A battle over finding Viking woman warrior’s remains

Viking culture is becoming a big theme in Swedish tourism, and the Viking burial ground where the tomb is has been an attraction since it was discovered in the 1880s.

STOCKHOLM — When a team of scholars announced that a famous Viking tomb in Sweden contained the remains of a woman, it seemed to provide long-awaited support for legends of female Viking warriors that date to the early Middle Ages but had been dismissed, in modern times, as myths.

The scholars reported Sept. 8 that their findings, based on DNA tests, “suggest that women, indeed, were able to be full members of male-dominated spheres” in Viking society.

But a respected scholar of the Vikings says that conclusion is premature. She says the researchers who conducted the tests were so determined to show that women were Viking warriors that they overlooked other possible explanations for why a woman’s body might have been in the tomb, which dates to the first half of the 10th century.

The controversy is not merely academic. Viking culture is becoming a big theme in Swedish tourism, and the Viking burial ground where the tomb is has been an attraction since it was discovered in the 1880s.

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More significantly, the controversy has reignited a longstanding debate about the role of women among the Vikings, Norse seafarers whose exploits, from the eighth to the 11th centuries, are central to Scandinavian identity.

The tomb at the center of the debate is known as Bj 581, after its location when it was excavated at the Birka settlement on the island of Bjorko, which is west of Stockholm, with easy access to the Baltic Sea. (UNESCO designated the settlement a World Heritage Site in 1993.)

The grave was one of 1,100 excavated at the site, but it was immediately recognized as important because it was so well-furnished and intact. The grave, on an elevated terrace next to a military garrison, included a sword, an ax, a spear, armor-piercing arrows, a battle knife, two shields and two horses — “the complete equipment of a professional warrior,” as the team of scholars put it.

The tomb was quickly identified as that of a high-ranking warrior — who was presumed to have been male.

As early as the 1970s, scholars began to question that assumption. A bone analysis in 2013 suggested the skeleton was that of a woman, although the evidence remained inconclusive.

In the new study, published in the…

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