The tomb at the center of the debate is known as Bj 581, after its location when it was excavated at the Birka settlement on the island of Bjorko, which is west of Stockholm, with easy access to the Baltic Sea. (Unesco designated the settlement a World Heritage Site in 1993.)
The grave was one of 1,100 excavated at the site, but it was immediately recognized as important because it was so well-furnished and intact. Situated on an elevated terrace next to a military garrison, the grave included a sword, an ax, a spear, armor-piercing arrows, a battle knife, two shields and two horses — “the complete equipment of a professional warrior,” as the team of scholars put it.
The tomb was quickly identified as that of a high-ranking warrior — who was presumed to have been male.
As early as the 1970s, scholars began to question that assumption. A bone analysis in 2013 suggested that the skeleton was that of a woman, although the evidence remained inconclusive.
In the new study, published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, the scholars say their analysis — based on analysis of DNA and of isotopes of strontium, an element found in human bones — showed that the skeleton was that of a woman, and that contextual evidence suggested that she had been a high-status warrior.
Not only was her body surrounded by armaments, but on her lap was a chesslike board game known as hnefatafl, or King’s Table. Its placement suggested “that she also made strategic decisions, that she was in command,” Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson, the lead author of the paper, said in an interview in her office at the Swedish History Museum.
Viking society was patriarchal, but women were not closed off uniformly from power. “They could own property,” Dr. Hedenstierna-Jonson said. “They could inherit. They could become powerful merchants. That of course gave security and a level of independence.”
At the Birka settlement, which was most active in the ninth and 10th centuries, the Vikings created a commercial center where goods were brought from as far away as China. The Vikings there had close contacts with marketplaces in the Muslim world, evidenced by the many silver coins coming in from the caliphates, Dr. Hedenstierna-Jonson said.
“We can see that it’s a great melting pot,” she said. “They would have heard different languages and met people from other parts of the world with different religious beliefs.”
About 1,000 people lived in Birka until the 11th century, when the inhabitants moved away for reasons that are not clear.
The warrior grave at Birka is not the first to belong to a woman. Two warrior graves in Norway are also believed to be those of women. “We are hoping to do DNA studies from the ones in Norway,” Dr. Hedenstierna-Jonson said.
She acknowledged that her findings had resonated on social media, where some treated them as a sensation. “Maybe it’s empowering to some extent,” she said. “There is always this hope that there were female warriors.”
However, the study has drawn a detailed rebuttal from Judith Jesch, a Viking studies professor at the University of Nottingham in England.
“The emotional lure of the woman warrior, especially in the Viking Age, is too strong for reasoned argument,” she wrote in a blog post on Saturday. “They want the woman to be a warrior, so the scientific analysis makes her a woman and her ‘archaeological context’ makes her a warrior.”
Among her criticisms: bones of various people might have gotten mixed together given that 130 years have passed since the original excavation; the inference that the board-game pieces suggest a high-status female warrior is too speculative; and alternative explanations for why a female body might have ended up in a warrior’s tomb were not considered.
The scholars behind the paper rejected the criticism.
“We are preparing a point-by-point response,” said Mattias Jakobsson, a geneticist at Uppsala University and a co-author of the paper, adding: “We would like to urge her to send her critique to a peer-reviewed journal.”
Dr. Hedenstierna-Jonson said she was confident about the findings.
“We know these are the right bones, that they are a woman’s bones and that they were in that grave,” she said, adding that the positioning of clothing and weapons around the body suggested that the woman had authority.
The study had considered alternative explanations — maybe the weapons were heirlooms or symbolic items rather than actual weapons, or reflected the status of the family rather than the individual — but concluded: “Male individuals in burials with a similar material record are not questioned in the same way.”
The study did acknowledge that the grave might originally have belonged to another — now missing — individual.
“However, the distribution of the grave goods within the grave, their spatial relation to the female individual and the total lack of any typically female-attributed grave artifacts disputes this possibility,” the study found.
Dr. Hedenstierna-Jonson added: “If it was a man, I would say it’s no question that he was a military leader.”
Dick Harrison, a historian at Lund University, called the discovery “the latest chapter of a major wave of rethinking of the Viking age from a female point of view.”
Dr. Harrison, who was not involved in the study, said that many preconceptions about the Vikings had been formed in the 19th century. “What has happened in the past 40 years through archaeological research, partly fueled by feminist research, is that women have been found to be priestesses and leaders, too,” he said. “This has forced us to rewrite history.”
Continue reading the main story