DNA rewrites history with proof that women were Viking warriors

11 Sep 2017

Image: Selenit/Shutterstock

DNA evidence from a Viking grave has returned a startling result, proving for the first time that men were not the only warriors in society.

For centuries, our image of the Vikings as a war-like people led by men with long hair and thick beards has remained the same, but that is about to change, following a breakthrough discovery.

In a paper published to the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, a team of researchers from Uppsala University in Sweden revealed its findings after examining a famous and unusual Viking grave from the middle of the 10th century.

Analysis of the morphology of the skeleton’s traits suggested that the warrior was actually a woman, contradicting centuries of belief.

Aided by genetics testing, the archaeogeneticists and archaeologists worked together to determine that the buried warrior carried two X chromosomes and no Y chromosome, and thus the first woman Viking warrior was confirmed.

Isotope analyses also confirmed that the woman lived a travelling lifestyle, which would make her well in tune with the martial society that dominated between the 8th and 10th century in northern Europe.

Viking warrior grave

Illustration made by Evald Hansen based on the original plan of the grave by excavator Hjalmar Stolpe, published in 1889. Image: Uppsala University

An officer

Among her remains were a number of belongings intended to accompany her to an afterlife, including a sword, armour-piercing arrows and two horses.

She even had a board game that included a full set of pieces, which the study’s lead, Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson, believes suggests she held a high status.

“The gaming set indicates that she was an officer, someone who worked with tactics and strategy, and could lead troops in battle. What we have studied was not a Valkyrie from the sagas, but a real-life military leader that happens to have been a woman,” she said.

Despite the discovery of a woman Viking warrior, the culture’s literature did little to indicate that they were particularly common, as Uppsala professor Neil Price explained.

“Written sources mention female warriors occasionally, but this is the first time that we’ve really found convincing archaeological evidence for their existence,” Price said.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic