09 September 2017

Let's Debate Female Viking Warriors Yet Again

The Viking Twittersphere is currently alive with tweets about a new article with the arresting title of 'A female Viking warrior confirmed by genomics'.* The article concerns the interpretation of a particular burial at Birka, in Sweden. Since I do not think this is a matter which can be dealt with in the space of 140 characters, even when 'threaded', and one or two have asked what I think, then I have decided to put a few thoughts down here while the matter is fresh. I would however urge you not to read this until you have read the article first - it is open access and available to all, following the link above. Don't forget to read the 'Supporting Information' as well. I would also point out that this is a preview of an article not yet fully published.

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.


  1. Very well and carefully written, Judith. My respect.

    Thomas from http://sagy.vikingove.com

  2. very enjoyable and impressive read. my own experience in reading some articles on DNA is that the peer review emphasis has been on methods, techniques and numerical analysis - hardly surprising in articles published in scientific journals. I know I have made assumptions on occasion that these articles (ie articles on genetics of past populations for example) are primarily interested in the historical material but in fact, when you look at them carefully, the historical context and interpretation is a very minor part of the whole and not subject to the same degree of scrutiny in the creation of the piece as the development of genetics as a field.Perfectly reasonable- the problem is with me as a reader that I want them to solve my historical problems for me.
    Cathy Swift, University of Limerick

    1. Hydroxide11/9/17 14:42

      Thank you. This study was an exclusively genetic one. The entire objective was the genetic assessment of biological sex and genetic affinity of the person buried. Everything else was context that was based on other people's writings, and problems with that should be taken up with these people.

    2. Fair enough and maybe the authors didn't create the title of the article but if it was an exclusively genetic article, than I think most people from humanities background would endorse Judith Jesch's point above that it would have been better to avoid the notion that you have "proved" what is in reality an archaeological interpretation of old material gathered at a time when record keeping was not that of modern standards.

    3. ElaineinMD6/7/18 00:11

      I liked your article all the more when I discovered you were female. Maybe she was a warrior (but with out trauma?), maybe not. The central problem is that leap of faith, weapons and horse notwithstanding. If there had been women warriors, percentage-wise they would be rare, and for good reason: weight-class and bone to muscle ratio. No matter how skilled a mythological or Hollywood-depicted female warrior, she would be overcome by a male from a higher weight class in short order.
      Sadly, the A&E Vikings series has a lot of females believing Ragnar's beautiful wife was holding her own in vicious hand-to-hand combat. (Want to buy a bridge in Brooklyn?)
      Even if the bones in that grave were from a female there's too much conjecture about the analysis, the more so when you explain the bones may have not been properly catalogued when removed from grave site(s).
      And even if that diminutive skeleton was a female warrior, one skeleton doesn't a battalion of 10-20,000 warriors make.

  3. Hydroxide11/9/17 09:59

    The problem with your assessment is that you miss the scope and objective of the study. It doesn't use textual evidence for its findings at all, they are merely used as context for the reader, and all the criticism you raise is based on the misconception that this study was in any way concerned with the interpretation of the grave as a warrior's, when that was simply an interpretation they accepted from others.

    This study, a brief communication, and thus limited in scope, was concerned with one major and one minor question:
    Was the person a woman? Answer: Yes.
    What's the affinity of the person? Answer: Related to the current population of southern Sweden, whether that means she was a local at the time cannot be said definitively from this data alone.

    These are questions answered purely on the basis of the genetic material, and so the notion that there should have been textual experts or that the authors should have questioned the interpretation of the grave really misses the point of the study. It confirmed the person as a woman, no more, no less. If you believe that calls for a reinterpretation of other findings, or that the interpretation of the other results were questionable to begin with, that's something to be taken up with the authors of those other studies or their "successors".

    1. Anonymous11/9/17 23:50

      "Our results—that the high-status grave Bj 581 on Birka was the burial of a high ranking female Viking warrior..."

      The article itself precisely and directly contradicts everything you typed above.

    2. This would be a fair point if the authors hadn't run with the title "A female Viking warrior confirmed by genomics" rather than 'Body in grave confirmed to be female'. Academics choose their own titles and must live with criticism if, having chosen an intentionally eyecatching title, they get called out for that title having made a claim that their data doesn't support.

    3. Hydroxide12/9/17 10:07


      The article does no such thing. The key point in that sentence is FEMALE. Everything else is taken from previous work.


      This would be a fair point if the authors had made the claim that she was a warrior as an original claim. They didn't. They took that from established work and referenced it. As it stands, you're barking up the wrong tree. If you criticise the wrong study, you get called out for doing so. Their data does support the fact that the person is female, the rest was established previously by others, it's not "calling out" anyone to blame someone for the work of others, and contrary to your suggestion, it is NOT proper academic practice.


      The first sentence of the abstract already reads "The objective of this study has been to confirm the sex and the affinity of an individual buried in a well-furnished warrior grave (Bj 581) in the Viking Age town of Birka, Sweden."

      That is the sole point the study adds - the sex and affinity. The rest is information preestablished by others and properly referenced. Misrepresenting the claims of the study is, sorry, dishonest and unworthy of academic discourse.

    4. Anonymous13/9/17 07:19

      @Hydroxide - Affinity and sex isn't the only objective of the article, and to suggest that any given article's body is accurately and wholly described by the abstract is wry comedy.

      It is appropriate to blame an academic for applying data from an article that doesn't support their argument. To say it's properly referenced and so the author's job is done, and that any blame for inaccuracy is the fault of the referenced author is (a) not engaging with arguments of the blog post, which criticises the misuse of referenced material, which you've just let slide ; and (b) simply ignores the probability that an author not assessing the validity and accuracy of a work they're referencing demonstrates either academic laziness or confirmation bias.

      As the author of this post posts out, the article draws very hasty conclusions. Hasty conclusions are usually due to either academic laziness or confirmation bias.

      A exploration of these factors in influencing the conclusions of papers is always worthy of academic discourse.

    5. I sort of agree with you on this, but OTOH I found it incredibly irritating that they tended to use "Female warrior" instead of "individual from Bj581", "our subject", "the buried female", or something like that. Once would have been enough of a hook for publicity, and then they could have used more precise and dry language thereafter.

      It doesn't really matter that they weren't the first to make the "female warrior" claim, since their work is almost exclusively about the "female" part of that - except for the naturally inconclusive absence of trauma they don't really touch on the "warrior" side of the claim. And I don't really see (in the absence of pathological findings of violent trauma) how they even could comment on the sociological part of "female warrior".

    6. Anonymous15/9/17 16:03


      The quote is still improper though. In academia you cannot say "well technically I wrote that my results showed x,y,z, but really my emphasis in that sentence is on Y." If you write down your results, it better be airtight. Their results showed that there was a female body in a grave that might have (or even was likely to have) belonged to a high ranking warrior according to previous studies. You cannot just say "grave Bj 581 on Birka was the burial of a high ranking female Viking warrior". This is a factual statement they had no basis for, since much of that sentence was not drawn from their results, and it even seems unlikely that a referenced study could have made a factual statement about the profession of whoever was buried in that grave. This is how you make people think certain things are confirmed facts, when they are not.

    7. @Hydroxide

      I don't think you understand what a "Discussion" section is in an academic paper. If they were merely concerned about the sex and affinity of the remains, they would have left it at that. But they framed the study contextually, and that matters. In fact, by relying on previous studies for this context in their intro and discussion, they either assume the validity or illegitimacy of of said studies. If they didn't intentionally seek to confirm or disprove previous research, they shouldn't have evoked it in the first place. Also, considering the relationship with politics and funding, you'd be incredibly naive to presume something like "'previous arguments have ... neglected intersectional perspectives'" is weightless, meaningless.

      Let's not fool ourselves. While their findings may be legitimate, which isn't really even being questioned here, how the author's discuss those findings in the larger context of the discussion/debate surrounding the subject matter is important, which is well evidenced by how their finding is used. The failure to consider alternative perspectives (if it's even their place to consider any perspective at all!) regarding the historic/cultural nature of the subject is the ultimate confession and impact of their research, no matter how scientifically valid their methods. The only reason anyone even cares about the sex/affiliation of the subject is with respect to what it can tell us about history. So the author's were disingenuously (read: unscientifically) weighing in on an existing discussion and how they have done so is what's being debated here because, again, that's been the "real" impact of their study.

    8. Hydroxide15/9/17 23:15

      @Tona Aspusa and Anonymous
      Sorry, but yes, they have a basis for that statement. Once more, it's not their own idea, it's one they have referenced and is based on previous research not by them. It's not their job and not their responsibility to recheck every bit of research done previously. That's why you reference points that have been established previousy, and the identification as a warrior has been referenced many times in the introduction. That's how academic writing works. That's why we have references. Practically every single point criticised is not the interpretation of the authors, but frequently double-referenced, state of the research held for half a century or more. If you have a problem with that interpretation, you should address those publications. So yes, you can say "I write A, B, C" but only claim C as my own finding, when you solidly reference A and B - as the authors have done.


      Thank you, but having a PhD in sciences, I know very much what a discussion section is. Its purpose is not the least to discuss the meaning of your results against their context. And you happily ignore that the identification as a warrior is already done in the introduction ("One warrior grave, Bj 581, stands out as exceptionally well-furnished and completeOne warrior grave, Bj 581, stands out as exceptionally well-furnished and complete (Arbman, 1941; Thålin-Bergman, 1986) ).

      Your suggestion that "If they didn't intentionally seek to confirm or disprove previous research, they shouldn't have evoked it in the first place." demonstrates a rather poor understanding of scientific publishing on your part. Context matters. And they did seek to confirm previous research, namely the osteological analysis.

      As for the rest of your statement, given the fact that you accuse them of failing to consider alternative perspectives, despite the fact that they do precisely that, it's not really worthwhile going any further. They explicitly point out the consequences for the interpretation of this and other graves and whether the presence of weapons alone is sufficient to assess a body (not just this body) as a warrior and a man, as has been practiced for more than a century.

      You clearly have an axe to grind and are willing to resort to fabrication in that crusade. Your accusation of disingenuous and unscientific behavior, I'm afraid, is projection.

    9. Anonymous10/9/18 12:59

      A lot of special pleading here in defense of this study. Most readers will see through it.

    10. @Hydroxide
      The entire discussion section is dedicated to argumentation for the interpretation that the body belongs to a high ranking female warrior. The sentence: "Furthermore, the exclusive grave goods and two horses are worthy of an individual with responsibilities concerning strategy and battle tactics." is repeated in two places. The conclusion is: "This study shows how the combination of ancient genomics, isotope analyses and archaeology can contribute to the rewriting of our understanding of social organization concerning gender, mobility and occupation patterns in past societies." The authors clearly go beyond the research questions you pose in their interpretations, even though the experimental work is limited only for studying these questions. The interpretations in the discussion section are not drawn from the references, but instead are made to challenge the existing interpretations made in the referred articles, although the conducted experimental study does not provide any support to these arguments. The criticism is therefore justified.

    11. Wow, Hydroxide has gone from defending a work based on what I consider to be profoundly dishonest grounds to psychoanalyzing their critics. Or are they using divination to determine other people's motives? Well, never mind that.

      The point of the original blog post is that in addition to their presumably sound scientific work identifying the remains as being those of a woman, the authors make the strong claim that the remains were those of a warrior, a claim not addressed, let alone supported by their evidence. Instead, Mr or Ms Hydroxide claims that the subject's profession was not a subject of the paper at all! Well, of course not, the authors do explicitly state what their aims were and they didn't include determining if the remains belonged to a warrior. They just assume that they do because somebody else said so.

      But, you see, when wandering outside one's field one becomes vulnerable to misunderstanding or misapplying the results of other fields. The responsible thing to do then is to have the work reviewed by someone/s in that field; or perhaps just note that the question is of interest to (let's say) archaeologists, express a pious wish that the current work will prove useful to them, and leave it at that. All which is unfortunate, because this paper is indeed of interest and the popular misunderstanding distracts from its actual results; but it would be irresponsible to let the popular misunderstanding pass refuted. While the identification of the body as both female and Nordic is good information, those are in the end mere facts. The authors' methodological conclusion--that outdated assumptions concerning gender and the interpretation of archaeological context have lead researchers astray, and a broader view is required--are quite well taken, I think, and quite important.

      If one is going to declare a "female Viking warrior confirmed by genomics," one had better be able to sustain both the woman and the warrior parts. But one isn't, is one?

    12. Some comments on Weapons. Swords were considered inferior to Spears. Alexander the Great when his spear was broken, left the group he was leading to get a new spear, even through he still had his sword.
      Now, when we get to the Roman Empire, you see the sword upgrade, but in two ways. First, was in the Greek report of the two spears the Romans carried and that once both spears were gone, the Roman Soldier would NOT retreat like Alexander the Great but stay in his place and fought with his sword. Many people on the net had taken this to mean Roman Maniples and Centuries primary weapon was their sword, but based on the Greek reports I believe the smaller spear was a javelin and thrown but the other spear was used as a pike and only when it was lost, broke or had to be dropped for both sides were to close to use them, the Romans would NOT go get another spear but stay in place and used their sword.
      The other purpose of the Sword from Roman Times onward was as a symbol of command. The leader of a Company or Battalion of troops would hold his sword over his head as something the rest of the men under his command and see AND FOLLOW. This used of the sword was done as late as the US Civil War, where General Albert Johnston put up his sword and picked up a cup to tell his men this was all the lot he was going to get till they won the battle and used the Cup as a he would have used a sword for his men to follow him and to direct any attack by pointing the cup/Sword in any one direction.
      This was well established practice, so well established that by the 1700s the British were no longing sharpening their swords, but left the, blunt for they were used to direct troops NOT to be actually used in combat.
      Thus the sword buried with this person may just be a sword used to direct others not for actual use, i.e a symbol of rank not something to be used in actual combat. Thus the spear may be more important then the sword, but even spears can be symbols of rank.

    13. Let's be direct and honest.

      This article should have never been published with the title it has.

      All this debate is moot.

      The chain of custody for the evidence from the burial site, in this case the bones, cannot be accounted for. It is a broken chain a custy and has been broken for over a 100 years.

      It is impossible at this point for them to validate and confirm the bones tested are in fact the same bones from that burial site. It has already been noted in the supporting Documents of the paper, that there was some doubt as to the bones being properly labeled, and there were multiple examples of cross contamination of bones being with cremated sites, and multiple people's bones being in bags only supposed to having one person.

      You cannot publish a paper honestly and ethically, claiming to have proven there was a female buried in that site, when it is impossible to confirm or prove that the bones tested were in fact from that site. This is making a statement as if fact, based solely on speculation and wishful thinking.

      It is dishonest and unethical. It goes far below the standards of any sound science whatsoever, and the fact that it has caused a firestorm of debate and articles all over the Internet by those ignorant of this fact, has done nothing but spread misinformation and further proliferate ignorant thinking all because of wishful thinking. There is such a drive to somehow prove the existence of female Warriors from the past, that those with this ideology and world view are willing to what should be fact based studies,to instead become contaminated and turned into nothing but tabloid pseudo junk articles wrapped in the guise of being proven through science, when in reality it is anything but.

      You have people all over claiming this proves the claims to be true, and TV shows like History Channel's Vikings, which erroneously has shield maidens running around everywhere as if commonplace, Is now being claimed as historical fact because of absurd papers such as this jumping to conclusions that aren't supported or backed up by any facts whatsoever.

      Aside from the fact that you can totally provide reasonable explanations as to the contents within graves, and it has been proven that grave contents doesn't necessarily have any relevance as to the person and what they did in life.

      There is so much speculation being thrown around as if fact, it is absolutely nauseating and depressing to see that people involved in research that should be considering every possible explanation before coming to a conclusion, is throwing Critical thinking to the wind in order to push a political or ideological narrative.

      When it comes to this particular case however, all the arguing is moot because the bones cannot be proven to be from the burial site in the first place, so it was a complete waste of time and a ridiculous paper to write. It proves nothing whatsoever.

      If you had a prosecutor come in to try to prosecute somebody accused of murder, but the chain of custody was broken and there is no way to validate the evidence as being legitimate and from the crime scene, do you think they would declare him guilty and use that evidence as fact? Of course not.

      Anyone acting as if this somehow proves anything at all, is ignoring fact based evidence in favor of wanting to prove somehow an ideological narrative or world belief and is grasping at anything they can to do so.

  4. Thank you for your thought on this matter Judith. Every time I read an article on this subject, I always wonder, but what does Judith think?

  5. Fantastic and lucid critique! I am a PhD candidate in bioarchaeology, which is positioned at the nexus of "natural science" and "social science," and I had many of the same issues you raised. The authors absolutely do not critically examine the social science aspects of this topic, and seem to jump from data to speculation rather quickly and conveniently. But, you said it much better and more thoroughly! I hope many people read this blog post, or that your reasoned critique otherwise disseminates into the social-networking ether!

    Best Regards!

    Mark T., University of Nevada Las Vegas

    1. Hydroxide11/9/17 19:18

      Why should the author examine the social science aspect of the topic when that is not the topic of their study at all and not their field of expertise? This is a brief communication with a very narrow objective, and as far as that objective is concerned, they do not speculate at all. Anything else is a topic for other authors and other studies, not for this one.

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. Thank you very much for providing reasoned commentary and thoughtful criticism of this issue. I read all the supporting documentation as well, and I support your cause - we should be looking deeper and have a fact based debate about these findings and conclusions. All in all, the whole thing is exciting and intellectually challenging.

  8. Very good remarks, and I agree that there is still a lot to discuss on the subject: if she wasn't a warrior, why would her relatives or whoever buried her want her to look like one? Being a historian of religion, Skaði of course springs to mind. What symbolism is at play here? It also questions whether other warrior burials, but containing men. Where they actual warriors or is it a symbolism of power? The fact that she has no detectable wounds, does that say anything on warfare and the leaders in war? *generals far behind the lines*

    1. Anonymous13/9/17 07:58

      I'm not the author, but if there is uncertainty about which grave the body came from, which is raised in the post, the woman may not have been buried that way at all.

      I've participated in analysing skeletons for evidence of occupation. Like how textile workers' bodies have particular traits relating to what they do all day (posture related shaping and arthritis), warriors would be expected to not only have wounds, but have skeletal wear and tear that indicates athletic activity (ankle, knee and hip joint rubbing) and repetitive strain injuries such as shoulder actuator or cuff wear and tear on a sword arm, or calcification on a shield arm, or overdevelopment of areas that carry armour, etc.

      I'm not as ofay of Viking culture as the author of this blog, but if the woman is over thirty, I don't think she'd had been drafted into the army at 29 and buried as a 'high ranking' fighter eighteen plus months later. It's reasonable to expect a high-ranking, 30yo warrior would have been in the job a decade, her body would feature wear and tear as above. Seeing as it's almost impossible for a pro basketballer to get to thirty without a job related fracture or ligament tear, I don't believe it possible that a professional warrior wouldn't have a professional injury at the same age, even if that's just a forearm fracture or evidence of wrist RSI from operating a bow every day for fifteen years. The (lack of) physical evidence is so unlikely it deserves lengthy justification as a conclusion, or so exceptional that it needs lengthy discussion in itself before being presented as support for something else.

      As for generals staying far behind the lines - I don't think vikings fought like that. Again, I'm not a Viking historian or a warrior anthropologist, but my understanding is that generals were full participants, if not charge-leaders, until the 15th or 16th Century - certainly there are too many battlefield fatalities of kings and generals from historical record of the period in question to tally here. I think, again, a non-combatant leader in a Viking culture is probably so exceptional as to require further investigation rather than be presented as evidence leading to the conclusion presented in the paper.

    2. Hydroxide13/9/17 14:45

      The interpretation as a warrior, however, is not a claim of the authors of the study being discussed, but something that has been generally accepted for decades and quoted and referenced by the authors. So criticising it for this publication is barking up the wrong tree. If you consider it unlikely this person was a warrior, then take it up with those people who made that claim based on the grave goods alone.

    3. Anonymous10/9/18 13:09

      I'm sorry, but this is not the way good science should work. If you are citing previous literature, you should be flagging whether there are any ambiguities in the said cited literature, and if you are not capable of making that assessment, you should not cite it, or the very least be up front about this (putting material is the Supp Info is not being "up front"), so that the readers will know they need to make their own informed judgment. This is particularly the case when the literature being cited is so essential to the contextualization of the study's results that the authors choose to stress the "female Viking warrior" interpretation in the article's title. Other readers here have highlighted these points, and your responses to them are patently misdirection. But thank you for providing some nice examples of motivated reasoning and logic fails for my undergraduate "Bad Science" module this coming semester.

  9. Anonymous12/9/17 09:10

    Thank you! Finally a bit of rational thinking and not simply mindless, sensationalist tweeting of "facts" that are not facts at all.
    I have rarely witnessed so intense misuse of words such as "fact", "science", "know" and "proof" as I have seen in social media comments on this DNA study.

  10. Anonymous13/9/17 06:03

    I'm not very impressed with the assertions in this post. When men are found in graves with those grave-goods and laid out that way it's always assumed to have been a warrior and chieftain, nobody ever assumes otherwise even in the absence of damage to the bones etc. We never assume a man buried with weapons and armour isn't a warrior but was just buried with weapons for some other reason.

    The question of whether the bones really are the ones from the grave are another matter entirely but in that regard I'll wait for the opinion of an actual archaeologist or DNA expert .

    1. "When men are found in graves with those grave-goods and laid out that way it's always assumed to have been a warrior and chieftain "

      That is because it is a valid assumption. The overwhelming majority, like a million to one, of warriors in world history have been male, why would you question? The whole reason anyone is interested is because this is so extraordinarily unusual.

  11. Anonymous13/9/17 07:05

    Could well have been a woman of high standing buried as an honorary warrior, for achievements of note but not on a battlefield

  12. Personally I think all this does is bring up more questions. I'm sure, from saga references, and now this grave, that there were female warriors. I'm also sure that they were extremely rare, as those same saga references, and this single piece of very controversial evidence imply.

    I'm not an academic, just a re-enactor, although I do it for money, so I try and make sure that everything I tell people is evidence based and up to date. For me this another useful discussion point. The one thing I do try to do, though, is dissuade people from the idea of hordes of Viking warriors with loads of female warriors fighting alongside them men. I'll never say there were definitely no female warriors, because of the reasons above, but I think they would have been strange and unusual women.

  13. Great read. Thanks.

  14. Interesting read, thank you Judith Jesch.
    Even as a total layperson the overuse of "warrior" in the article irked me a bit, and I'm glad that actual professionals feel the same way.

    If we bypass the issue of whether it's the right bones tied to the right grave (I did think the authors briefly touched on that), this brings up so many questions, both about the individual and the interpretation of grave goods in general.

    Again as a layperson I've always felt a bit skeptical about far reaching hypotheses based on grave goods, and wondered if these ideas maybe tell us more about the times when they were made, than about the situation prevailing at the time of burial. Humans are beings of great imagination, and once a picture if painted of what this or that means or symbolizes it is hard not only to dislodge that picture but also to prevent further ideas being built upon it.
    Uncritically equating being buried with weapons as denoting a military profession could lead us to all kinds of weird ideas. Not to mention that unless we have an idea why grave goods were used in the first place, what the function of this custom was, all our speculations might lead us far into deep forests (I'm reminded of an old joke piece in Reader's Digest ca1968 which posits a 1967 motel room as a burial vault and goes into excrutiating detail about the symbolical meaning of each object).
    So what is the meaning - and function - of weapons as grave goods? What is the meaning of jewellery? Pottery? Animals? Without knowing why and by whom decisions about burials were made, the only thing we could be even slightly certain of is approximate value.
    But then when we bury someone today, can we really infer any hard facts about the buried person based on the price of the coffin? We actually can't, not without interviewing the actual persons making the arrangements.

    That said, why is the idea of a female "warrior", or at least a person not averse to violence so strange, almost repugnant? (Gah, I really hate the word "warrior", especially in a pre-modern Nordic context. It may have a well defined meaning among scholars of the period, but in general language the connotations just feels utterly wrong in the context.)
    Are we maybe unthinkingly wanting to apply a dichotomy of violent - nurturing, just because it "feels right"? Are we influenced by a view of female violence as the ultimate taboo?

    If this is the right bones for the right grave, there is so much more I would like to know. Children. General health status. Cause of death. Possible familial relationships to other people buried at Birka. Possible familial relationships of the horses to other horses (actually, if you think about it, once DNA and isotope analysess gets even easier and cheaper applying them to domestic animals at a large scale might be extremely interesting).

    1. Hydroxide15/9/17 23:17

      "Even as a total layperson the overuse of "warrior" in the article irked me a bit, and I'm glad that actual professionals feel the same way."

      Actual professionals in what? She admits she's not a scientist and the article is a scientific article. The use of "warrior" in the article is referenced. Practically everything she criticises as an untowards interpretation is not an interpretation of the authors, but one they adopted from established research.

  15. Thank you for your insights on this. As someone who is passionate about "Viking" history, and who is known for that passion, I received more than a few requests for comment on the newly published study. This is all very reminiscent of last year's "half of viking warriors were women" media hype, all based on a study published in the same online journal that claimed half of Norse migrants were female. There is a longing for the concept of shield maidens to be true, a large portion of the general public want it to be true. It's as I always caution, history is too often bent and contorted to fit a specific narrative for political purposes. That's how the fascination with Vikings began, during the rise of nationalism and used as a device to reinforce the notion of divine purpose. Or something like that.

    Thank you for taking the time to respond to this renewed media hype about Viking warrior women.

  16. Anonymous15/9/17 18:01

    How about the fact that their bag of bones contained three femurs, which they admit but then refuse to speculate on what that means for the rest of their evidence? They just say they discarded the third one, and move on...

  17. Anonymous17/9/17 13:17

    All the philosophical ramblings above is of little value in relation to this topic until the main points has been fully adressed: [1] Is it for certain that the analysed bones (a tooth and a humerus) are from the right grave (Bj581), or can they have been mixed up with bones from other graves? [2] If there are uncertainties related to the origin of the analysed bones, what are the details of this uncertainty? [3] All potential uncertainties has to be painstakingly presented and methods to remedy these needs to be attempted. If the uncertainties can not be alleviated, the relevant science here will be forever flawed. DNA analysis has no value if you have analysed the wrong bones. (In addition we also need to feel fairly certain that grave Bj581 only contained a single individual.)

    Vegard Vike

    1. Wasn't it written in the findings that the bones analyzed were pen marked Bj581? From the original dig?

    2. Exactly. The chain of custody was broken. You can't arbitrarily take bones from a site on bags, knowing they're mixed up, and then just simply choose.
      Writhing this as a "breakthrough discovery " is dishonest and just as inexcusable as any tabloid spreading misinformation.

  18. Mauro Barausse3/10/17 14:10

    Thanks for this article, Judith! It's a relief! After seing all those people on social medias sharing links to articles about the Viking woman warrior, I felt like I was the only one who noticed the pretemptious interpretation of those DNA analysis.

    What made me more frustrated is that even Osteoarchaeology experts (from Leiden university, one of the best in the world) posted on facebook the link to the article. And, when I expressed my doubts about the study (the same ones you have), nobody replied. If I, who am just a normal Archaeology graduate and a postgraduate History student, have been able to immediately find irregularities in that publication, how is it possible that supposedly 'expert' people could have the nerve to write and to publish it?!

    Once more, thanks!

  19. Angela Gregoire Gray30/4/22 20:29

    I see here a great lot of theatrics and acrobatics to justify a BIAS held by individuals that no female warriors could have existed. I also see *historians*, who rely almost strictly on -- typically biased or otherwise culturally influenced, and frequently incomplete, inaccurate, or interpretive -- written accounts of others, demanding that interpretation of *physical evidence* be held to a higher standard than their OWN area of study.
    In fact, archaeology DOES strive to do so, and also seems to UPDATE it's interpretations based on new evidence.
    A commenter here literally stated that only MEN with warrior grace goods should be seen as warriors and that the standards should be different for women. This bias is exactly why it takes DNA studies to change the discourse about a SINGLE skeleton.
    As noted above, the skeletal remains were marked at the time of excavation - as is normal practice in archaeology, and has been for a very long time.
    As for the demand that referencing the accepted previous works of other experts and professionals is "not enough," it, too, is disingenuous. A simple look around this very website shows that is exactly the method of the author, herself.
    Simply put, ALL evidence -- historical writings of various sources, archaeology, genetics, etc -- points to there being FEW, but still some, females who were either warriors or acted as leaders and strategists (generals, essentially). This is not an unheard of phenomenon across the world. It is rare -- and no one here nor in any publication has suggested otherwise -- but it does occur.