Better Identification of Viking Corpses Reveals: Half of the Warriors Were Female

Now, isn’t that a surprise? In most ancient societies, warriors were an elite class. If women were equal with men on the battlefield, it is more than likely they were equal in other areas of society, as well. This appears to be true of early Ireland, too, until something happened round about the C5th…

Better Identification of Viking Corpses Reveals: Half of the Warriors Were Female.

70 Comments on “Better Identification of Viking Corpses Reveals: Half of the Warriors Were Female

  1. Interesting article, nice picture. I think women have always had their place in all levels of society, including warfare. This find does not surprise me. Women held many a position of power and authority within the Celtic World prior to the insertion of Middle-Eastern religion into Europe and the Isles.

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    • They did Jack. When you say Middle Eastern I presume you mean the big C? Funny but I never thought of it in those terms. I lived in the Middle East as a child, Kuwait actually, and I always think of it as devoutly Moslem. You made me stop and double check for a minute there lol!

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      • Yes, Ali. Contrary to popular myth, Christianity like Judaism and Islam are all three Middle-Eastern religions, not Western religious beliefs or practices. The term “Western” applied to Judaism and Christianity relates to the separation of the Christians in Rome versus those in the East or Byzantine in 800 A.D. No matter where those three religions have spread throughout the world they are still Middle-Eastern religions: thoughts, beliefs and ideas on how the world and religion works from a Middle-Eastern not Western point of view. To have people believe that Judaism and Christianity are somehow Western belief systems is one of the great fallacies of all time.

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  2. The research report makes very interesting reading. It’s available free from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1468-0254.2011.00323.x/epdf

    As a person with a strong background in human anatomy and physiology, I was astonished to learn that the original examinations of the burials was so slipshod as to disregard skeletal anatomy and assume that the nature of the grave goods indicated the sex of the deceased. Mature male and female pelves are distinctly different in shape, even in the presence of deforming abnormalities, such as from rickets. And while I understand and agree with the point made that sometimes the most tell-tale part of the pelvis can be missing, if the woman had ever been pregnant, there would be marks on another part of the bone that would betray the female sex of the skeleton. Moreover, in addition to the cranial evidence cited (the angle of the forehead), female arm bones are shaped differently from the male. There is no excuse for such sloppy archaeology.

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    • I completely agree, Christine! I was amazed to learn that the skeletons were identified solely by the accompanying grave goods! It just goes to show the assumptions which are made, even today, and also why archaeology cannot be trusted for accuracy or even truth. So often the results are interpreted based on the archaeologist’s views and guesswork. Usually, anything which can’t be concretely explained (most of it) is attributed to ritual.

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      • Tolstoy believed that the reasons for all human behavior were so many, complex, and hidden, that it was impossible to know why anything happened in history: that there was no pattern to it. That’s probably why history is classified under fiction, instead of science.

        Have you ever served on a jury? I have, and even with the rules for evidence and testimony to help, it’s a lot of work to sort out what really happened. In ancient history, all of the witnesses are dead, and even if any of them left records, we have no way to cross-examine them, to find out if they’re lying, or even really understood what they were talking about.

        “Fact” sounds like a solid, truthful term, but “historical fact” can be extremely elusive; nevertheless, highly educated people, like archaeologists, cannot ethically make up the past. In this case, the facts are that some people were buried with some weapons and the brooches that fastened their clothing. Another fact, well known for a very long time, is that adult skeletal remains exhibit reliable anatomical evidence of their sex. It’s unfortunate that some archaeologists chose to fudge the facts to favor the “story” part of history.

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        • Beautifully put Christine! I long ago came to the conclusion that there is no such thing as fact, just interpretation. Everyone views an event from a different perspective, but which one is correct? Truth becomes irrelevant, and all that matters is what people believe, because that is what shapes history. I love the work archaeologists do, what they find amazes and excites me. I dont think though that they are neccessarily the best people to interpret what they find. Have you ever been to the Kingship and Sacrifice exhibition in Dublin? There was quite a bit of controversy over it, not least over the morality of publicly displaying peoples bodies. They couldnt exactly give their permission, could they? Anyway, its wonderful, fascinating, amazing, but I couldnt help feeling its all based on a lie. A body found in a bog with gruesome injuries does not make him a king who was ritually sacrificed! In fact, it seems that some of these injuries may be caused by the pressure of the bog itself, according to new thinking. Its all sensationalism without a shred of evidence. It winds me up lol! I have never served yet on a jury, thankfully, and hope I never have to. I’m sure you’re right though.

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          • Gosh Ali I always wondered about that, whether millenia in a bog would cause bodily damage. Sounds quite plausible, though I’m not scientifically knowledgeable enough to say exactly why. All I can think of is that the acidic conditions allowing a body to be preserved might also account for corosive injuries and also life forms in the bog, changing sedimentation, shifts in land levels, land and water pressure, those would it seems also impact a bog body. If you come across an article on it, I’d love to read it.

            Still seems like an unfortunate way to go, but not as bad as gruesome ritual sacrifice.

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            • I believe that was a conjecture actually made…

              If so they probably would have been thrown in the bog after death? Maybe? All I know is usually if people were thrown in a bog alive it wasn’t meant to kill them, but either served as part of a punishment which wasn’t permanent or to skill them in learning how to survive in a bog if they fell in accidentally or had to escape through it. Oh and people also sometimes willingly competed with each other in bogs but I can’t understand the appeal of that personally. 🙂 First off, I have yet to experience what a bog is physically like but it sounds mucky and disagreeable.

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            • In England there are still bog diving competitions! Not heard of it over here though. Although it is offered as an activity at childrens adventure camps… one of my sons did it and loved it! And yes Éilis, very mucky and disagreeable for me to clean all his clothes afterwards! Also, I think the church threw suspected witches into the bog to see if she’d float or drown. If she floated, well, she was obviously using her black magical arts to survive! And if she was innocent…

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            • I think they were already dead or dying when they went into the bog Éilis, maybe wouned warriors or victims of crime or something. I have read posts on it and posted to my fb page. I will have a look tomorrow and send you some links. Off to bed now!

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  3. Speaking of gender stereotypes, a friend of mine was dubious yesterday that ancient male druids would ever learn about herbs, as that is apparently what women learn about. That will be harder to prove otherwise with archaeology, but I mention it because the concept of gender equality seems to escape people in both directions. It’s very sad, really. Our ancestors lived a truth that we have been struggling with or against or through since Christianity–and also, honestly, the Roman empire. Ancient Greek and Roman women were considered property and Roman customs were the ones which built the foundations of modern cultures. If the values of equality between genders and reverence for nature, and respect for ourselves as embodied, integrated people had always been the norm, what a different world we would live in. That is a general statement which has exceptions, not all people held the same values. But I think I can make the generalization safely. 🙂 And I hope we are changing now into healthier ways of relating to each other. Hopefully!

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    • Yes, that is so true! Strange… I never really thought of it like that before. What a legacy! And yet in some ways they seemed very inclusive, but perhaps that was simply that they so efficiently and completely absorbed other cultures. I’m going to Italy this summer. 😊

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      • Ooo! It’s wonderful and beautiful. I was there at thirteen. Do you have an itinerary? I can let you know about some of the awesome places we visited. If you’re brave in the realm of life which involves getting seriously cold, you can jump in the Mediterranean ocean at seven in the morning (I obviously have experience. 🙂 It was great, and freezing, and my dad inspired the venture and he’s still swimming in the ocean even in winter. I am not.) 🙂

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        • I’m going to Sicily, and it will be WARM! At least, it better be! I can get plenty of cold here, thank you very much, lol! I will be visiting lots of very ancient sites, swimming in crystal clear seas, sunbathing on white sandy beaches, drinking plenty of great coffee and wine, and eating lots of pizza and pasta… well, maybe not the pizza and pasta. never been to Italy before, looking forward to it very much.

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  4. Absolutely! It’s about time we’ve recognized this scientifically rather than just doing science with stereotyping. But I was convinced of the truth of it beforehand. 🙂 Great article, Ali!

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  5. This is great! And yes, it was the C-word that changed everything for women, sadly. We were recently in Spain, standing in an ancient Cathedral and I had to make the ‘Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition’ joke. Then my husband looked at me and said ‘you would have been burned, no question.’ Which was endearing and sad at the same time, thinking about it.
    As you know I have a fighting background and I have to say, of all the people I’ve fought, the women were by far more vicious and technical fighters. The men would barrel in using force, but the women were the ones who would smile and then hit you when you dropped your hands as they sounded the bell (so I learned pretty quick not to drop my hands). It makes absolute sense to me that there would have been female warriors then, just as there are today. Hopefully we are starting the move back towards a more equal society again 🙂

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    • I think we surprise our husbands sometimes dont we lol! I did a bit of fencing in my youth and yes, definitely women fight differently. They have to be more skilled and vicious to compete with male brute strength. There are lots of refefences to female warriors in Irish mythology and in fact, the greatest heroes, Cuchullain and Fionn mac Cumhall were both trained in combat by WOMEN! 😁

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      • I’ve no doubt that there were fighting women in ancient Ireland, but from what I know about human anatomy, it’s more than likely that they had to use fighting techniques that differed from those used by men. The shape of their arm bones and lack of the kind of upper body strength required for effective use of a sword and shield, means that they would naturally employ their abilities differently. In learning warfare from women, Cuchullain and Fionn mac Cumhall would have acquired strategic thinking and tactical approaches that would not be expected by their male opponents in combat. Because of the confounding effects of myth and legend storytelling, we can’t be sure of all that those strategies and tactics entailed, but the use of such unorthodox fighting practices would present advantages that undoubtedly helped them become heroes.

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        • Swords and shields could be made in all weights and sizes. They were usually made specifically for each warrior, and so were very personally adjusted, which made them extremely expensive and valuable possessions. Viking swords were quite long, compared to Irish swords, I believe. Also, in Ireland, the favoured weapon was actually the spear, both throwing and stabbing versions, which could be wielded effectively by anyone, although a man’s upper arm strength would probably make him better suited for distance throwing than a woman. I used to do a bit of fencing myself, and although its quite different from the sword fighting our ancient ancestors would have employed, i know that women were just as capable as men when it came to swordplay! There is far more to it than mere strength, such as speed, agility, skill and the ability to interpret and pre-empt your opponents move. There are so many mentions of women fighting alongside the men in Irish mythology, that I find it quite plausible. Especially when one considers how hard the Christian scribes tried to filter out all evidence of female power and equality as they wrote down these tales. We only know the ones which slipped through. There may have been much more. If it is likely that Irish women fought in battle, it seems just as likely that Viking women may have done so. This report is not conclusive by any stretch of the imagination, one way or the other, but it’s certainly interesting reading.

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          • I did fencing too. It was a part of the physical education requirement when I attended university. It was hot work, in that heavy protective clothing and screened hood. But it was more fun than tennis (I wasn’t fast enough on the court: legs too short!), although I did best at yoga (all that was 40 years ago, when my joints were flexible!) 🙂

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            • Yeah I was crap at tennis too… same problem! 😀 I loved fencing, it was the only sport I was ever any good at, although my coach was always telling me off for losing my temper on the piste at my own inadequacies. I was good but not good enough, which is my problem with everything I turn my hand to lol! Unrealistic expectations I guess. It was a long time ago for me too. Unless you live in a city, its not a sport you can keep up in Uk or over here.

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            • You’re too hard on yourself, Ali! I am sure there are things you do excellently. Writing fantastic brilliant novels, for one. Being a wonderful mother for another. 🙂

              I would be awful, dangerously so, at fencing and still get pissed at not being good enough, you know. I get angry with myself for not realizing a song I’m singing with a group is over and continuing to sing solo because I can’t read music or see cues from people, or because I’ve tripped on something, or gotten lost… perfectionism is gnarly because regardless of the reality of raw abilities or lack of them, you believe irroneously you should have no limits. At least I do sometimes, until someone reasons with me out of it. 🙂

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            • That is true Éilis… those unrealistic high expectations of ourselves creeping in again lol I’m not so demanding of others though, are you? Thanks for the vote of confidence, too! And I love that word ‘gnarly’!

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            • I was a good baseball batter (great eye-hand coordination!), although because of my short legs, the outfielder had time to throw me out before I’d reach first base. I should have been a pinch-hitter for a taller pitcher who could throw and run, but who crapped at bat. 😀

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    • I dont think thats bad news at all! She’s basically saying exactly what the other article says, that women were present right from the start. The first article does actually mention that the Vikings may not have arrived in a wave of rape and pillage as previously thought. So shes not raining on my parade, even though she so clearly wants to, lol! Thanks for that, very interesting!

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    • I agree entirely with that blogger’s pointing out the inaccuracy and sensationalism of the journalism associated with the research paper. The assumption is unwarranted that the presence of a knife, or even a shield and sword in a female’s grave is proof that she was a warrior. For one thing, everybody carried knives on their persons: a knife was the original “multi-tool.” Besides, how else were they to prepare food and eat it? They had no forks. And I think it’s just as likely that a sword and shield would be put into a woman’s grave as evidence of her identity and the dignity of her social standing: that she was “Mrs. Warrior,” so to speak, and going ahead of her mate, would prepare his place by bringing some of his important possessions into the next life, for him.

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      • That is something which drives me crazy about the reporting of archaeological work. It seems no one believes it will interest the general public if its not reported in sensationalist terms. Perhaps that’s true. You are right in that the presence of a sword and shield does not prove the person in the grave was a warrior, however, likewise, it does not prove that they were not. usually grave goods do bear some relevance to the nature of the person buried within it. Were women buried with their husbands sword and shield? I’ve never heard of that before. A man’s sword and shield were very important and valuable tools and possessions; I think it unlikely he would part with them in such a manner. One would have to examine them closely to find if their size and weight were adjusted to suit the smaller physique of a woman or not, as the weapons were usually specifically made for their owner.

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        • I wonder if it’s any more unlikely that people would part with gold boats, torcs, and other costly objects and ornaments by depositing them in bogs, in what archaeologists are fond of calling “votive offerings.” What ancient people really thought was necessary to sacrifice to the gods or to the afterlife is something else that has suffered from the passage of time.

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            • I’ve often wondered if that lovely little boat wasn’t somebody’s “souvenir,” which their naughty child nicked and took to the bog to play with it, only to have it sink and be lost. Or if a particular place in a bog served as somebody’s “safe-deposit box” for their hoard of golden ornaments, which they saved to wear for special occasions, but the location was subsequently lost or forgotten. Or if the precious things were dropped there by accident, by a traveler who was crossing the bog, or that they were “evidence” that was discarded by a thief who was being pursued. And that the bog butter was simply stored in the water, to keep it cool. What life has taught me about human nature makes more sense to me than calling such finds “votive offerings.”

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            • And that, my friend, is why you are a writer!

              Yes far too many assumptions made far too easily and blindly accepted by the masses as fact.

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            • I seem to recall reading some “expert” opinion that attached the votive-offering theory to the butter, too. My thought was, “Baloney. On bread. Pass the butter, please.” 😉

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