DNA finally proves that female Viking warriors like Lagertha existed. In the 1880s, a massive gravesite was found in the Swedish town of Birka. One of the graves, Bj581, is the one to be making history right now. Cataloged as an anomalous grave for years, grave Bj581 is now making us question our past and our present. Are our prejudices tainting out past? Are we reading these findings through our preconceptions on gender roles in our society?
Although bones of Bj581 grave always looked female, making it an anomalous grave. When female bones are found alongside weapons or artifacts that are associated with male roles, graves are cataloged as unusual. If women are found in a tomb with weapons, it is argued that those weapons could have been heirlooms, symbols, or goods reflecting the status of her family and not hers. Others in the scientific community say that the graves have held a second individual at some point in time and that those artifacts belong to him. Others argue that when weapons are found in a female burial, these do not make her a warrior. If in all these cases male remains are found, no one questions their role or their warriorhood. Why do we struggle so much with the warrior identity when remains are those of a female?
It is clear that our prejudices and preconceptions do a weak service to our view of the past. Sex, gender, and social roles are not the same. And how we see them in our present might be at odds on how people saw them in the past. Thus, dismissing Bj581’s Lagertha as just something unique and not widespread is a mistake. It is more so to argue even against her being a warrior, and just look her sex to define her role in Nordic society. We must be open to role fluidity within old cultures, instead of imposing our present monolithic views on what roles male and female should do within society.
Finding remains in a grave accompanied with weapons does point to a warrior role of the individual buried in the grave. That the sex of the bones is that of a female or a male is irrelevant. What is relevant is the role that the individual had within society.
When we put our ideals of sex and gender roles on remains of the past we’re rewriting history. Our arguments on female Viking warriors only uncover what’s wrong with our society today. I am sure that warriors like Lagertha existed in the past in high-ranking roles as well as less glamourous ones. But the question here is not if they existed but if we allow them to have the same status they had when they lived.
We’re still in the middle of a battle with the image of women in the media. Should we be surprised when archeologists can’t agree on a role of a woman who lived centuries ago? We must then ask ourselves: how clean are scientists of all these ideals set on women by our society?
Viking scholars might be reluctant to acknowledge the agency of women with weapons. Many in the media business are also unwilling to change the image of women too. But, if we don’t get rid of these views soon, we won’t even be able to glimpse to our past correctly.
I do believe that gender roles were different in the Viking age, having enough flexibility as to find many females in warrior graves. It is time to acknowledge that sex and gender roles might have been different in the past.
We should also take the opportunity that finds like this offer to us. First, we can glimpse into our past and discover that we know little about it. Second, we can use the findings and our arguments to question our society and how we see women today. If we cannot acknowledge the agency of women with weapons, how can we recognize the agency of women with any traditional male role today?