At Large  April 26, 2023  Danielle Vander Horst

Digging up Gender Identity in Viking Burials

Image rights to History Channel.

Katheryn Winnick as Lagertha from the popular History Channel show Vikings. Characters such as Lagertha exemplify the modern fascination with Viking warrior women, also known as Shield Maidens. Though dramatized for TV by Winnick, Lagertha is thought to be a historical individual known mainly through Norwegian folktales and the Danish history written in the 12th century CE by Saxo Grammaticus.

The concept of gender has proven to be a tempestuous topic for decades now. Most recently, ideas around diverse gender identities and expressions have come under direct attack in parts of this country, with many heinous political schemes currently on the dockets meant to devalue and alienate the lived experiences of gender non-conforming individuals. At the core of these attacks is a particular unwillingness to appreciate or even tolerate other ways of thinking, being, and living that do not adhere to what many call “traditional” values. What those purporting said values do not wholly appreciate, however, is that there are many forms of what can or may be considered ‘traditional.’ Ideas by which certain groups govern themselves speak only to a minority of the global population and are in their ideological adolescence when compared to the entire breadth of human history and culture. 

Gender is just one of many complicated and multi-nodal concepts that are expressed with the actionable diversity that humanity is so particularly adept at, and it is a topic that has proven to become one of the most fruitful and fascinating realms of historical and archaeological inquiry in recent years. 

Gender archaeology is widely understood today as a complex and fluid concept that reaches far beyond simple man-woman binary classifications. As Dr. Karen Dempsey (University of Galway) notes in the Oxford Bibliography entry on the matter, gender is “the performance and embodiment of an identity that intersects with age, sex, race, sexuality, and class,” among other possible criteria. Gender is not something that someone is born into like biological sex, but rather it is an aspect of one’s identity that is constructed and constantly renegotiate throughout one’s life. Archaeology that seeks to answer questions related to gender thus uses material evidence – landscapes, objects, bodies, architecture, bodies, etc. – to understand contextualized gendered roles and identities in past societies and cultures. 


Courtesy of Hedenstierna-Jonson, C. et al. 2017.

Drawing by Evald Hansen of Burial Bj 581 from the original excavations in 1889 led by Hjalmar Stolpe.

The issue of gender in archaeology as a scholarly, theoretical question gained prominence in the 1980s during the so-called post-processual movement, but it truly owes its origins to the wave of feminist archaeology that came before in the 1960s and 1970s. Scholars of feminist archaeology called for a more equitable approach to constructing archaeological narratives, one in which women were active participants in the creation of human culture and history and not simply “added and stirred” into the history pot for the sake of having them there. 

The approaches of this movement were very much informed by the flows of second-wave feminism which challenged a universal and timeless dominance of the male sex and, although critical to starting a movement, in many respects it still operated on a gender binary of men versus women. Later approaches developed in the 80s opened the conversation up further by expanding beyond a male-female/man-woman binary of gender, and work in the 90s and early 2000s progressed even further, riding the inertia of third-wave feminism which purports a fluidity of identity and embodied, lived experiences. 

Much of this theoretical grappling has resulted in works that speak more about sliding scales of masculinity and femininity on which individuals can variably occupy space regardless of biological sex and more dependent upon their contextually derived positions within their respective time periods, cultures, and lived realities. Though this is by no means a perfect system and does not come close to covering the full spectrum of human possibility (for instance, the idea of a distinct third gender exists in many cultures such as ‘Hijras’ in Hinduism and those referred to as ‘two-spirit’ individuals in certain Native American tribes), such interpretive tools allow us to parse out gendered identities that give room for emic (within a group) voices rather than relying solely on etic (outside a group) biases, most typically based on Western binaries and modern scholarly prejudices. 

In recent years, work on Viking-era finds in Sweden and other Scandinavian countries has exemplified how we treat gender in the archaeological record, particularly in grave contexts. Researchers from Stockholm and Uppsala Universities revisited a prominent Viking burial from a Swedish town called Birka, originally excavated in 1889. The burial, Bj 581, dates to between the 8th and 10th centuries CE and is notable as one of the best furnished and preserved graves of a Viking warrior to date. Within the grave were a sword, axe, spear, armor-piercing arrows, a battle knife, two shields, two horses, as well as a full set of gaming pieces which are typically taken as a sign of one’s knowledge of tactics and strategy. The original excavators looked to the grave goods, all materials indicative of a warrior identity, and, without examining the skeleton, concluded that the interred individual was a biological male, and thus a man in gender. Now, it has been and is still not uncommon to also find biological females in Viking-era burials with weapons, but the richness of this particular grave was evidence to excavators and other scholars later in the 1940s that this individual was a warrior of extremely high status and thus naturally had to be male. 

Wikimedia Commons

The Venus of Willendorf, an Upper Paleolithic stone figurine from Austria, ca. 25,000 years ago. The figurine, and others like it, have traditionally been thought to represent fertility and matriarchal deities. The presence of figures such as these across many pre-historic settlements was used in feminist archaeology to argue for a predominance of matriarchal societies in early human history.

In 2016, however, the grave was revisited, and researchers conducted a genomic DNA analysis on the skeleton. Results found that the individual interred was actually a biological female in their thirties who immigrated to the Birka area sometime in their youth. These results challenged long-standing assertions that the warrior identity – a concept that many ancient cultures had – was inherently male. Previously, it was believed that females with weaponry in their graves likely only had such objects as heirlooms or symbolic pieces to reflect certain statuses or roles within the family rather than as individuals within complex societies. Tellingly, burials sexed as male with weapons do not face the same interpretive run-around and warrior status is often not questioned, but assumed. Whether or not the individual in Bj 581 was a warrior who saw armed and violent combat is unclear, but what is made abundantly apparent is that their status and identity in life warranted a burial in the warrior style in death. Similar conclusions have also more recently been made about another female warrior burial in 8th-6th century BCE Armenia. 

Cases such as these call into question not only assumptions made about past individuals based on modern preconceptions of object-gender relationships, but the researchers who identified the Birka skeleton as female also note that archaeologists must take extra care in assessing and interpreting lived experiences and identities through the material record alone. 

Gender identity, as it is presented in death especially, is just one criterion of a lived reality, and is more likely to be a snapshot of how the individual was seen by their community and not themselves. Therefore, it should never be taken as a monolithic and static fact that adheres to the same principles across time and space, but rather as one of the many complex aspects of the human, lived experience, which is negotiated both internally by the individual and externally by the social context in which they live.

The original publication which explains the scientific analyses of the skeletal remains from Bj 581 is open access and can be read here:

Hedenstierna-Jonson, C. et al. 2017. “A female Viking warrior confirmed by genomics,” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 164 (4):853-860.

About the Author

Danielle Vander Horst

Dani is a freelance artist, writer, and archaeologist. Her research specialty focuses on religion in the Roman Northwest, but she has formal training more broadly in Roman art, architecture, materiality, and history. Her other interests lie in archaeological theory and public education/reception of the ancient world. She holds multiple degrees in Classical Archaeology from the University of Rochester, Cornell University, and Duke University.

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