Did Viking Shield Maidens Really Exist?
Updated: Jul 8, 2021
As I explore new eras and probe the available information out there to separate fact from fiction, I stumbled across the most compelling evidence yet that shield maidens were every bit as ferocious and able warriors as their male counterparts.
Viking stories have always fascinated me, but rarely have I had the opportunity to dig deeper into the social structures and lifestyles. I cherry pick my way through novels and television series based on the entertainment value, often not questioning the truth behind the tales. And why would I jeopardise my enjoyment by poking about in the archives of university studies in search of facts?
There were two factors that spurred me on to look into women warriors. The first was simple curiosity and a desire to expand my knowledge. I've reached that dangerous stage of an author's career where the end of a series is looming and a dozen other potential story lines from multiple eras all vie for my attention. I have no idea which way I'll jump.
The second was in response to a thread I read on social media that called into question the validity of female Viking warriors. That simmered in my gut until I could bear it no more. The assumption that women are too meek and mild, afraid of inflicting or receiving pain, or being too frail to cope in violent situations is laughable.
Perhaps the fashion of swooning in the past has brainwashed generations of men for the last few centuries, but I have absolutely no doubt that women are just as capable of bravery, precision and strategy as men. We may not be as physically strong, but we're wily enough to find alternative methods of doing damage.
Putting my wrath at this arrogance to good use, I trawled through as many scholarly articles as possible to find categorical evidence to support the existence of Viking shield maidens. It did not take me long to find a study from Uppsala and Stockholm Universities from 2017.
Analysing the grave contents from a former excavation carried out in 1889, the team uncovered startling new DNA evidence. The iconic dig site at the Swedish Viking town of Birka, revealed a high status, mid-10th Century warrior surrounded by weapons, including a sword, armour-piercing arrowheads, two horses and a full gaming set and board.
The skeletal remains were suggestive of female traits, but the original excavators dismissed the possibility as being most unlikely. For more than a century, researchers widely accepted that the skeleton of someone with such weapons and grave goods could only be a high-ranking male warrior.
In 2017, the remains were analysed using modern techniques, with teams of geneticists, archaeogeneticists and archaeologists pooling skills and resources to discover the truth. The samples revealed a definitive answer. The DNA contained no Y chromosome on the 23rd pairing. Professor Mattias Jakobson at Uppsala University's Department of Organismal Biology said; 'This is the first formal and genetic confirmation of a female Viking warrior.'
The team went further and used isotope analysis to determine whether she was from one small, fixed region, indicating a homestead style of living. The team were surprised to find that the results confirmed a variety of regions represented by the bone samples, supporting a travelling lifestyle, common with Viking warrior bands that dominated 8th to 10th Century Europe.
The leader of the study, Charlotte Hedensterna-Jonson of Stockholm University, said; 'The game set indicates that she was an officer, someone who worked with tactics and strategy and could lead troops in battle. What we have studied was not a Valkyrie from the sagas but a real life military leader, that happens to be a woman.'
As is often the case in historical texts, the role of women has clearly been downplayed to the extent where we now have to rely on rigorous scientific evidence to prove their importance. This is something pointed out by Professor Neil Price from Uppsala University Department of Archaeology and Ancient History; 'Written sources mention female warriors occasionally, but this is the first time that we've found really convincing archaeological evidence for their existence.'
As a writer of historical fiction in a category traditionally dominated by men, I am staggered by the number of novels which still relegate the female characters to that of romantic distractions or damsels in distress. I've even had men send me lengthy emails, explaining that women would never behave the way that they do in my books, thinking that they are addressing a male author. We may appear docile and compliant on the outside but believe me when I say that we are anything but on the inside. We've just learnt to hide our fury better than men.
If I had lived in the 9th Century among Vikings, Danes, or Britons, I can honestly say that I would've been one deadly little woman.
Source: American Journal of Physical Anthropology - Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson et al, Spet 2017