17 December 2019

Viking Warrior Women - More of the Same? I

MM131 Andreas II
Viking Age runic cross from the Isle of Man,
commemorating a certain Arinbjǫrg
I never for a moment thought the fascination with the possibility of female Viking warriors would go away. After all, I have already argued that this fascination goes back at least as far as the Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus writing in Latin around 1200, and since then it has come back at regular intervals. Way back in 1991, I suggested (and I was not the only one) that Saxo's warrior women owed more to Amazons than to Vikings (Women in the Viking Age, p. 178). This is an aspect I have touched on in some talks over the past year, and which I am developing for a proper academic article in the near future, for those who think (with some reason) that blogs are not an appropriate venue for such discussions. In the meantime, of course, the proponents of the Birka warrior (Bj 581) continue to pop up all over the place. I have already discussed a brief reference in the Channel 4 programme Britain's Viking Graveyard, last April, so won't repeat myself about that. Howard Williams will fill you in on the Megan Fox approach to the topic. What I thought I would survey in this blog post and the next are three recent television programmes which take the discussion in new directions, not all of them entirely negative. I'm not going to rehearse arguments which have already been aired ('what is a "warrior" exactly?', 'do board games really indicate military leadership', etc. etc.) but try to see what directions these programmes are taking the debate in, since judging by the number of TV programmes just within the last year, the debate is being conducted on the airwaves more than in academic fora.

Den kvinnliga vikingakrigaren

This programme , the title of which translates as 'The female Viking warrior', was first aired on Swedish television in August of this year and is still available (in Swedish, though some interviews are in English). Although the main heading on the website describes it as a 'documentary', this is nuanced a bit in the paragraph below, which claims it is a 'drama documentary' based on 'research results'. It is basically a dramatisation of what the life of the person buried in Bj 581 'could have been like'. I will leave others to decide how well they think it works as a drama - in these contexts fiction is not my business. However, it seems clear enough to me that the dramatisation (which is only about half of the programme, interspersed with more academic content) seems designed to give further credence to those 'research results' to a wider audience. The programme makes brief reference to the 'international debate' those results caused back in 2017, without giving any sense of what the debate might have been about. Some of the interviews are with the archaeologists involved in the original research, and Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson in particular is worth listening to in her explanation of the importance of roles, and of belonging to a group, which I agree is an important aspect of the Viking Age. Other interviews are clearly designed to give the drama bit a sheen of academic credibility but they don't really explain anything. Thus Elisabeth Ward gives some useful information about Iceland, Greenland and North America, based on the sagas of Icelanders, but there is no explanation of why or how these sagas might be relevant to understanding the Bj 581 burial, it is just assumed that they are. This assumption that what happened in one part of 'Viking society' can explain what happened in another part of 'Viking society' is shared by Janina Ramirez who also generalises about 'Viking society' without reference to any actual evidence - her comments are all based on, and obviously meant to support, the narrative of the drama. At the same time, and somewhat paradoxically, the programme refers to 'Byzantine sources' as evidence for female warriors. This idea is crucial to the development of the narrative, which envisages the Birka person as having travelled to and to some extent developed her martial skills in the East - here we are presented with a rather distinct part of 'Viking society' when it suits the story. The programme several times makes the suggestion that Freyja was a goddess of war (the evidence for this is actually quite limited and mainly from Snorri), and the implication that she was therefore a goddess for female warriors. Also, my favourite bugbear, the word 'Viking' itself, makes some annoying appearances. The archaeologist Leszek Gardeła, asserts that 'Saxo talks about Viking women', but Saxo never used the word 'viking', and of course Saxo is problematic as I keep saying. And Ramirez asserts that 'the Vikings did not call themselves Vikings', but they did! She also says that what they did say is that they would 'go a-viking', implying that it is a verb, which it patently is not. Yes, yes, I know I'm nitpicking, but even so, let's get it right folks.

The programme is yet another example of what I have called 'a view of research ... which fills out our meagre evidence with speculation and imaginative reconstruction' which 'can lead to the blurring of the line between primary research and public presentation'. It's a difficult balance to manage in these days when academics are practically required to engage with the general public and I know how difficult that can be. I'm not sure how successful this programme is as drama - the story is interesting enough but could have been more so. It is clearly devised to reinforce the research results and the interspersed interviews tend to disrupt any flow it might have had. I cannot see this programme as anything more than yet another attempt to lodge the interpretations of the 2017 and 2019 articles even more firmly in the minds of the general public and cut off further discussions. I am still uneasy with the 'docudrama' format, since the 'docu' bit is just there to support the drama, and doesn't allow for any ambiguities in the interpretation of the evidence, let alone any counter-evidence. A proper documentary, however, can be expected to present different interpretations, no?

Viking Warrior Women

So is this programme such a documentary? It was first aired (in Britain at least) on the National Geographic Channel earlier this month, I assume it is regularly repeated. This programme is more closely focused on archaeology, which is I think a good move, since previous attempts have come a bit unstuck on the literary and linguistic aspects. Nevertheless, the credits show that Neil Price was a consultant on the show, so it is once again a show with a mission (as the presenter, an 'archaeologist and National Geographic explorer', admits). As the presenter, Ella El-Shamahi, is not to my knowledge a Viking archaeologist, she plays the traditional role of the non-specialist presenter being informed by a variety of experts, most of whom have already appeared in previous TV shows about this topic. One could almost get a bit bored... (Disclaimer: a few years ago, when National Geographic was first thinking about this programme, they got in touch with me with a view to interviewing me for it. For whatever reason known only to them, that never happened).

The non-specialist presenter is of course allowed to say things like 'It's always been assumed that Viking warriors were all men' or 'what is being revealed right now is transforming everything we thought we knew about the Vikings and how their women might have gone to war' to big up the programme, even though they are patently untrue. Again, there is the formulaic reference to the fact that Bj 581 is 'causing controversy in Viking archaeology' but without really explaining what that controversy might consist of. But heyho, a good controversy will make the programme seem even more cutting-edge and relevant and all that. And I'm afraid the word 'badass' is used of the occupant of Bj 581...sorry but it grates in something intended to be serious.

The content of this programme is really rather interesting, as it draws on the research of the aforementioned Leszek Gardeła, and Marianne Moen from Oslo, regarding certain Viking Age graves in Denmark and Norway which could also be interpreted as being those of 'warrior women'. What interests me is the questions that the programme raises without answering, or sometimes even without recognising that they are interesting and important questions (I suppose the downside of having a non-expert presenter). An example is how an examination of the Bj 581 skeleton moves very quickly from the width of the greater sciatic notch being 'in keeping with a female pelvis' to it is 'of course female'. But OK, I'm willing to take the osteoarchaeologist's word on this matter. In other cases, there is a real lack of information.

The programme is about two graves, in addition to Bj 581, one Danish and one Norwegian. On the Danish island of Langeland, there is apparently one (out of 49) graves that has been identified as female, but never before as a warrior. (Leszek admits at this point that 'I don't think this [i.e. women warriors] was very common but they certainly existed'). What makes her a warrior? Well, she has an axe, a battle-axe in fact, and indeed one that was 'crafted hundreds of miles to the east'. Does one axe (especially an exotic one) make a woman a warrior? I'd like to have heard more about that. But it is a high-status chamber grave, so with some parallels (including the eastern connection) with Bj 581. Lots to discuss here, but it is not discussed much.

The presenter and Moen then make a pilgrimage to Åsnes, in Hedmark, Norway. Here, there is a grave discovered in 1900 which contained a 'kvinneskjelett med mannsutstyr' (a woman's skeleton with a man's equipment), according to a contemporary monument on the spot (a fascinating object in its own right, as Moen points out). This skeleton is the piece de resistance of the programme, since her grave goods, along with a wound on her forehead interpreted as a battle-scar, are the evidence for her having been a warrior. What I'm interested in is how, in 1900, the archaeologists decided it was a female skeleton? They certainly didn't have the advanced techniques used on the Birka 'warrior'. Given what we're told about Victorian (and later) preconceptions about Viking warriors being all male, what led the 1900 archaeologists to decide the skeleton was female? And do specialists still agree with this assessment? We are not told. We are only told by the presenter that 'not everyone agrees', but we are not told who disagrees, nor are any such people interviewed. Academic discussion is reduced to a one-way monologue by experts on a mission. I was particularly annoyed by the presenter's comment about these '[n]ew discoveries that I really hope will challenge what some people still refuse to believe, that there's evidence out there that not only did elite female viking warriors exist but that they had the skills and the weapons to fight on the battlefield alongside men'. It's not a matter of 'belief', dear TV presenters all, just let us into the secrets of the evidence!

Despite these caveats, there were one or two good bits in the programme. I did quite like the suggestion that the occupant of Bj 581 was a high status mounted archer. But does this imply that s/he was a warrior or a leader? Could she have been an aristocratic lady who liked hunting? I can't help but remember the riding and hunting imagery on some of the Manx Viking Age crosses, several of which commemorate women. This needs some more digging, including the implication that burials with horses suggest that the occupants were riders.  Well, yes, people with sufficient wealth probably did ride horses (in the summer), but does this make them a warrior, or a hunter, or could the horses have other meanings? I don't know, just asking for a friend.

The excellent Cat Jarman was also a refreshing interviewee on the programme regarding the female skeletons at Repton. Ignoring the presenter's astonishment ('it's previously been thought that Viking women were left at home' - no, Dr El-Shamahi, see Jesch 1991 and others), Cat made the important point that, yes, 'women were in some way part of moving out of Scandinavia, they weren't just sitting at home, looking after the farm'. But what part they played in this process is certainly multifarious, complex, and still to be discussed.

While these two programmes had some good bits, on the whole they were both mainly designed to reinforce the PR machine that has grown around the Bj 581 project. There is one other recent programme which does, however, in my view, begin to really have the more nuanced and important discussions that this topic needs. I'll let that programme have its own blog post, so stay tuned for 'Viking Warrior Women - More of the Same? II'.

1 comment:

  1. 'Den kvinnliga vikingakrigaren' now available in France: https://www.arte.tv/fr/videos/092115-000-A/les-guerrieres-vikings/