Monday, 18 September 2017

Some Further Discussion of the Article on Bj 581

Since writing my previous blog post, I have been prevented, for a variety of personal reasons, from engaging in any way with the discussions that have raged about this matter on social and news media. I do see this as a blessing in disguise. As I said then, I do not think the complex matters raised in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology article entitled 'A female Viking warrior confirmed by genomics' lend themselves to the reductions demanded by Twitter, or the selection and rewriting that are inevitable when the press come calling for quotes.

Why am I writing again?

Now that I am back in harness, I do however feel it is my duty to come with some kind of response, even if not on Twitter or in the media. This is not least because my blog post has, at the time of writing this, had some ~60K pageviews. This is exactly 15x as many pageviews as my next most viewed blog post and far exceeds any expectations I might have had when writing. Such a reach for a matter which is essentially about the academic minutiae and the conventions of academic discourse certainly deserves public acknowledgement. I will discuss some aspects of this response below.

A further reason for writing, which I would like to but cannot ignore, is that I have been publicly challenged, in the New York Times, no less, by 'Mattias Jakobsson, a geneticist at Uppsala University and a co-author of the paper, adding: “We would like to urge her to send her critique to a peer-reviewed journal.”' The second purpose of this blog post is therefore to explain why I will not be submitting my 'critique' to a peer-reviewed journal and why I think that this is an inappropriate challenge.

The worldwide response

First, the easier question. My blog post was entitled 'Let's Debate Female Viking Warriors Yet Again' and this in itself reveals that my aim in writing was indeed to stimulate debate. This seems to have happened, in spades, and I am delighted that that has happened. On Twitter, and in the responses to my blog, I have generally found the debate to be thoughtful and considered, even when I thought the contributor was misguided, or hadn't really understood what I was saying. Responses have come from both layfolk and academics, from supporters and opponents (though I am sorry when the discussion does turn into a case of 'for' or 'against'). I'm pleased to say it has certainly stayed fairly polite, unlike what I gather some of the Facebook responses have been (mercifully I am not on Facebook), or some of the responses BTL in the popular press as outlined by my colleague Howard Williams on his blog recently. Many of these were perhaps responding to the original article, or how it was presented in the media, rather than to my blog post in particular and thus do not concern me here (though see below on the responsibility of academics in this age of open access). In this way, I feel I have achieved my aim in writing the blog in the first place - the debate has taken place. I am particularly proud of when I became a Twitter Moment (until this week I didn't even know what a Twitter Moment was and am still not very sure) - its headline was Prof adds a grain of salt to the 'female Viking warrior' story. A grain of salt is pretty much how I envisaged my contribution, and not a big bag of sodium chloride.

I would also point out that I have with one exception not censored the comments published on my blog, even though some of them are getting a bit repetitive and some I consider misguided. There was just one response which I chose not to publish simply because, though witty, I thought it had no real relevance to the current debate. That comment section is now closed, though I am for the moment happy to entertain comments on this post here.

The challenge

Although generally polite, many of the responses, from archaeologists and scientists in particular, have been quite firm in declaring me wrong. These commentators have made the following points, among others:
  • I am not a scientist and therefore not qualified to evaluate the science behind the article
  • other than the new scientific results presented in the article, all the information in the Am J Phys Anthropol article was 'pre-established' and therefore no longer a matter for discussion
  • they would believe a 'peer-reviewed article' over a 'blogpost' any day
  • I am out of order to complain about established reference conventions in scientific/archaeological journals
The challenge, as noted above, for me to present my 'critique' in a peer-reviewed journal is misguided and the challenger has I think not read my original blog post carefully enough. I made it pretty clear there that my concern was not with their results, but with the quality of their argument in the interpretation of those results. This poor quality that I think I have identified relates to all of the points raised above:
  • I did not claim to have any opinions about the actual scientific analyses reported in the article and would never do so. My critique was partly about (a) the foundations of and the evidence used in the scientific analyses and (b) about the historical interpretations of the scientific analyses. I think this is clear enough in the blog post and if any readers have not picked that up, they should read it again.
  • the article, despite all of its scientific apparatus, poses an essentially historical question, and frames this question using vague, unexplained and unsupported references to narratives, poetry and historical documents. This means that the article chooses to interpret its scientific results in a historical/literary framework, without having had the courtesy to understand, or correctly cite, the long-standing discussions that have taken place within that historical/literary framework.
  • on peer review, see further below. I would just point out that I was not presenting any counter-argument to the published paper, for people to 'believe', but pointing out what I considered to be deficiencies in the argument of the published paper.
  • I explained in the previous blog post why I did not think that a referencing system designed for short scientific articles was valid when citing books of several hundred pages and stand by what I said there. And is it not a fundamental principle of science that results should be reproducible? This should also apply to the thought processes behind the arguments as well as what happened in the lab.
Peer review

All academics understand that peer review is both necessary and imperfect. I find it particularly ironic that commenters are claiming the superiority of the article because it has been peer-reviewed and attacking me for daring to critique it without the benefit of peer review, because I do not believe that the peer review process at Am J Phys Anthropol has done the authors any favours at all, other than giving them a huge audience for their work.

Forgive me if I have misunderstood, but I assume that the peer reviewer(s) for Am J Phys Anthropol are not well-acquainted with Old Norse literature and Viking Age and medieval Scandinavian history and therefore are unlikely to have picked up on the deficiencies of the article in these areas. I do wonder though why they couldn't at least recognise that the article might have had more force if it had avoided straying into these areas, and simply presented its scientific results for others to interpret. Whether or not a board game indicates an 'officer' is hardly a matter that a physical anthropologist can determine.

More seriously, I am surprised that the peer reviewer did not pick up on the fact that the supposed osteological analyses which these latest genomic analyses are supposed to confirm are not properly referenced in the article. I have already pointed out the fact that the article provides no indication of where these osteological analyses can be checked. Even a Swedish archaeologist generally positive towards the article recognises that it is a bit slim in the information it provides and states the following:
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.
Kjellström may consider the issue uncontroversial but are we just to believe her? Why couldn't the authors have simply provided a proper reference to where the osteological analyses have been published?

Since writing my critique, I have discovered that there is still some doubt about both the bones themselves and the plan of the grave as published in the article. These doubts have been expressed in a draft response by Fedir Androshchuk. This is clearly a draft and should be taken as such, but at the very least it suggests some caveats which the authors really should have cleared up properly before doing their scientific analyses. Other highly respected Viking Age archaeologists have also expressed doubts about some aspects of the analysis and interpretation. Again, these are in some cases quite specialist doubts which were perhaps not so easily picked up by the anthropological peer reviewer.

I stated in my original blog post that I did not have a considered alternative hypothesis for Bj 581, and may never have. There is therefore nothing to submit to peer review. However, I do feel I am qualified to come with a critique (and once again I repeat myself), not of the 'results' of the investigation, but of the quality of the argument and the nature of its academic discourse. I myself am often asked to peer review articles, books or projects that are primarily in Viking Age archaeology (though usually with some interdisciplinary aspect) and there seem to be plenty of people out there who consider me able to do this. Indeed I have indirectly heard from some such authors that they have respected and appreciated my critiques. It is my strong view that, in this age of open access and public engagement, academics have an even stronger responsibility than before to present the best possible research to the general public as well as to fellow academics. Which brings me to my final point.

Academic responsibility

My colleague Howard Williams, in another one of his blogs on this issue, points out that 'this has become a story about modern identities, and perhaps also about the crisis of academics attempting to be both digital public archaeologists and public intellectuals.' The original article had a very arresting title which overstates the case made in the article itself. The article is open access and was clearly designed for maximum worldwide public impact, as indeed it proved. To my mind this indicates all the more reason for the doubts, caveats and issues of interpretation to be brought to the fore in the discussion and not brushed under the carpet. Precisely because this is an article clearly intended to have maximum public and popular impact, it is entirely appropriate for it to be critiqued, by me and others, in the public domain of social and news media, and not in some peer-reviewed article I may or may not write within the next year or two and have published within the next five or ten. In an era of open access we do a disservice to our readers by leaving out the processes by which we arrive at our conclusions and just feeding them the sensational results. Although a bit of a shot in the dark as to its potential audience, my critique was indeed aimed at those readers of the article who may not have been sufficiently well versed in Viking Studies to see that there were some holes in the argument. I am content that many lay readers (or experienced academic readers in other disciplines) have understood this, but you can't win'em all.


The last paragraph was going to be my final point, but there is one more thing worth mentioning. Many of the discussions of the original article, whether or not influenced by or in reaction to my blogpost, have turned on questions of gender fluidity, non-binary genders and similar matters, as for instance in a recent article in the Guardian, quoting Carolyne Larrington, and much of the Twitter and other discussion has turned on this matter. I would just point out that any such assertions still rely very heavily on various kinds of literary evidence, and that these texts should be subject to the same kinds of source criticism as the archaeological evidence. Interpretations of sagas are not set in stone, but in my experience few saga specialists have wanted to engage with archaeologists enough to help them work out what interpretations of these texts are plausible as evidence in conjunction with archaeological evidence when considering the Viking Age. There are many different kinds of relevant texts in Old Norse and other languages, and each genre has its own quirks and characteristics. All this, and the evolving context of literary study, has to be understood before these texts can be automatically transferred into more general historical or archaeological arguments. It's not an easy matter, and it's something I have been thinking about for most of my career, and occasionally expressed my views in writing on. It's also the kind of detailed study that some of my former PhD students have tackled, for example Roderick Dale on the berserkir and Teva Vidal on houses and domestic life. Both have been able to demonstrate the stratigraphy of certain sagas in ways that must please any archaeologist. Let us hope there is more such work forthcoming and that interdisciplinary dialogue, to which most Viking Age archaeologists of my acquaintance pay lip service, truly happens, in contexts which demand less disciplinary constraint than the Am J Phys Anthropol.


  1. I remember reading an article some years ago about reappraisal of finds from Viking mass graves in Britain. The bodies were previously thought to have been all male. However, closer osteoarchaeological analysis proved that several of them were women. They had sighs of not only having died in combat, that is their bones had cut marks not consistent with just having been butchered. The female skeletons also bore marks of healed wounds that suggested they had been wounded in previous battles. Since this was a mass grave most possibly dug by their enemies, they had no burial goods with them to cause any confusion. But the perhaps most interesting statement from the archaeologist was that it is usually enough to observe the upper arm bone or the femur (which is often best preserved) to decide the gender. However, among Scandinavians, the relative thickness of these bones do not differ much between the sexes. Anyone having met modern Scandinavian women will know what am talking about. The only way to be certain whether it is a male or a female is if you can extract DNA or find an more or less intact pelvis. But I cannot retrace the article and it is not my field of academical expertise which is 20th Century Warfare. Frode Lindgjerdet

  2. Oh, this is a great response. LMAO. Am J Phys Anthropology is NOT the place for nuanced discussion of gender in Norse culture. Bioarchs, in my experience in the U.S., understand the difference between gender and sex and there was a clear distinction in the article. The article in question has good evidence the sex is female. What social role that person played is another ball game entirely as you pointed out, and the historical evidence in the article offered additional historical possibilities but would be insufficient by other discipline's standards. Looking at it, I think the archaeology and the science of the article is solid, as is the context of the artifacts. Sorry your experience with your blog response has been so crazy (alt-right neopaganists, I'm guessing). This, for me, is why we do archaeology. The texts don't have all the answers, and what's in the ground forces us to confront our modern preconceptions of gender.