The Unexpected Side of History — Viking Edition

One of my favorite quotes is “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it” by Winston Churchill.  So much of history either is never documented — what self-respecting slave owner would ever admit he’d learned anything from a slave? — or is biased by modern interpretation.

Recently I found another example of the latter.  My “Inside National Geographic” email of December 11, 2017 reports that DNA tests on the bones from a thousand-year-old grave of a wealthy Viking warrior has revealed she was a woman!

The study, published recently in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, came as a major surprise to archaeologists.   “It was held up before as kind of the ‘ideal’ Viking male warrior grave,” says Baylor University archaeologist Davide Zori, who didn’t take part in this study. “[The new study] goes to the heart of archaeological interpretation: that we’ve always mapped on our idea of what gender roles were.”

Viking lore had always suggested women warriors; Zori knows of numerous Viking sagas, such as the 13th-century Saga of the Volsungs, that tell of “shield-maidens” fighting alongside male warriorsBut some archaeologists considered these accounts mythological embellishments — perhaps added due to contemporary interpretations of gender roles.

Since the late 1880s, archaeologists had assumed the “Birka warrior”  to be a man because of swords, arrowheads, a spear, and two sacrificed horses contained in the grave.

As National Geographic magazine reported in its March 2017 cover story on Vikings, when Stockholm University bioarchaeologist Anna Kjellström examined the warrior’s pelvic bones and mandible, their dimensions appeared to be female.

Kjellström’s analysis, presented at a conference in 2014 and published in 2016,  wasn’t automatically accepted.  Some thought there must be a mistake, perhaps mislabeled bones, especially since the site had first been excavated over 100 years ago.

To answer to doubters, a team led by Uppsala University archaeologist Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson extracted two types of DNA and got an unequivocal answer — the team didn’t detect any Y chromosomes in the bones, and the mitochondrial DNA from the various bones all matched.  The remains were from one woman.  And she was probably a warrior, perhaps even a tactician.  “On her lap she had gaming pieces,” said Hedenstierna-Jonson in a previous interview.  “This suggests that she was the one planning the tactics and that she was a leader.”

This is another caution to view the past with an open mind, not through modern standards.

The original article is “Famous Viking Warrior Was a Woman, DNA Reveals” at





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