To put my cards on the table, I will say that I have always thought (and to some extent still do) that the fascination with women warriors, both in popular culture and in academic discourse, is heavily, probably too heavily, influenced by 20th- and 21st-century desires. At the same time, I also think it is interesting to debate these matters and I am happy to do so (although not with the type of people who write UTL words to the effect of 'I just KNOW there were women warriors in the Viking Age'). I try to keep an open mind, but I also get very frustrated by what I consider to be academic discourse that seems to be mostly concerned with grabbing attention in order to facilitate further funding and/or claim 'impact'. And academic discourse in which topics that have been of concern to the humanities for decades if not centuries are suddenly somehow 'confirmed' by those gods, the scientists, without giving sufficient consideration of the 'non-scientific' evidence which inevitably raised the questions in the first place. (And here I wish we used the word 'science' in the same way as the Germans do Wissenschaft, which would make all evidence 'scientific', i.e. subject to reasoned analysis and argument). What I am really interested in is the quality of academic discourse - I'm very sensitive to what I consider to be shortcuts in an argument or sloppy use of evidence. We are all guilty of these at times, but I believe it is one of the functions of academic debate to point these out to each other, which is why I am writing this, even though I know many of the authors of this article and consider them friends.
One more caveat - I am not a scientist (in the English sense) and not qualified to comment on the natural scientific experiments carried out for the article I am about to discuss and their results. But I think I am qualified to discuss the ways in which the results are interpreted, and I am certainly qualified to comment on the way the authors of the article use textual evidence, and also how they interpret more general cultural historical aspects of the period, which is something I have been thinking about for about four decades. Hence my weighing in here.
My approach below is to work through the article, picking up points that I think are relevant to the quality of the argument. I have not yet spent enough time thinking about this particular problem to be able to offer a well-reasoned, holistic counter-interpretation. I am not even sure yet that I think the authors are necessarily wrong, or that it is my job to counter their arguments if I do. But I don't think they make a good case, and I would like to take an opportunity to point out some matters which I would like people to take into consideration before jumping to accept the conclusions of the article. I'm afraid too many people will just read the title of the article and not think about it more before endlessly retweeting it (you know who you are!) or making it go viral on Facebook. So here goes.
(1) I note that while the article has ten authors, they have chosen not to involve any specialist in language or texts, in spite of the fact that the article begins with reference to early medieval 'narratives about fierce female Vikings fighting alongside men', and concludes with a quotation from an Eddic poem in translation. The impression given is that the authors consider that no special expertise is required to handle this kind of evidence unlike bones, or DNA, or archaeological finds. The authors might argue that they cite people who do have such expertise, including myself. I would just point out that their primary reference to my work is to a semi-popular book published 26 years ago. (See also point 6., below). I would have thought they could have made the slight effort required to read what I wrote on the subject of women warriors in a recent monograph (The Viking Diaspora 2015, pp. 104-7), a less popular and more considered work. There (and elsewhere when I have written about such things) I do try to show that women warriors and/or Valkyries and/or shield maidens (they are all often mixed up) are not just 'mythological phenomena' as stated by the authors, but relate to a whole complex of ideas that pervade literature, mythology and ideology, without necessarily providing any direct evidence for women warriors in 'real life', which is what I take the current authors to be interested in. I do wish the authors would engage with these more subtle and complex interpretations, rather than just unthinkingly using texts both as the starting and the finishing point of their argument, without any indication of what narratives they have in mind, or even what kind, or any explanation of why a particular quotation might be relevant. An example of their sloppy thinking is when they claim that 'the material and historical records' both suggest that 'the male sex has been associated with the gender of a warrior identity' (a statement I think I understand, but it sounds awkward). This is to elide the nature of two very different types of evidence and does, in my view, a disservice to what they call 'historical records' (which may or may not be the same as the 'narratives' or 'mythological phenomena' referred to earlier). Needless to say, they do not specify what 'historical records' suggest this (or indeed what 'material records' do the same, whatever they are).
(2) Several times in the article the authors refer to an earlier article by the second-named author (Kjellström 2016)** which appears to be of great importance to their argument because in it she apparently provided 'a full osteological and contextual analysis', 'age and sex estimation results' and 'sex identification and a proper contextualisation' for the burial in question. The scientific analyses of the current article apparently arose out of a desire to confirm (as the title of the article suggests) these earlier results by scientific means. Having followed up the article in question, I can find nothing in it which explains why this osteological and contextual analysis suggests the deceased was a female - it's a rather general article summarising the author's osteological research on a large body of material which may well have included burial Bj 581, but does not say much about this particular burial. Without specifying its details, the earlier article does refer to a 'chamber grave furnished with fine armour and sacrificed horses' for which 'three different osteological examinations all found that the individual was a woman'. I suppose this is the grave under consideration in the most recent article, but interestingly, the author concludes that 'Whether these are not the correct bones for this grave or whether it opens up reinterpretations of weapon graves in Birka, it is too early to say' (the article was originally presented at a conference in 2013, not 2014 as suggested in the current article). This is because of problems arising from the fact that the graves were mainly excavated in the 19th century and there has been a certain amount of confusion regarding where various bags of bones came from. Extraordinarily enough, this is not even mentioned in the current article. It is admittedly covered, though fairly briefly, in the 'Supporting Information' to the current article, but I do think this element of possible doubt is crucial enough to have been mentioned in the main article, which is what most people will read - many will not even be aware of the status or significance of the 'Supporting Information', which contains both tables showing the scientific results and some discursive comments about sex and gender identities in Viking Age graves.
(3) Having concluded, to their own satisfaction, that the deceased in Bj 581 was indeed a female warrior, the authors go on to conclude, with very little discussion or justification, that she was 'a high-ranking officer', based apparently on the fact that the burial contained 'a full set of gaming pieces' which apparently 'indicates knowledge of tactics and strategy'. Another factor which may have led them to this conclusion, though it is not stated explicitly, is the fact that they determined that the individual was 'at least above 30 years of age'. By the end of the article, 'the individual in grave Bj 581 is the first confirmed female high-ranking warrior', because 'the exclusive grave goods and two horses are worthy of an individual with responsibilities concerning strategy and battle tactics'. All this seems to me to move rather quickly from evidence to speculation which is presented as fact.
(4) The authors also note that there were 'No pathological or traumatic injuries' observed on the skeleton. They point out that 'weapon related wounds ... are not common in the inhumation burials at Birka' and elsewhere, so apparently the 'warriors' of these graves were either so good that they were never injured, or perhaps they weren't really 'warriors' at all. According to the authors 'our results caution against sweeping interpretations based on archaeological contexts and preconceptions' - they do not seem to recognise that if they take this principle to its logical conclusion, the interpretation of this and many other graves as 'warrior' graves is thereby called into question. They can't have their cake and eat it too. They also say nothing about whether there was any indication on the bones of the kinds of activities one might expect a warrior to have engaged in, as strenuous physical activity might be expected to have left some traces, particularly if they were good enough to avoid injury to themselves.
(5) Although the authors point out that 'previous arguments have ... neglected intersectional perspectives' they do not really pursue alternative explanations regarding Bj 581 either. Was it possible, for example, for a biological woman to have been buried with a full 'warrior' accoutrement, even if she had not been a warrior in life? After all, archaeologists are always cautioning us that 'the dead don't bury themselves' and they often seem not to like interpretations in which the deceased's grave goods are taken as representing their roles in life. But such perspectives do not seem to be applied here - they want the woman to be a warrior, so the scientific analysis makes her a woman and her 'archaeological context' makes her a warrior. No doubt other explanations are possible, still assuming that the bones have been correctly assigned to the grave-goods, but discussion of such alternatives would rather detract from that arresting title, and would probably have ruled out publication in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology. The authors might have been better advised to keep this article to the purely scientific data, and leave the interpretation of it to other contexts which might have given them more space to reason more carefully.
(6) Finally, a bit of a rant against the prevalence of short name+date references in scientific and archaeological articles. Reference to an article in a scientific journal in this way is OK when the article is only a few pages long, as they often are. But referring to a 230+-page book as Name Date is cheating. The interested reader who may want to follow up the point being 'supported' by such a reference is faced with having possibly to read the whole book, or to work out from the index which of several possible sections of the book contain the information on which the referring authors rely. And one does sometimes get the impression that authors using such a reference system have not really read the work in question, at least not carefully or thoughtfully.
These are some of my caveats which I would dearly love people to take into account before tweeting all over the world about women warriors in the Viking Age. It's too easy to take the title of an article at face value and send it round the Twittersphere without further thought. I do know I'm banging my head against a brick wall, since I have blogged, spoken and written about these matters before and have come to realise that the emotional lure of the woman warrior, especially in the Viking Age, is too strong for reasoned argument.
Nevertheless, I am still happy to engage in this debate. And just in case there is any doubt, although this blog is ostensibly anonymous, my name is Judith Jesch and I am happy to acknowledge what I have written above - with this kind of direct critique of an article by people I know well, anonymity would be completely unethical. I did consider sending this piece to https://theconversation.com/uk so as not to be anonymous, but previous experience with them suggests that long and complex pieces don't really work there. Taking complex research to the general public inevitably involves a loss of complexity. But it shouldn't do in an academic journal, and it is in the end the academic arguments I am most concerned with. I do also like trying to explain complex academic arguments to those who don't normally engage with them, but that's another story.
* Hedenstierna-Jonson C, Kjellström A, Zachrisson T, et al. A female Viking warrior confirmed by genomics. Am J Phys Anthropol. 2017;00:1-8. https://doi.org/10.1002/ajpa.23308.
**Kjellström A, (2016) People in transition: Life in the Malaren Vallye from an Osteological Perspectve. In V. Turner (Ed.), Shetland and the Viking World. Papers from the Proceedings of the 17th Viking Congress 2013 (pp. 197-202). Lerwick: Shetland Amenity Trust.