alerted me to a piece of filigreed hack silver from the Omø hoard that looks a lot like the right hand of a fourth Birka crucifix. It’s different from its siblings in being decorated on the reverse and having no thumb, but to my eye there’s little else this fragment could be from. The hoard was buried during the reign of Sweyn Forkbeard, 986–1014. It was found by detectorist Robert Hemming Poulsen in September of 2015. Omø is a small island between Funen and Zealand, not far across the water from Nyborg, which neatly reinforces the distribution we have begun to discern for the type.

Fragment of a Birka-type crucifix from the Omø hoard.
Fragment of a Birka-type crucifix from the Omø hoard.

The Aska Barrow Is A Huge Building Platform

It’s been a busy couple of days with a lot of publicity. Monday morning a paper I’ve co-authored with my friend, geophysics specialist Andreas Viberg, was published in the on-line version of Archaeological Prospection. For reasons of scientific priority (which I myself like to establish by spilling everything I do onto the blog immediately) I’ve been sitting on this since April of 2013, so it feels real good to finally blog about it. Here’s a brief summary.

  • There’s a huge weird barrow at Aska in Hagebyhöga near Vadstena in Östergötland. It’s oval and flat instead of round and domed.
  • My old teacher Anders Carlsson has suggested that this may not be a grave mound but a Late Iron Age building platform like the ones in Old Uppsala.
  • Andreas and I drove down with a ground-penetrating radar device and surveyed the thing. We found the floor plan of an almost 50-metres-long mead-hall, very similar to one of the royal halls excavated at Old Uppsala.
  • This lends added support to the interpretation I advanced in my 2011 book Mead-halls of the Eastern Geats: Aska in Hagebyhöga was the residence of a Viking Period petty-royal dynasty in Östergötland that has left no trace in the written record.

Anyone who wants the (sadly pay-walled) paper, please email me!

New Popular Book On The Viking Period

Anders Winroth (born in 1965) is a Swedish historian who received his PhD from Columbia in 1996 and now holds an endowed professorship in history at Yale. He has written several books on the Viking Period for lay readers, the latest one of which I’ve been given to review.

The main contents of The Age of the Vikings is organised into eight chapters on:

  • Raiding and warfare
  • Emigration and overseas settlement
  • Ships in reality and mythology
  • Trade
  • The development of political leadership
  • Home life in Scandinavia and the roles of women
  • Religion
  • Arts and letters

All eight are well written and interesting (though the final arts chapter consists of brief poorly linked essays, repeats points already made and gives the impression of padding). Throughout, Winborg stresses the importance to period society of the military retinue and the redistribution of plunder. If a person wants to approach the Viking Period for the first time or get a refresher on where scholarship is standing right now, then I am happy to recommend this fine book.

Myself, I was intrigued to learn that the infamous, messy and impractical “blood eagle” murder method may just be the fruit of High Medieval writers misunderstanding one of the countless references in Viking Period poetry to carrion birds munching on the slain (p. 37). There is to my knowledge no osteological evidence for it. Also interesting to me, I can’t recall reading about the Spanish Moor Al-Tartushi’s report on life in Hedeby before (p. 197). But that may just be because I’m not an historian.

Then again, the Viking Period is far more of an archaeological period than a historical one if you look at the shelf metres occupied by the source material. And historian Winroth slips a lot when he uses the archaeological record. He thanks three eminent historians for commenting on the manuscript (p. 253). I think he should have included an archaeologist or two. Though I have written three academic books that deal largely with the Viking Period, I would never attempt a general synthesis of the period without involving historians. I will end this brief review with an errata list that I hope will be useful if a second edition appears one day.

Winroth, A. 2014. The Age of the Vikings. Princeton University Press. 304 pp. ISBN 978-0-691-14985-1.


3. Gold foil figures belong to the Vendel Period, not the subsequent Viking Period.

7. “9.5 square meters” : this would be a pretty cramped mead hall.

24. “OnämNsdotter” → Onämsdotter

26. The modern English word “Hell” comes down from Old Norse Hel, the name of both the Norse land of the dead and it’s ruling goddess. It has nothing to do with being Christian.

29, caption. All Viking Period spears had “sharpened points”, so the ones used at the Battle of Maldon were not unusual in this respect.

33, caption. Swords have grips, not handles.

39. The problem of whether berserks and wulfheodenas existed cannot be approached exclusively from the textual sources, as Winroth does. We also have to look at period imagery such as the embossed-foil scenes on Vendel Period helmets and the Lewis chessmen, biting their shields.

44. Styrstad is east of Norrköping, not west.

46. Of course the two Röriks in Holland and Russia had never heard of Rörik in Styrstad. He wasn’t born yet, but would live in the 11th century as shown by the date of his rune stone.

51. Winroth thinks Jordanes made up the Scandinavian origin myth of the Goths. This is a controversial opinion, since almost all the many Germanic gentes had similar origin myths. I don’t think the myths are true, but I think they are authentic 6th century beliefs.

89. “Many runestones also have images of ships, but only one * also mentions the ship in its text.” Insert “of these” at asterisk. Several runestones mention ships but have no ship imagery.

111. Birka and Sorte Muld are irrelevant in the context of 11th century rune stones.

113. The claws of furry animals decompose as easily as their hair and skin, and therefore rarely survive in the archaeological record. Their phalange bones, however, are common, and these are what Winroth seems to be referring to here.

114. “glass pearls” → glass beads (Swedicism)

135. Archaeologists have hardly found any gold or silver arm rings in graves. They were apparently recast or disposed of in hoards.

140. This Roman Period tableware is irrelevant to the Viking Period.

149. Cremation produces shrunken and cracked white bones, not ashes.

150. “trelleborgs also contained cemeteries” : The cemeteries of the trelleborgs were outside the fortifications.

168. Whatever the perforated pottery was used for, it certainly wasn’t to “sieve the milk”. Viking Period milkmaids didn’t drop more straw into their buckets than modern ones.

171. The longhouse dominated agricultural Scandinavia for 5,000 years, not hundreds.

171. An Iron Age longhouse has three aisles, not “three naves”.

173. Again: the longhouse dominated agricultural Scandinavia for 5,000 years, not hundreds.

173. The development of the great hall building preceded the Viking Period by several centuries: it happened in the Migration Period.

173. Pole barns are common, not unusual.

175. Single non-village farms occur in populous farming districts too, not just in isolated locations.

Plate 4. The stone ship in the image dates from the Late Bronze Age, as can be seen from the fact that its constituent standing stones touch instead of being spaced out like the ribs of a Viking ship.

Plate 10. The animal-head posts from Oseberg are depicted on the tapestry in the same burial and have something to do with sledges, not furniture.

193. The Uppåkra drinking cup with the embossed foil decoration is not a “pitcher”.

193. Like the development of the hall building, the move of sacrifices away from lakes and indoors happened in the Migration Period, not the Viking Period.

215. “Runes were used for two millennia” : From AD 150 to 1900, that is, 1.75 millennia.

217. “Proto-Germanic” (three times) : the earliest runic inscription are in Proto-Norse, a language that is attested in writing unlike its theoretical parent language Proto-Germanic.

217. Another major reason why inscriptions in the Younger Futhark are so much easier to read than those in the Elder Futkark is that the later inscriptions use word-spacing characters.

220. Dróttkvætt: the name of this verse metre means “metre of lords”, not “meter suitable for a lord’s band of retainers”.

236, caption. The tale of Sigurd Fafnir’s bane is not a “myth” in the cosmographical sense that scholars of religion ascribe to the word.

289. Telling the reader that the spears thrown at Maldon had “sharpened points” is redundant: it’s comparable to saying that the warriors involved used “swords with blades”.

Secrets of the Runic Lion

The Lion of Pireus is a large 4th century BC marble statue that was moved from Pireus, the port of Athens, to Venice in 1688. It is now at the city’s Arsenal. The Lion has unmistakeable Swedish 11th century runic inscriptions which have been known to Scandinavian scholars since 1798/99. Clearly they have something to do with the Varangian Guard, Swedish soldiers in the employ of the Byzantine Emperor from the 980s onward. But due to poor preservation, the message carried by those runes has been believed lost.

There is a cast of the Lion at the Historical Museum in Stockholm, and I’ve often pondered its silent message and felt frustrated. But frustrated I am no more! Thorgunn Snædal has done what every really good runologist must do: gone to the original and studied it. And re-studied it. And re-studied it again. She’s visited the Lion in Venice four times and spent a total of ~85 hours with it. And now she’s published her new reading in an Open Access report from the National Heritage Board (in Swedish).

Åsmund's inscription, late 11th century.
Åsmund’s inscription, late 11th century.

Left side, early 11th century.

they carved, the troopers … and in this harbour, these men carved runes after Horse the farm-owner … Swedes had this done on the lion. Fell before he could take a ransom.

Left thigh, prob. 11th century.

Young warriors carved the runes.

Right side, late 11th century.

Åsmund carved … these runes, they Æskell … Þōrlæifr and …

Snædal emphasises the skill with which Åsmund composed the third inscription, judging that he was actually a better rune master than e.g. Uppland’s prolific Öpir (though there may have been two masters of that name). She hopes that one day we will find a signed stone by Åsmund at home in Svealand. This is not by any means casual graffiti.

The new reading says a lot about the men who made the inscriptions. The first group is commemorating Horse, who has died early during his tour of duty, much in the same way as his family would on a runestone back home. But they’re also emphasising their own identity in the alien environment in ways that we never see at home. They juxtapose Horse’s Swedish farm-owner status with a comment on the amazing ancient naval harbour, no likes of which could be seen in Sweden, then explicitly identify themselves as Swedes. It is a highly martial monument, re-using a huge fierce lion and created by men who identify themselves as troopers and young warriors who can’t be certain that they will live to ever see Sweden again. Over a period of at least 50 years, two other groups of Varangians take the time to add inscriptions to the lion, suggesting that it was painted in, remembered and talked about as a must-see sight for any Swede in Pireus. As it should be today for any Swede in Venice.