Towards the end of the 19th century, a highly impressive and elaborate burial was discovered in an ancient grave in Birka, Sweden. 

The contents suggested the man buried in the tomb must have been a great Viking warrior, perhaps even a local chieftain or king. 

However, osteological research conducted in the 1970s, followed by advanced DNA testing in 2016, uncovered a startling revelation: the individual long believed to be a man was, in fact, a woman. 

This is the story of the Birka shield maiden, who has not only helped challenge mainstream thought on the role of women in Norse society but also highlights the importance of forever questioning long-held assumptions. 

To find out more, The Viking Herald speaks to French archeologist Amanda Berger, who has spent time exploring grave 581 and its contents at the invitation of Birka Museum's Veronica Björkman and Linda Wåhlander of the Swedish History Museum

The Swedish History Museum in Stockholm showcases a model of early medieval Birka, recreating the bustling Norse settlement that was unearthed in the 19th century after being lost for hundreds of years. Photo: Szilas (Public domain)

Treasure revealed 

Until its demise in the 11th century, the archeological site of Birka, situated on the small island of Björkö just west of Stockholm, was once a significant Norse trading settlement

Sadly lost from view for hundreds of years, it was finally rediscovered in the 19th century. 

The site is believed to contain around 4,000 graves, of which only a quarter have been excavated. 

In addition, archaeologists have uncovered longhouses, churches, weapons, and various tools. They have also found coins and trading goods from distant locations such as Russia, China, and the Middle East. 

The Swedish archeologist Hjalmar Stolpe headed the first digs. 

"Stolpe excavated grave 581 in 1878," begins Amanda, who has long held an interest in Birka and wrote her master thesis on grave 581. 

"Fortunately, Stolpe wrote everything down in notebooks that we still can read today. We also have sketches of the grave. The occupant was surrounded by various weapons: a sword, axe, battle knife, spears, arrows, and shields." 

"Significantly, the grave also contained two horses. Among all excavated graves in Birka, only about 20 include a horse, and just one other chamber grave has two." 

"The impressive array of items found in the grave clearly indicates that the person buried there was of some importance." 

The 1889 sketch by Hjalmar Stolpe unveils the contents of Birka's grave 581, a trove of items including various weapons, gaming pieces, two horses, and possibly even mirror shards, painting a picture of a richly furnished Viking burial. Source: Hjalmar Stolpe (1841-1905), Public domain

Second thoughts 

The find was immediately classified as male, and Amanda believes the alternative may never even have been considered. 

"Of course, if you find a skeleton surrounded by deadly weapons, there is no other possibility in 1878," Amanda tells us. 

Indeed, at this time, the concept of a shield maiden or similar was restricted to mythology. The idea that the person in the grave was male was simply the most logical conclusion. 

The assumption persisted for nearly a century until 1975, when osteologist Berit Vilkan, while cataloging the bones at Birka, noted that the hip and limb bones in grave 581 seemed to have a female form.

This potentially momentous discovery, however, was soon thwarted – a third femur was found in the same box, and it belonged to a man. 

Again, the explanation seemed clear – the woman found in the grave must have been the warrior's wife. 

Except, as Amanda tells us, "A few decades later, it turned out that the male femur was actually from grave Bj 854 – it was written on the bone." 

Finally, in 2016, archaeologist Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson ran a DNA analysis on what had now been determined to be the grave's sole occupant. 

"The verdict was finally in," Amanda continues, "There was no Y chromosome found, confirming that the only occupant of grave 581 was definitely a biological woman." 

While the grave contained a sword, an axe, and a spear, Amanda suggests that the woman's potential role as a mounted archer would be more aligned with her capabilities as a woman in Viking combat. Photo: Courtesy of The Swedish History Museum

All the hallmarks of a shield maiden 

So how important was this person, and could she have been a genuine battlefield warrior? 

"In addition to the contents of the grave, another clue that she may have been considered of high-ranking status, and perhaps also a warrior, is the location of her grave," Amanda explains. 

"She was found in the burial area in north Borgen, between the hillfort and the town, very close to the warriors' longhouse.

"Grave 581 is part of a small group of five graves, and two of the others contain men who were also buried with weapons." 

"Were they all warriors? It is certainly possible." 

"Though I should also point out that unless someone can ask them personally, we might never know for sure." 

Amanda notes that osteological observations also revealed marks on her spine, which could indicate frequent horse riding. 

"In my opinion, putting a woman on a battlefield facing men with swords and axes might not be a good idea," Amanda says. 

"But if you put her on a horse with a bow, and she's light, fast, and a skilled archer, she could be really formidable. This could also explain the large number of arrows and the two horses found in her grave." 

One of the items from the grave is a penannular brooch, crafted in gilded bronze and featuring the distinctive Borre-style ring braid and animal ornamentation. Photo: The Swedish History Museum (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Changing perceptions 

For many historians and archeologists, the find at Birka is cause to reevaluate many assumptions about the role of gender in Norse society. 

However, Amanda argues that given the significant involvement of Norse women in so many other aspects of daily life, such examples of fighting women could perhaps be seen more as a logical but isolated extension of other activities. 

"We know that women in Viking Age society had a crucial role and were well considered and valued," Amanda tells us. 

"They were genuinely active in their community. The women were in charge of the village when the men went away for raids or more legal trading activities for long months." 

"They were running the farm, managing the people working on it, and dealing with the children's education." 

"In other words, women played a very active role in the economy and public life. Without them and all their work, the men would never have been able to leave the village for months at a time." 

"To illustrate this idea, when we talk about building a boat to allow the men to sail far away, we are thinking about the men building the hull of the ship." 

"But have you ever thought of the women weaving the sails? Society was based on the same division of tasks to function properly and in such an efficient way." 

"The women had to be strong and tough to do all this. This is why I would not be surprised if a very small number of women occasionally took up arms." 

With approximately 4,000 graves in Birka and just 1,100 explored to date, the search for additional female warriors in the area remains an open and promising endeavor. Photo: Jan Norrman / Riksantikvarieämbetet (CC BY-SA 2.5)

The search goes on 

There remain very few similar instances of Viking warrior women in archeological excavations, though Amanda does mention the find at Solør, Norway, where a young woman was buried with weapons and a horse. 

Interestingly, while another find at Suontaka Vesitorninmäki in Finland was also believed to be a high status warrior woman, the DNA analysis revealed the occupant of this grave actually had XXY chromosomes. 

In any case, Amanda is certainly not ruling out the discovery of similar finds at Birka in the future. 

"Let's not forget that we have around 4,000 graves at Birka, and only 1,100 have been excavated so far. We also haven't run DNA analysis on every skeleton – some graves are interpreted as a 'man's grave' only because there are weapons inside." 

"It's entirely possible that somewhere, another woman warrior is hiding." 

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