DNA Evidence May Prove the Existence of Viking Shieldmaidens

Fagjun | Published 2017-09-28 23:57

People have long debated the existence of shieldmaidens—Viking women who fought as warriors alongside men. Now, DNA evidence may finally settle these debates once and for all.



Katheryn Winnick stars as the legendary shieldmaiden Lagertha in History Channel's Vikings. [Image by History Channel]



Fans of the History Channel show Vikings know and most likely love the character of Lagertha, arguably the best-known shieldmaiden in modern times. In the show, Lagertha was first an earl then a queen with her own troop of female warriors. Vikings is a work of fiction, but are shieldmaidens a work of fiction as well? Some say that while Viking women may have fought alongside men at the height of Viking culture, it's unlikely that there were enough female warriors to form troops like Lagertha's. There are those, meanwhile, who doubt that female Viking warriors existed at all.


The doubt is somewhat understandable. After all, female Viking warriors are legendary, but largely figure in Viking sagas that may or may not have basis in historical reality. A Viking warrior's grave, however, may finally lend credence to the myths.



Genetic Evidence


An illustration of the warrior's grave by Evald Hansen, based on Hjalmar Stolpe's plan of the grave [Image credit to Uppsala University]



Back in the 1880s, Swedish archaeologist Hjalmar Stolpe excavated a mid-10th century Viking warrior's grave, coded Bj581, in the Swedish town of Birka. Birka was a vital trading post in the Viking Age. Aside from the warrior's remains, the grave contained the skeletons of a mare and a stallion, a sword, an axe, a spear, arrows that can pierce armor, and shields. There was also a full set of gaming pieces for a tabletop war game, as well as the game board.


Stolpe believed that the remains in the grave belonged to a man. After all, high-ranking warriors, believed to have been men, were buried with such goods. However, the skeleton's morphology suggested that it belonged to a woman. An osteological examination of the remains said as much. Thus, it was a conundrum. The grave was one that clearly indicated that the remains were male, while the remains themselves looked female. However, the shape of bones in a skeleton can only strongly suggest an individual's sex. It cannot definitively conclude that a person was male or female.


Archaeologists, geneticists, and archaeoeneticists thus began working together to solve the puzzle of grave Bj581. Genetic testing can provide stronger and more conclusive evidence of the skeleton's sex.



Shieldmaidens and Leaders


What the grave might have looked like centuries ago [Image credit to Uppsala University]



The researchers took DNA from the skeleton's arms and teeth and amplified the genetic evidence to see what kind of chromosomes the warrior had. According to the results, the warrior had two X chromosomes and did not have any trace of a Y chromosome. This conclusively reveals that the warrior had in fact been female.


Of course, the DNA evidence only proves that the remains belonged to a female. How can we be sure that she had been a warrior in life?


Isotope analysis showed that the warrior had been well-traveled, a lifestyle that characterized Viking warriors in the eight to 10th centuries. The game pieces in her grave also indicated that she had been an officer in an army, perhaps someone versed in tactics and strategy and led troops to battle. This is strong evidence that not only did Viking shieldmaidens exist, they were also able to lead other warriors in battle.

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