Saturday, 15 February 2014

Women Warriors - Viking burials

Here's an image that turned up on Facebook, which claims to be of the weapons discovered in a 10th century grave in Finland, with the body of a woman. I haven't been able to find out where the image came from, and I haven't been able to find any reports of such a burial either, so I can't be sure if the claim is true or not.
However, archaeologists over the years have found quite a few burials with a variety of grave goods from the Viking era. In the early days of archaeology, it was assumed that, if a body was buried with a sword, axe or spear, they must have been male, and burials with jewellery must have been female.
The truth, as is often the case, is much more interesting and complex than that.
Modern archaeologists have access to a lot more scientific tests on their finds than was the case fifty years and more ago, and several "male" burials have been found to be female. The reverse is also true - several "female" burials have been found to be male.
So, were these women warriors? It's the obvious assumption when a man is buried with weapons, but is it true of the women? Was a sword a symbol of high status in society, without any correlation with the ability to use it in battle?
The truth is, from the remains alone, even backed up by reading the sagas, we just don't know.
There is an interesting line in the Hervarar Saga, though this contains a lot of legendary and folk-tale material: "As soon as [Hervor] could do anything for herself she trained herself more with bow and shield and sword than with needlework and embroidery." If women were portrayed in folk-tales in this way, there was at least a possibility that women in real life could act in the same way.

I tend to the belief that people who were buried with weapons knew how to use them. In 1981 a burial site was excavated in Gerdrup near Roskilde in Denmark.* It was dated to the 9th century and the grave contained a woman's skeleton. She was buried with a spear, an iron knife and a needlecase. Nearby was the skeleton of a man with his feet tied together - his neck had been broken. In male burials, a slave was often killed and buried with the man, and it would seem reasonable to see the same thing happening here.
The reason I tend to the belief that she could use the spear she was buried with, though, is that a spear is not a high status weapon. Just about anybody who turned up to join a warband could afford a spear, whereas a sword took a lot more metal to make, and needed far more skill to make. Any blacksmith could turn out a few spear heads.
This was one of the first burials to be discovered where the burial was obviously female, with weapons. Others have been found since, and older material has been looked at again - the idea that only male Vikings invaded Britain, for instance, and married Anglo-Saxon women when they got here and settled, is rather contradicted now that we know that about half of the burials that are known are of women - and it is now possible to find out where a person grew up if you have one of their teeth.

*information taken from Women in Anglo-Saxon England by Christine Fell

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