Leszek Gardela represents a new generation of archeologists and historians, dedicated to dismantling centuries-old historical stereotypes through methodical and compelling research.
Gardela, a native of Poland, wrote much of his now seminal work, Women and Weapons in the Viking World: Amazons of the North, whilst a researcher at the National Museum of Denmark.
He also received significant German and EU funding for a research project that was the genesis of this book.
Sadly, despite the title, this is not a historical and archeological overview of female warriors in the Viking world.
This is not Gardela's fault, though, as little new evidence has been found to throw any new light on this fascinating subject.
However, what Gardela does in his excellent monograph is delve into the existing literary and archeological evidence of women warriors during the early medieval period in Viking societies.
Like all good lovers of the Vikings, his first stop is the Norse sagas.
As an archeologist, Gardela presents a wealth of material evidence, including a detailed analysis of the famous grave 581 at Birka, where a woman was buried with an arsenal of weapons. Source: Hjalmar Stolpe (1841-1905), Public domain
Literary and archeological evidence
Gardela leads the reader through a careful examination of what medieval minds have to say about Viking women warriors.
The rich tapestry of the Norse sagas, as explored in Women and Weapons in the Viking World, provides a fertile ground, with careful analysis given to these "northern amazons" in tomes like the Saga of the Icelanders (Íslendingasögur).
However, more historically accurate works, like the Gesta Danorum, are also explored for views on women warriors with weapons.
Gardela also looks at armed women in Norse mythology and literature – including, of course, the famous Valkyries – and casts his net further afield to look at women warriors in contemporary non-Viking societies, like the formidable Æthelflæd of Mercia.
Gardela, though, is not afraid to get his hands dirty. As an archeologist, he presents a wealth of material evidence to the reader.
This evidence predominantly comes from Viking-era burials, including the renowned "Birka Valkyrie."
In his work, he meticulously details the remains of the woman found in grave 581 at Birka and describes all the weapons that were discovered alongside her, such as swords, spears, and a variety of other Viking weaponry.
Gardela's systematic approach provides a comprehensive view of the archeological findings. His meticulous attention to detail is evident as he analyzes the burials of 28 women who were interred with weapons during the Viking Age (c. 750 – 1100).
These burials are then meticulously organized in an appendix, making them accessible without trawling through pages and pages of the book.
- READ MORE: Women and power in the Viking Age - A primer
In his research, Leszek Gardela reveals that less than 1% of Viking female graves contained weapons, suggesting that while Viking Amazons may have existed, they were extremely rare. Illustration: The Viking Herald
Less than 1%
Despite the depth and quality of the literary and archeological evidence, Gardela presents some disheartening findings.
The burial of women with weapons, which likely signifies a warrior status, accounts for less than one percent of all known female graves.
Additionally, some of these weapons, such as an axe, may have had more practical or even religious/ritualistic purposes, possibly used in Viking magic.
Gardela concludes that, based on the evidence, Viking Amazons may have indeed existed, but in very small numbers.
This revelation may be disappointing for those like us at The Viking Herald, who have been enthralled by recent shows like Vikings, which suggest that female warriors fought in battle alongside their Viking brothers in significant numbers.
However, regardless of Gardela's conclusions, his book is an authoritative work on the archeological and historical evidence of Viking women's active participation in combat and their significant contributions to Norse culture.
Women and Weapons in the Viking World: Amazons of the North by Leszek Gardela is available for purchase on Amazon here.
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