Sunday, 17 September 2017

A female viking warrior

I am a bit late with this blog, since most of the bloggers have already reacted to the news that a Viking warrior from Birka is actually a woman. However, I feel obliged to say a couple of words, since the main researchers publishing, Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson, Anna Kjellström, Torun Zachrisson and Maja Krzewińska, sit or have sat in the same floor of the Department of Archaeology and Classical Studies at Stockholm as I do. The article had also a series of other co-authors, some of them also from Stockholm, all from the same project, but they are not part of this story I have to tell.

Thir article ‘A female Viking warrior confirmed by genomics’ was published earlier this week in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology. The material for the article come from one Viking Age grave Bj 581 from Birka, the major trading post in central Sweden in its time, and the reason for its analysis was that it was already controversial before this study. The original find was made in 1877 by Hjalmar Stolpe and consisted of a pseudo-chamber tomb with weapons and two buried horses. The original traditional sexing defined the skeleton female and this was not accepted without hiccups, considering the historical and archaeological context. Even if there are weapons in some female graves during the Iron Age there importance have not acknowledged in connection with warrior identity. Without the osteological analysis, archaeologically the complete and rich warrior assemblage was interpreted in the 1940s and 1980s as a male. Now the authors interpret her having been a full member of a male sphere. She is one of three female burials that are known to lack all associations to the female gender within her burial assemblage. Nevertheless, she did not feature any major pathologies or trauma in her skeleton.

The article has been popularised by several newspaper articles, among them a Daily Mail piece on the first evidence of female ‘Valkyrie’ and a Guardian piece that concentrates on analyzing the assumed gender roles in archaeology. The Daily Mail article mainly gives a run thorough of the facts in the original article, whereas the Guardian article takes as the real story the fact that the deceased was misidentified for a century as a male – even after the osteological analysis. The original article resulted with a series of blog entries the most thorough of which is Howard Williams’s three-part series that analyses not only the original article but also the media and academia response and even attempts to draw conclusions of the public archaeology of death and gender by summarising the comments laid by the public to the Daily Mail and Guardian articles. With such deep pieces available, what is left for me to say?

I can only capture a moment when the four women, some of the main authors of the article, join together at the Department and rejoicing the moment when their research got a media exposure. The table was lid with candles and there were small buns on offer together with a pink drink. Charlotte talked about giving an interview to New York Times and the piece there. They referred to some of the critique they had received and were amazed how the world was not ready for a female warrior. They had analysed the right bones and it was a woman who potentially had travelled at the beginning of her life around the region. I could say they were content with the exposure even if they were not happy with all the content. This is what it is about in the academic world nowadays: you have to get your story out there.

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