|Viking Warrior Queen. Unkown source*|
Migration Age graves from England, Scandinavia and the Low Countries have revealed men buried with traditionally female grave-goods and women found buried with weapons. What are we to make of this? Perhaps it is time to examine the evidence critically.
*Image source unknown. Retrieved via tumblr.com under fair use.
Much about what we know about the early Anglo-Saxons and Norse folk has come from painstaking excavation of graves. In the Migration Age, as now, people either buried their dead (called by archaeologists ‘inhumation’) or burned them on a pyre (cremation). With a cremation, the ashes of the deceased plus bits of dense bone, teeth etc. were placed in a large ceramic pot which was then buried. Sometimes small personal items were placed in the urn too. During the pagan period, folk were often buried with personal belongings including jewellery, tools and weapons. If rich and powerful, the person might be buried with even more impressive grave-goods as a mark of status. It is obvious that inhumation leaves much more in the way of clues for the archaeologist. However, once Christianity takes a firm hold, folk were no longer routinely put into the ground with grave-goods and this source of information about their lives is denied us. That said, with Christianity comes literacy and written records, which to some extent makes up for this dearth of burial information.
Early Anglo-Saxon burials contain much useful material for the historian. If the soil conditions have been kind, the skeleton will remain, and, rarely clothing, wood and leather items may also leave traces. Ceramic, glass and metals survive better, although iron items have often rusted considerably. Items of non-ferrous metal such as brooches, belt buckles and jewellery are best preserved.
Although some items are found buried with both sexes, the type of items interred with the person have a strong genderal bias. Women’s graves tend to contain metal items related to keeping their clothing together, such as various brooches and, in Anglian areas, wrist-clasps. Large ivory rings from purses, large swags of beads and the key-like structures known as ‘girdle-hangers’ are typically female.
Male graves typically contain much less functional jewellery, at most a cloak brooch and an ornate buckle. Both male and female graves often contain a small utility knife but male graves typically contain some type of weapon. Most often this is a spear, the archetypal male symbol, just as the distaff is female. Shields are the next most common military item found in the grave. Much less common are swords, war-saxes and war-axes.
One might reasonably expect, then, that one could reliably state that the occupant of a particular grave was male or female from the grave goods alone and this is still true to some extent. However, the modern archaeologist has enough knowledge of anatomy to make a good guess at the sex of a body from the bones alone, assuming they are in a sufficiently good state of preservation. In case of difficulties, a forensic anthropologist can be called in. It is also in some cases possible to recover enough DNA from the body to determine gender. This has led to a few cases where the gender of the body (determined by anatomy +/- DNA) is at odds with what is implied by the grave goods. This has produced speculation of so-called 'transvestite men' and 'warrior-women'. Before accepting this idea, it is worth considering how an anatomist is able to determine the gender of a particular skeleton and how reliable is this method.
Determining Gender Of Skeletal Remains
The most reliable method is to examine the bones of the pelvis. The male pelvis is optimised for locomotion, while the female pelvis is optimised for child-birth. There are thus many differences in the pelvis but the most obvious is the greater sciatic notch which is much wider and shallower in the female. In a typical female pelvis the sciatic notch almost approaches 90 degrees whereas in the male it is ‘J’ shaped and much more acute. This method is about 95% accurate when it comes to Indo-Europeans.
|Comparing the male and female pelvis|
- Gynecoid: found in about 50% of the women.
- Android: found in about 20% of women.
- Anthropoid: very long and almost "ovoid" in shape. It is more common in non-Indo-European females (it makes up only about 25% of pelvic type in European women and close to 50% in Afro-Caribbean women).
- Platypelloid: very short, like a "flattened gynecoid shape". Only present in 3% of women.
In addition to the pelvic bones, there are other features which suggest male gender in the skeleton. Male skeletons are on average more robust with less slender bones and more pronounced muscle-attachment ridges. With regard to the skull, male skulls are generally larger, with larger brow-ridges and square chin. Female skulls are more rounded with less pronounced muscle attachments and less obvious brow ridges and a more pointed chin.
Problems arise in determining gender in individuals who died in their teens. In children, these sex-related features are less obvious and more difficult to interpret. Subtle sex differences are detectable in younger skeletons, but they become more defined following puberty and sexual maturation. Often the only way to conclusively determine gender is by DNA.
Despite the benefits of identifying gender of human remains by looking at skeletal morphology, the archaeological method of sex determination by grave-goods is still the most common method used. This is partly due to the lack of well-preserved bone, and partly due to innate conservatism. This is, though, about as logical as a geologist dating a rock by observing its fossil content while his palaeontologist colleague dates the very same fossils by observing in which rock strata the fossils sit! Unfortunately, DNA-testing, which has the benefit of impartiality, is often not possible due to its expense and difficulty in finding intact samples.
Determining the gender of individuals by means of what artifacts they are buried with is thus fraught with difficulties and may well be giving us a very misleading impression of gender roles in ‘Dark Age’ Northern Europe.
Evidence from Inhumations
An excavation of a burial plot in Oosterbeintum in Friesland (grave no. 398) contained a (osteologically determined) ‘male’ skeleton with ‘female’ grave-goods. ‘He’ was buried with twin brooches and a swag of no less than 40 beads and a bracelet. This assemblage was identical to most of the demonstrably ‘female’ burials there. The cemetery is dated to the time of the Miration Period (450-550 C.E.) (Knol et al. 1996).
In England, there are several similar findings:
The 1994 excavations at Buckland, Dover, uncovered 244 graves in an extensive Anglo-Saxon cemetery first excavated by Professor Vera Evison from 1951 to 1953. Just over two thirds of the burials contained grave goods. Several male burials contained a sword, others a spear and sometimes a shield. Women's graves included brooches and beads and a variety of other objects. However, 11 burials contained grave goods not corresponding to the osteological sex determination. Seven ‘males’ had been inhumed with brooches, keys, pearls, bracelets and other typically "female" items, while three ‘females’ (determined by skeletal morphology) were found to have been buried with spears and one with a shield. (Evison 1987).
|Migration-Age Warrior Lady. Unknown source, fair use. Tumblr.com|
female (Haughton & Powlesland 1999).
The very large and important Anglo-Saxon cemetery in Kempston, Bedfordshire is recorded as having graves with “mixed” grave goods - that is both weapons and female jewellery (Meaney 1964).
DNA studies of skeletons in an Anglo-Saxon village at Heslerton, North Yorkshire (450-650 C.E. ) determined that two bodies buried with spear and knife were women.
Finally, the body of an Anglo Saxon woman (dated to around 410 C.E.) buried with a seax and shield was found just outside Lincoln. Labelled as a "warrior queen" by the local press, she would have been an impressive 2 metres (6+ feet) tall when she was alive.
Though interpretation of such graves is difficult, there are now a sufficient number of cases of "male" gravegoods in female graves, and vice versa, from early Anglo-Saxon England that the phenomenon cannot be described as rare.
Inhumations with cross-genderal grave-goods have also been identified from the Viking Age.
One such grave, excavated in 1981 at Gerdrup, near Roskilde in Sjælland (Denmark), and dated to the early 9th century contained two skeletons, osteologically determined as a male and a female. The 35-40 year-old male seems to have been killed by hanging, and had no grave goods. The excavator decided he was likely to have been a sacrificed slave. The woman was perhaps a little older and had been lain to rest with a bone needle-box, an iron knife and a spear. As with the Anglo-Saxons, either sex can be buried with a utility knife but sewing equipment is regarded as typically female while spears are masculine. This grave shows a mixture of gender-signals with regard to the woman. Was she a warrior or simply a woman in a leadership role?
Other ‘female’ burials with weapons from the later Viking period include wealthy graves from Saaremaa (Danish: Øsel); which included axes and spears. Two Finnish graves (Kalvola and Tyrväntö) actually contained swords as well as women’s ornaments.
Other cases have been identified at the long in-use Luistari Burial Ground in Finland, containing inhumations from 500 CE to 1200 CE. Among the 1,300 plus graves excavated, there were two anomalies. The first; Grave 35 contained a ‘female’ skeleton with an axe. The second; Grave 404 contained the skull and long bones of a a male, with two axes placed beneath him but the male was lying crouched at the feet of a female.
Less well documented examples of burials from Norway exist showing ‘mixed artefact’ graves containing both brooches and weapons.
It is no longer tenable to ignore that occasionally, demonstrably female bodies were laid to rest with weapons and demonstrably male bodies with feminine article such as jewellery. With the increasing use of DNA to determine gender, it is no longer possible to attribute these cases to the errors implicit in sex determination by the bones alone. The genderal roles in northern Europeans have always be thought to be clearly defined, with armed men taking the lead in warfare and women in charge of the household and holding the keys to the treasure boxes and stores.
There exists literary evidence pointing to female warriors, and generally more fluid gender roles in the Migration Period and Viking Age than might be expected.
Danish and Norse Sources
Though only committed to writing in the 13-14th century C.E, Norse tales are though to reflect earlier tradition, and suggest the pagan gods and heroes of Northern Europe were much more flexible with regard to gender roles:
Þórr is described in Þrymskviða by Snorri as having to dress as Freyja in order to get Mjölnir back after it was stolen.In another tale, Óðinn dressed as a medicine woman called Wecha as part of his efforts to seduce Rindr. He succeeded but was later removed from power by the other gods for having worn female garments.
Óðinn is the god of seiðr-craft, a form of magic considered to be unmanly. He is god of sex (as well as drugs and ‘rock and roll’) such that when Þórr boasts of the jötuns (giants) he has slain, Óðinn brags of all the women he has slept with. Seiðr practice may have involved various cross-gender practices, such as cross-dressing or even passive homosexual acts. Male seiðr practitioners were often referred to as seiðberendur.
The Sagas tell the tale of Hervor (which means ‘battle-woman’) daughter of Angantyr, who was born after her father’s death and so grew up in her maternal grandfather's house. While there she learned how to shoot a bow and wield sword and shield. Deciding to avenge her father's death, she garbed herself like a man and joined a band of Vikings, calling herself 'Hjörvardr'. Under this alias she fought, killed and pillaged. Eventually she decided to reclaim her father’s cursed magic sword Tyrfing and was the only one of her band brave enough to dare the haunted isle where her father’s barrow lay. After some argument, Angantyr’s liche flung the sword out of the grave and Hervor took it up and resumed her life of piracy. After a while, however, she tired of the viking life and returned to her foster-father Bjartmar’ hall where she returned to sewing and embroidering like other girls. Eventually she married a king’s son and lived happily ever after, having two sons who she named Angantyr and Heidrek.
When grown, due to the curse, Heidrek slew his brother Angantyr with the sword Tyrfing. Heidrek went on to father a daughter whom he also named Hervor. She was a shield-maiden and was the commander of a Gothic fortress facing Myrkviðr (Mirkwood) which separated Reidgotaland from the land of the Huns. When the Huns invaded, she would fall heroically in battle, her warriors hopelessly outnumbered.
The author of ‘Gesta Danorum’, Saxo Gramaticus records this in Book VII as explanation of the warlike behaviour of Alfhild, daughter of the Gothic King.
‘And that no one may wonder that this sex laboured at warfare, I will make a brief digression, in order to give a short account of the estate and character of such women. There were once women among the Danes who dressed themselves to look like men, and devoted almost every instant of their lives to the pursuit of war, that they might not suffer their valour to be unstrung or dulled by the infection of luxury. For they abhorred all dainty living, and used to harden their minds and bodies with toil and endurance. They put away all the softness and lightmindedness of women, and inured their womanish spirit to masculine ruthlessness. They sought, moreover, so zealously to be skilled in warfare, that they might have been thought to have unsexed themselves. Those especially, who had either force of character or tall and comely persons, used to enter on this kind of life. These women, therefore (just as if they had forgotten their natural estate, and preferred sternness to soft words), offered war rather than kisses, and would rather taste blood than busses, and went about the business of arms more than that of amours. They devoted those hands to the lance which they should rather have applied to the loom. They assailed men with their spears whom they could have melted with their looks, they thought of death and not of dalliance.’
There are numerous further examples from the Norse literature and also examples from England of women who adopted male leadership roles in times of war.
Procopius' history of the Gothic War of 535-552 CE includes the story of an English æþeling-maid, referred to as "the Island Girl", who led an invasion of part of Jutland and captured the young king, Radigis, who had jilted her after their betrothal.
(source - "Peace Weavers and Shield Maidens" - Kathleen Herbert - Anglo Saxon Books - 1-898281-11-4)
Inevitably, Anglo-Saxon written sources originate from the Christian period, and therefore after the age of weapon-burials had long gone. However, numerous sources report a number of cases of Anglo-Saxon warrior queens and ladies.
|Statue of Æthelflaed, at Tamworth Castle|
One such individual, Æðelburgha was the wife of king Ine, and sister of his successor, Æðelhard. In CE 722, Æðelbeorht, an æðeling of the royal line, rebelled and took Ine's most westerly fortress at Taunton. The King was away fighting far away, so Æðelburgha, gathered what men she could and attacked, razing the fort to the ground. Comprehensively beaten, Æðelbeorht fled in ignominy.
The best example of a female Anglo-Saxon war leader was Ælfred the Great’s eldest daughter Æðelflæd, who was known as the Lady of the Mercians. Married to Æthelred, the sickly and ineffectual Ealdorman of Mercia, it was left to Æðelflæd to lead troops against the Vikings.
Æthelflæd was a formidable military strategist and tactician and ruled for eight years. Upon succeeding her husband, she began to plan and build a series of fortresses (or burhs) in English Mercia.
Her military achievements were instrumental in maintaining her brother Edward the Elder in his Kingship. Truly has she been called Ælfred the Great’s greatest achievement.
Indication of women warriors can be found in The Grágás or Grey Goose Law; the law-code of the Icelandic Commonwealth until 1262-1264 CE. More specifically, references are found in the code's fourth section; “The Wergild Ring List”. Wergild (nefgildi) was the reparation paid by an individual to compensate a family for theft, injury or death, and a revision in 840 CE makes specific mention of a class of payments by Skjoldmø. Skjoldmø (which means ‘shield-maiden from skjold + mœr) were expert professional female warriors who were afforded unique rights, privileges and status of their own within Norse Culture.
It appears that, at around the age of 12 years or so, the fittest girls— who were able to compete in strength and speed with their male counterparts— were given the choice to become Skjoldmø, putting aside the traditional female role and learning a trade and to be a warrior. The Grágás was amended to extend to them the rights to hold a hall of their own, to be held accountable for themselves, and the right to take a husband (subject to being able to afford to keep a housewife to run their hall and to attend to her husband's domestic needs).
Though such pieces are rare, there do exist a number of 'Viking' personal artworks which point to the existence of female warriors. These include a number of amulets depicting women carrying weapons and shields.
One such case, recently discovered in Hårby, Denmark, has recieved significant media attention as the only three-dimensional depiction of a "Valkyrie". In fact, this piece dating to approx. 800 AD and depicting a woman carrying a sword and shield, stands out from other depictions of valkyries ("the choosers of the slain") which are more commonly seen carrying drinking horns. It is noteworthy that her sword —a high status warrior's posession— is unsheathed and ready to be used, not merely carried, and thus that she has deliberately been shown ready for battle. It is interesting to note, too, that the figurine wears her hair long, tied at the back of the head with a knot strikingly similar to the Iron-Age Suebian Knot; a male hairstyle associated with warriors and free-men in South Jutland and North Germany hundreds of years before (as seen on two bog-mummies from Schlesweig-Holstein). Perhaps this detail was included as a statement about the lady's status? The juxtaposition of contemporary feminine dress, so-called "male" battle-gear, and a feminine adaptation of a male warrior's hairstyle suggest a deliberate emphasis by the artist on highlighting the woman's dual role. Whether valkyrie, shield-maiden, or perhaps even depiction of the Nose deity Freyja, this figure is clearly a celebration of the role of Viking women as warriors.
|Shield-Maiden Pendant from Hårby, Denmark (|
We have seen that scattered material-culture and documentary evidence from the later period which suggest women were occasionally warriors, but grave evidence from the early period goes furthest to challenge assumptions about gender roles in early Germanic cultures. What precisely are we to make of cases of women being buried with warrior gear or "mixed" goods, and of cases where men are buried with feminine items? Were the women of weapon-graves really warriors?
It has long been archaeological practice to label a grave containing weapons as a warrior grave but the presence of weapons in a grave might well symbolise status, just as in life, for we know that it was the mark of the freeborn to bear weapons. It is no longer fashionable to associate grave goods with the provision for the ‘afterlife’, however, so little is really known about the religious beliefs of the pagan Anglo-Saxons that this cannot be dismissed just because it seems odd to us. Of course, the elaborate grave goods of kings and princes had a status function, but the favourite spear put into the grave of an old warrior reminds me of the favourite teddy-bear put into the coffin of a dead child by his parents today - a source of comfort in death as it had been in life.It is thus possible that battle-gear in female inhumations may have held sentimental value or been purely a mark of status.
We are fairly certain that, certainly in the later period when England was officially Christian, any blurring of the gender roles was actively discouraged, and it is widely accepted that later-period cases such as the mighty Æthelfleda- breaking the social norms- were rare. However it is now clear that the burial of women with weapons was not a particularly rare occurrence in the early period, and this must be taken into account when considering our earlier ancestors' approach to gender roles.
Could Women have been Warriors?
Cases such as Aethelfleda, or the Icelandic Skjoldmø demonstrate that even in pre-modern times that women could be effective warriors and military leaders and that Anglo-Saxon and Viking culture was tolerant of this deviation from the norm. It is, though, worth considering why in most cultures, human males tend to be the ones who fight.
First, with their role in carrying and then nursing children, females in earlier civilizations (as in many other species) were arguably more valuable. In contrast, after having done their duty to pass on their genes to the next generation, males were more disposable, and thus became the ones best adapted to defending resources and territory.
The physiological differences between males and females (sexual diamorphisms) include obvious characteristics, but gender also has an influence on a number of continuous characters which conform to a normal (bell-curve) distribution. Although young healthy males weigh around 15% more than an equivalent female and (in Europeans) are on average around 6 inches taller, bell-curves for these characteristics overlap such that it is easily possible for women, even in Anglo-Saxon or Viking society, to be taller, stronger or heavier than the average male.
Males are physically stronger, on average, because they have greater total lean muscle mass, mainly due to the anabolic effect of the male hormone testosterone. Typically men are also more aggressive, again due to significantly greater levels of circulating androgens. Similarly, male bones tend to be more robust and dense with more prominent muscle attachment ridges. To supply their larger muscles, men tend to have larger hearts, with larger diameter coronary arteries. Their lungs have around 50% more volume/ body mass for gaseous transfer and have 10-15% more oxygen-carrying haemoglobin in their blood.
These anatomical and physiological differences are exaggerated by hard physical exercise but also reduced by its lack. Thus in those individuals who have sedentary occupations or poor diet, the gender-differences are markedly reduced.
It is clear that men have been optimised by nature to fight and that it may come more naturally to them. However, human beings are not slaves to their genes and so, with intensive physical and physiological training there is little doubt that women could be excellent warriors even in the hard physical world of the Early Medieval Age. Though most women would have chosen to stick to their traditional roles rather than face the tough life of a female warrior, a number of cases of skeletal remains in female weapon-burials seem to indicate their occupants were tall and physically robust, and thus the notion of female warriors in the early period is very plausible.
Various written sources, scattered Viking art, and a large number of early Anglo-Saxon weapon burials with female skeletons all seem to point to the existence of women in the Migration and 'Viking' ages in northern and western Europe who achieved warrior status, either in a hierarchical sense or actually taking part in battle, and point to a much less restrictive and much more fluid approach to gender roles, particularly pre-Christianisation. This leaves us to consider the issue of the demonstrably male burials with female grave-goods.
Interpreting Male Burials with Female Goods
It could be hypothesised that in early European tribal societies, before being influenced by Middle-Eastern monotheistic influences, sexual identity depended more on social roles than sexual behaviour. Other cultures have an institution of a ‘third sex’ role to accommodate those whose physical and emotional genders do not sit easily with each other and these often acquire a sacred character.
The classic example is the transgender priests of Cybele, called Magna Mater by the Romans, whose notoriously effeminate dress and behaviour alternately shocked and fascinated Roman writers.
It is not known if the priesthood of the Germanic Mother Goddess, whom Tacitus names Nerthus and the Æcerbot; ‘eorþan modor’, also adopted feminine garb but there is a clue in Saxo (Gesta Danorum Book VI) who records that the hero Starkðr had ‘living at Uppsala in the period of the sacrifice (to Frø, the son of Njörd and brother of Freyja) had become disgusted with the womanish body movements, the clatter of actors on the stage and the soft tinkling of bells.’
It should also be noted that Tacitus makes particular note that the Anglii were worshippers of the Goddess.
As has already been discussed, lack of hard physical exertion de-emphases the masculine characteristics without resort to the extremes of the castrati-priests of Cybele. In early pagan Germanic society, free women enjoyed high status equivalent if not identical to men. Thus a male who took on a quasi-feminine role could do so with little or no loss of status, particularly if he had skills useful to the community such as being a priest able to placate the gods, a skald able to tell the stories which gave the tribe its identity or a craftsmen who enriched everyone by his work.
Of course, some examples of so-called "feminine" goods may find themselves in male graves for much simpler reasons. The presence of brooches in male graves, for example, means little; in a culture lacking buttons, zip fasteners or Velcro, they are essential, and such functional items may perhaps only be absent from most male burials due to these items having having less importance attached to them. Burial goods do not normally include all of the property of an individual, and it has been suggested that only items which defined an individuals role and status would be included. It has been argued that, as a man got older, he would have displayed his wealth and power differently than he had in his martial youth but as evidenced by Earl Byrhtnoþ of ‘Battle of Maldon’ fame, men could be fit enough to fight in battle well into their sixties. In a society which defined freedom by the right to bear arms, it would have been unthinkable to ‘go into the next world’ without a weapon.
This is a complex and difficult area replete with capacity for misunderstanding. Certainly more good quality data would be useful; a clearer idea of how frequent artefacts at variance with their traditional owners are found in North European pagan graves would indicate if this was rare or more commonplace. DNA evidence must be gathered and used whenever possible; it being the most definitive means available for determining gender of remains. Most of all we must refrain from projecting our own unconscious cultural conceptions onto these our distant ancestors. As what one of my favourite TV characters, Gil Grissom from CSI says "Concentrate on what can not lie ...... the evidence!"
The article ‘Transvestite Vikings’ By Tina Lauritsen and Ole Thirup Kastholm Hansen and first published in Viking Heritage magazine, 1/2003
"Peace Weavers and Shield Maidens" - Kathleen Herbert - Anglo Saxon Books - 1-898281-11-4