On the same basis as we tend to interpret most graves, this would be the burial of a shieldmaiden. All these finds are from the Viking Age itself, these are not from the literary text world of the sagas. This is the Viking Age as it really was ~ Neil Price
In interpreting such individuals, we must question our assumptions and categories. What constitutes a weapon or a warrior, and how might we tell? What links do we make between buried individuals and the items accompanying them? What are our perceptions of gender and personal identity? How do we extrapolate from archaeologically recorded individuals to society in general? We must be especially aware that such perceptions are ours and not necessarily those of Viking Age people. Similarly, such critique must be applied broadly, and not just in contexts where the implications are inconvenient for preconceived interpretations. In that light,we also need to examine ourselves as scholars—our own biases and prejudices—asking what we are prepared to ﬁnd acceptable in the past,and why.
We have not ‘gone looking’ for female Viking warriors. The case of Bj.581 arose after the discrepancy in sex determination was discovered through Kjellström’s original study on the Mälar population (see the OSM); since then, we have followed the trail of data and analysis. Similarly, the DNA work that conﬁrmed the female sex of the individual was part of a much larger genomic study, not speciﬁcally directed at Bj.581.
We feel no intrinsic need for there to have been a female warrior buried in the grave, nor for such individuals to have existed more widely. We simply ﬁnd it interesting that this seems to have been the case. In the course of our research—and even more so after the 2017 publication—it has been enlightening to discover how many people apparently need that not to be so. Time will prove us right or wrong, but we think it probable that more Viking Age female warriors will be found in the archaeological record—either as new discoveries or as reinterpretations of old ﬁnds, perhaps using genomics, as we have done.
Given the enormous numbers of buried individuals from this period that have been sexed only indirectly using associated artefacts, it is even possible that female warriors will eventually appear in some quantity. Currently, the ﬁgure of the woman with weapons seems to be an exception, but this does not mean that she can be deconstructed out of existence—especially on the basis of Pavlovian scepticism. She adjusts and nuances our interpretations, and challenges our stereotypes. She adds still further dimensions to our understanding of the Viking Age as a time of critical cultural transformation and social encounter.
Clearly, the investigation of Bj.581 has relevance for archaeological studies of gender (including feminist and queer theory), violence, mortuary behaviour, symbolism, and many other ﬁelds, both in general and with speciﬁc reference to the Viking Age. At the same time, the relatively meagre data from this single, unusual (and exceptional?) grave cannot be made to bear an inﬁnite burden of expectation and agenda—whether in support of or in resistance to, our conclusions.
This article is not, and for practical reasons cannot be, an attempt to achieve a greater understanding of Viking Age sex/gender systems in their totality. Instead, this is a case study that, in some ways, presents more questions than answers, but which also opens up previously unexpected possibilities. Not least, we stand before the collective corpus of excavated Viking Age burials with an urgent task of patient and careful reassessment, in relation to not only gender but also concerning the social signals encoded within every aspect of funerary ritual. In the speciﬁc case of Bj.581, of course, one may draw different conclusions, but the integrity of the grave and the biological sex determination are secure. It is now for others to decide how they deal with the wider implications.
Prof Neil Price August 2019