A female warrior long assumed to be a Viking may actually be a Slavic warrior woman who migrated to Denmark from present-day Poland over 1,000 years ago, says a researcher in Germany. The discovery comes amid debate about the role and prevalence of female warriors in the Viking age.
Researchers first located the woman’s grave on the Danish island of Langeland. The grave contained surviving bones and an Arab coin from the 10th century, a period in which Vikings inhabited Denmark. It was the only grave in the cemetery that contained weapons, and the researchers concluded that it belonged to a female Viking warrior.
Now, a researcher of Scandinavian languages and literature at the University of Bonn, Germany, is taking another look. While researching 9th- and 10th-century women’s graves containing weapons in Denmark, Sweden and Norway, Leszek Gardeła noticed that both the type of grave and the axe the woman was buried with suggest a Slavic origin. The axe in particular appears to come from the southern Baltic region, possibly modern-day Poland.
“During the Middle Ages, this island was a melting pot of Slavic and Scandinavian elements,” Gardeła told Science in Poland. “The presence of Slavic warriors in Denmark was more significant than previously thought.”
The prevalence of female warriors in the Viking world has become a hot topic of debate in recent years. In 2017, when researchers announced the bones in the grave of a decorated warrior in Sweden’s Birka Viking settlement were female, they were met with disbelief. Some questioned whether the buried person—whose grave contained high quality weapons, an imported uniform, two horses and even a gaming set—was a warrior after all.
“What I find a bit interesting is that since it was excavated in the 1870s, it has constantly been interpreted as a warrior grave because it looks like a warrior grave and it’s placed by the garrison and by the hillfort,” said Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson, who co-authored the 2017 paper about the discovery, in an interview with HISTORY. “Nobody’s ever contested it until the skeleton proved to be female and then it was not a valid interpretation anymore.”
Unlike other Viking women buried with weapons, this Birka warrior wasn’t wearing typical women’s clothing or jewelry. Gender identity in the Viking world is something we can only speculate about, and in a follow-up paper, Hedenstierna-Jonson acknowledged that other Vikings may not have seen this particular warrior as a woman (researchers recently discovered American Revolutionary War hero Casimir Pulaski may have been intersex).
Before Gardeła began his latest research project, researchers only knew of about 20 women’s graves from the 9th and 10th centuries containing weapons in Denmark, Sweden and Norway. Now, Gardeła has added about 10 to that list.
READ MORE: What We Know About Vikings and Slaves