Retrospective - Oral Presentation Session
Burials of the Viking Age (c. 750–1050 CE) in Scandinavia often contain personal equipment, particularly bodily ornaments and weapons, and it has long been assumed that jewelry in these graves indicates female interments and weapons signal males. For instance, a grave including warrior’s equipment at the Viking-Age site of Birka, Sweden, was presumed to hold the remains of an elite male; however, aDNA and osteological analyses have shown that this person was biologically female. At the same time that our understanding of sexing and gendering burials is being turned upside-down, metal-detecting during the past few decades is changing our views of Viking imagery. Previously, Viking art was considered to consist largely of animal-style art, which has been celebrated as a fundamental feature of Viking culture. Although numerous small female figurines carrying drinking horns—so-called “Valkyries”—have been found in female burials at Birka and elsewhere, now metal-detecting has brought to light several pendants and brooches that display female figures on horseback carrying warriors’ equipment. In Old Norse literature preserved from the thirteenth century, Valkyries serve heroes in Valhalla who had died in battle, whereas the armed and mounted women are characterized as “shield-maidens.” Together the aDNA-identified Birka “warrior woman” and the metal-detected new images of female warriors require us to re-assess the nature of Viking art and the reality of Viking warrior-women known from Old Norse literature, who have often been regarded as mythic rather than representative of mortal members of the society.