Viking Bones and Science Bias

Ariane David PhD Gender Equality Viking Ships

Gokstad Viking ship excavation, as photographed in 1880.

In 1880 a Viking longboat was discovered in a burial mound on a farm in Gokstad, Norway.

Buried with the boat was the skeleton of a man.

Because of the expense and massiveness of the undertaking in burying the boat along with the man, it was concluded that the man must have been a warrior king, perhaps Olaf Geirstadt-alf, wealthy and powerful enough to have owned such a long boat and afforded such a lavish burial.

Ariane David PhD Gender Osberg Longboat

The Oseberg longboar as found beneath a mound of blue clay in 1904.

Twenty four years later the Osberg longboat was discovered in a burial mound containing the remains of two women, who were, at the time, believed to be a queen and her slave.

This site was in many ways similar to the previously discovered long boat.

Yet, while the male in the Gokstad boat was assumed to have been powerful in his own right, the queen was assumed to have had no direct power, but rather to have derived her status from a son or a husband.

Women in Viking Burial Sites

In another case involving Viking bones, a number of ninth century Viking burial sites were discovered in north east England.

The skeletons were sexed based solely on grave goods including weapons, jewelry, and textiles. Firmly grounded in the cultural values at the time and the lack of scientific options, it was assumed that only men would have been buried with weapons, while women would have been buried with jewelry and textiles.

Thus, the bones in burial sites that contained weapons were assumed to belong to male warriors. However, later on, as historian Shane McLeod pointed out, when the bones were sexed osteologically, i.e., going by the characteristics of the bones themselves, it was discovered that a number of graves containing weapons were actually those of women.

While it might seem soundly logical that a sword in a burial site is a powerful indicator that a man was buried there, that conclusion would be logical only if it were based on the assumption that only men carried swords, a hypothesis for which there is no hard evidence.

In Scandinavian Folklore Women Donned Swords and Fought Alongside Men

In fact, at the time of the sexing of the remains based on the grave goods there actually was evidence available from Scandinavian folklore and medieval history, scant though it was, that showed that Viking women at least occasionally donned swords and fought alongside men.

In Norse legends including the Hervarar saga, these women took on male roles and proved to be formidable opponents in battle.

According to the Greenland saga, the fourteenth century epic account of the Viking struggle in Greenland and North America, Leif Erikson’s pregnant sister is reputed to have taken up arms to fight the indigenous people.

Armed Viking Women Found on Battlefields Among the Dead

Some historical evidence exists as well. Eleventh century Greek historian, John Skylitzes, chronicled the presence of armed women among the dead Viking warriors on a number battlefields.

The important point is not whether or not the queen had status in her own right or whether or not Viking women were warriors (questions that may never be answered by science); the point is only that they very well could have been, but that’s a huge “could have been”, since it flies in the face of cultural biases that have historically placed females in positions of powerlessness and dependence on men.

Research that depends at its foundation on unproven cultural assumptions must ALWAYS be flawed.

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