Viking Women: A Reinterpretation of the Bones

According to a new journal article by Shane McLeod in Early Medieval Europe, the concept of the male Norse invaders migrating across England in the 9th and 10th centuries CE is potentially biased. He argues that based on burial evidence, females were equal in number if not outnumbering the males, leading to a new interpretation of the Norse migration. Textual evidence of the Norse invasion into Britain notes the presence of women and children in some of the invading groups, but primarily they focus on the high number of male warriors. McLeod argues that there were more women than previously thought based skeletal analysis, and this requires a reinterpretation of the Norse invasion.

Textual evidence from England records two major Norse invasions prior to the 10th century CE. The first was during the 870’s, in which three Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in Eastern England were overrun. During this invasion, records never mention any Norse females or children. The second invasion took place during the 890’s. The records discuss the kidnapping of a number of Norse children by London. Wives are also mentioned, with specific reference to the capture of the Norse leader Haesten and his wife.  “Then came the king’s troops, and routed the enemy, broke down the work, took all that was therein money, women, and children and brought all to London”. Beyond this, there are no precise accounts of the ratio of men to women. By 1087 CE, the Domesday Records show that there were 400 settlements in England owned by Norse males and only 21 by Norse females- although this isn’t comparable to the actual ratio of men to women. The lack of women has further been argued through archaeological and skeletal evidence. Excavations of Norse burial grounds in Repton and Heath Wood revealed that only 17% were female, and further analysis of the mass grave at Repton found that the female remains were more likely Anglo-Saxon than Norse females. Archaeological evidence of females is also scarce, with few of the diagnostic oval brooches found throughout Norse sites in England. The dearth of evidence has led researchers to interpret the invasion as male dominated.

However, new evidence of women’s jewellery and female burials has caused previous interpretations to be questioned.  McLeod notes the flaws in the argument, such as the lack of women in the text. It is no clear indicator of the actual ratio of men to women, as the text itself is fairly gender neutral, and the only mention of gender is primarily to the Kings of both the English and Norse sides.

Interpretations of the grave goods has relied upon swords meaning male and brooches meaning female. When both swords and brooches were found, the individual was assumed male with a female offering, although McLeod argues that there is no feasible reason why a woman couldn’t be buried with a sword. When comparing analysis done by osteological assessment against the grave good based assessment, McLeod found that the ratio of males to females was more equal. Using skeletal materials to sex an individual can be difficult if the remains are fragmentary or damaged, but it is more reliable than interpreting sex from grave goods which are assigned by unknown cultural standards rather than biology. McLeod’s reanalysis of the skeletal remains from Repton and Heath Wood show that it was more likely that the ratio of males to females was even, and that the mistakes in interpretation was more likely the fault of equating grave goods and gender with biological sex. From this evidence McLeod argues that women did accompany the men on the two great invasions from 876 to 896. This also changes interpretations of the past where it was thought that Norse males intermarried with Anglo-Saxon females. If the men were bringing their wives, it is less likely that the proposed intensive intermarriage occurred.

Another study that warns against the equation of swords with Norse males, and the problems of gender was done by Anne Graslund. She assessed a similar bias of interpreting swords as male and jewellery as female. She argued instead that osteological sex was just as important, as females with warrior style burials had been discovered. She concluded that women were equal to men, but served a different role as caretaker of the house, and had the agency to become extremely powerful. With the Norse intending to settle England, it would have been important to bring the women with them. Further, textual evidence from the Vikings themselves discusses the roles of powerful female queens such as Thyra who ruled in her husband’s absence, and Saxon text from 1200 states that “there were once women in Denmark who dressed themselves to look like men and spent almost every minute cultivating soldiers’ skills”.

While there is no clear answer as to the ratio of Norse men to women in England, or the actual gender roles and attributions, the study itself is still important. Gender roles are not dichotomous, and treating them as such is detrimental to our interpretations of the past. By allowing fluidity in gender roles, and letting the evidence speak for itself, we can create more nuanced interpretations of the past.

Works Cited

McLeod, Shane 2011. Warriors and women: the sex ratio of Norse Migrants to eastern England up to 900 CE. In Early Medieval Europe 19(3).

Graslund, Anne Sofie 2001. The Position of Iron Age Scandinavian Women: Evidence from Graves and Rune Stones. In Gender and the Archaeology of Death (81-99)

Anglo Saxon Chronicles. http://omacl.org/Anglo/part2.html

37 responses to “Viking Women: A Reinterpretation of the Bones

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  3. I want to thank you for posting this article. I have been hearing of studies reexamining the bones in Viking Age cemeteries with an eye towards errors in gender identification, but your article made the strongest case in simple layman’s terms that the members of my Viking Age living history group can understand. Now, I’ll have to allow a few gals to dress like male warriors!

    I am an adjunct history instructor for Saginaw Valley State University with a BA in Anthropology. I worked in the Archaeology lab at Oakland University for a couple years, but have had little opportunity for real field experience. i guess that makes me an armchair archaeologist, but I did try to keep up on the literature and latest theories. My master’s thesis combined the archaeological and literary evidence for Vikings living among the Slavic peoples on the southern coast of the Baltic Sea.

    If you could recommend some further reading on the reassessment of genders in Viking era burials, I would be very grateful, as would the “wanna be” woman warriors of the Earldom of New Northumbria.

    • I would start by looking at ‘Gender and the Archaeology of Death’ edited by Arnold. Other than that, check the sources from the McLeod article. ‘Ancient queens: archaeological explorations’ by Nelson has a couple articles I think. Other than that I don’t think there is too much already in press. The reassessment of historical assumptions is only occurring gradual, so stuff is slowly being published. I would try contacting some people like McLeod!

  4. It makes sense that the Norsemen would have tried to immigrate to Britain with their families, because only the oldest son could inherit the farm. My understanding is that many districts of Scandinavia were becoming overpopulated. What better choice was there than to try to immigrate to a new land such as Iceland, the Orkneys, the Shetlands, the Faroes, Scotland and to England.

    • I know this is a old post, but I thought I would give a small correction to the inheritance.
      It was not only sons that inherited land, women did this too. It was most commonly the male, but just as females had the right to divorce, the also had inheritance rights.

      Unfortunately my only sources are in Danish or Norwegian (being a Dane myself), I haven’t been able to find a English transcription of any of the sources. In the link is a article about the women’s life in Denmark in the Viking age.

      http://danmarkshistorien.dk/leksikon-og-kilder/vis/materiale/kvinder-i-danmarks-vikingetid/

      • Thanks for sharing this! I’m glad to hear that women had more equal rights in this period. I’m hoping to do an update to this post soon and will check out your resources to add to the story!

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  7. A few weeks ago I blogged about this, but with a focus on just one particular study. Thank you for this additional information!!

    http://wyrdanglosaxonpriestess.wordpress.com/2012/10/09/viking-women-warriors/

    It just makes sense that if you are going to travel to a new land that everyone in the group would have some kind of martial training and be able to defend themselves. The Vikings were very practical and I don’t think they’d waste an able-bodied person in just one role because this person was a woman.

  8. Reblogged this on I Greet the Dead and commented:
    This is good research – it would make sense, all things considered, but it is incredible how difficult it is to convince people that if need be, a woman would pick up a sword or take an opportunity rather than wring her hands and faint in a corner

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  10. Makes sense to me. Women are normally smaller and weaker, on average, than men, however, the stronger women and the weaker men overlap. Besides, the Romans were smaller and weaker than a lot of their adversaries in Europe, yet prevailed.

    We had a saying in the military “your brain is your primary weapon, don’t walk around unarmed”. Guess that has always been true.

    • Archaeology tends to have a lot of these ‘oh duh’ moments in it… of course there were women! Of course they vary in size! It is true that females tend to be less robust than males, but we must always be careful to not assume this this a constant.

  11. I am amzed that people ar just NOW looking at the bones forensically (is that a word ?). I always thought that was one of the first things you did….look at the hips….look at the long bondes…..etc…..never realized much of this was just based on the grave goods….

    • When the studies were initially done it was often assumed that grave goods were representative of sex rather than looking at the bodies. Only in the past 50 years are they really doing systematic studies of skeletal remains. During the recent decades there has been a lot of re-analysis of bones excavated a long time ago.

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  16. There’s documented evidence that 17th and 18th century women were taught to use firearms to defend their homes if necessary- I always thought earlier colonists would have done the same. (What mom is going to let someone or something hurt her kids?) My guess is that we’ll see a lot of updates in the next couple years!

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  22. “McLeod argues that there were more women than previously thought based skeletal analysis, and this requires a reinterpretation of the Norse invasion.”
    It is known that Danish skeletal material has less difference between the sexes.
    Why not apply DNA analysis?

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