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Bodies of Evidence: Gender and Viking Graves

Gender-related finds in Viking graves. Early Medieval weaving baton from West Yorkshire Archaeology Advisory Service, Amy Downes, 2012-07-27 14:40:08

Author Tenaya Jorgensen


What happens if when archaeologists excavate a Viking grave, but find no body inside? Are the grave goods found within enough to determine the identity – either sex or gender - of the individual? Perhaps it is time for archaeologists and historians to challenge their assumptions regarding the relationship between artefacts and gender. In order to move forward, we must also look back by re-examining the corpus of existing identifications and the reasons why those identifications were made in the first place.

My PhD dissertation is not about sexuality and gender. I had not intended to take a strong stance on gendered-issues, as my thesis attempts to chart an interdisciplinary macro-history of the Early Viking Age (790-920 AD). As such, there seemed to be little room within my area of study for the finer ruminations required for the discussion of identity politics.

But then I began to catalogue Viking Age Graves across Western Europe, and what I found - well, it bothered me. Of the 64 burial sites in Ireland, only 33 of these sites contained human remains. Of the remaining 31, the cemeteries and single burials were identified solely through grave goods. Similarly, in Scotland, 31 burial sites out of 60 evidenced human remains. The other 29 were, again, identified by Viking Age objects.

Why do we sex and gender Viking graves that contain no bodies?

While it is understandable that graves may be correctly identified through the use of grave goods, I was struck by the confidence with which scholars identified burials as either ‘male,’ or ‘female,’ depending on the assemblage provided.

For example, in the 1940s, Sigurd Grieg compiled Viking Antiquities in Scotland for Haakon Shetelig’s six volume compendium on Viking Antiquities in Great Britain and Ireland(1). Although now over eighty years old, Grieg’s work remains the most comprehensive survey available on Viking Age burials in Scotland. Only a few individual corrections have been made, but Grieg’s survey as a whole has not received any extensive updates, and these updates are much needed.

Grieg states that in 1862, “the skeleton of an aged man, interred with a sword and possibly with a shield,’ was excavated at Ardvonrig, on the Isle of Barra, in Scotland. Also discovered were a tortoise brooch, bronze brooch, bronze peninsular brooch, and a needle case, “evidently belonging to a woman’s grave.” The problem is, only one set of human remains was found. Despite the lack of a second body, Grieg stated that the “mound probably contained a double grave for a man and a woman.”(2) His assumptions were based only around the suggestion of weapons within the grave - no other justification was provided.

Fast forward to 1990, when Kate Gordon at the British Museum re-examined the excavated objects. She ultimately determined that the sword was not, in fact, a weapon, but a weaving sword/baton, while the shield was a pair of heckles, which are also textile equipment. Armed with the findings of her reanalysis, Gordon suggests that the individual buried at Ardvonrig, “in absence of osteological sexing, was almost certainly a female.”(3)

However, even Gordon’s reanalysis bothered me, for why must the individual buried on the Isle of Barra have been almost certainly a female? Marianne Moen’s 2019 PhD thesis, Challenging Gender: A reconsideration of gender in the Viking Age using the mortuary landscape, brilliantly examines this question by analysing common practices and separating exceptions from the rule.(4) That is to say, while women are often buried with textile equipment, and men are often buried with weapons, that does not mean that it is always so. This, of course, brings up a further difficult point regarding sex and gender. According to Jennifer Tseng in the American Medical Association Journal of Ethics, “sex refers to the biological differences between males and females. Gender refers to the continuum of complex psychosocial self-perceptions, attitudes, and expectations people have about members of both sexes.”(5) The former is much more straightforward - if we have a body, that is.

Gendered practices in Viking graves

There can be no conversation about gendering burial practices without mention of the Birka warrior. In 2017, archaeologists confirmed that a burial containing weapons could be positively associated with a female skeleton (Bj.581) through DNA analysis.(6) Response to their publication was swift, and the debate centered around whether the presence of weapons conclusively affirmed that the woman was, in fact, a warrior. The authors, with the addition of Neil Price from Uppsala University, offered a more nuanced take in 2019 when they published, ‘Viking warrior women? Reassessing Birka chamber grave Bj.581.’ While the first article meant to primarily address the genomic analysis, the latter article took greater care in examining the implications of both Viking Age funerary practices and archaeology, and ‘the ways in which we engender the societies of that time.”(7)

So how do we engender the Viking Age? Our representations of the Viking Age are coloured by societal norms of the 20th and 21st centuries - especially in popular culture and outside the confines of a sometimes rather sterile academic environment. That is to say, male biological sex was often synonymous with a man’s gendered identity, and that the role of a warrior was exclusively associated with men and males. As the authors of ‘Viking warrior women?’ themselves acknowledge, ‘the same interpretation [that the body of the warrior belonged to a man] would undoubtedly have been made had no human bone survived at all.’ While these authors suggest that this automatic conflation between men and swords was a product of its time (i.e., the late 19th century), they fail to acknowledge that these types of genderings are still occurring. Furthermore, we know these associations are still occurring today, because the survey of Ireland’s Viking Graves was only published in 2014, and in this survey, bodiless weapon burials are gendered as male.(8)

If we think twice about suggesting the presence of a male when a sword is discovered, can the truth also be said in reverse? If textile equipment is excavated, such as the baton and heckles found on Isle of Barra, does this mean we must automatically attribute the burial to a woman? While no biologically male burials have currently been identified with textile tools, many of the sites contain bodies of indeterminate sex - or simply no bodies at all. Furthermore, what of burials that contain both textile equipment and weapons, but with remains too insubstantial to be analysed for sexing? Moen states the simple and obvious truth: “we are simply asking the wrong questions. Perhaps less rigidity in expected gender roles may be the answer to how to interpret such apparently transgressive burials.”(9) Perhaps less rigidity in sexing burials is needed as well - for we have no sex without a body, and gendering burials based solely on grave goods can only limit our understanding of the people who lived during the Viking Age.

  • 1.Sigurd Greig, Viking Antiquities in Scotland, ed. Haakon Shetelig, VI vols., Viking Antiquities in Great Britain and Ireland, (Oslo: H. Aschehoug & Co., 1940).; Haakon Shetelig, Viking antiquities in Great Britain and Ireland, 6 vols. (Oslo: H. Aschehoug, 1940).
  • 2.Grieg, Viking Antiquities in Scotland, 72-3.
  • 3.Kate Gordon, “A Norse Viking-age grave from Cruach Mhor, Islay,” Proc Soc Antiq Scot 120 (1990), 153.; Shane McLeod, “‘Ardvonrig’, Isle of Barra: an appraisal of the location of a Scandinavian accopained burial,” Proc Soc Antiq Scot 145 (2015), 299-305.
  • 4.Marianne Moen, Challenging Gender: A reconstruction of gender in the Viking Age using the mortuary landscape, PhD Thesis, University of Oslo, 2019.
  • 5.Virtual Mentor. 2008;10(7):427-428. doi: 10.1001/virtualmentor.2008.10.7.fred1-0807.
  • 6.Hedenstierna-Jonson, C., et al., "A female Viking warrior confirmed by genomics." Am J Phys Anthropoly 164 4 (2017), 853-860.
  • 7.Price, N., et al., “Viking warrior women? Reassessing Birka chamber grave Bj.581.” Antiquity 93 367 (2019), 181-198.
  • 8.Stephen H. Harrison and Raghnall Ó Floinn, Viking Graves and Grave-Goods in Ireland, vol. 11, Medieval Dublin Excavations 1962-81, (Dublin: National Museum of Ireland, 2014).
  • 9.Moen, Challenging Gender, 121.