Ancient Slavic Ax-wielding Warrior Woman Possibly Discovered in Viking Cemetery

A Polish researcher believes he has identified the grave of an ancient warrior woman buried on the Danish island of Langeland.

Leszek Gardeła, from Germany's University of Bonn, noticed something unusual about the woman's remains, which were being stored at a museum. Although she was laid to rest in a Viking cemetery, she was buried with a Slavic-style sword.

"So far, no one has paid any attention to the fact that the ax in the grave comes from the area of the southern Baltic, possibly today's Poland," he told Science in Poland.

Researchers are increasingly noticing the presence of Slavic warriors in Denmark, he explained. "During the Middle Ages, this island was a melting pot of Slavic and Scandinavian elements," Gardela said.

Gardela, an expert in Viking Age "warrior women," studied the medieval grave as part of a larger "Amazons of the North" project.

The archaeologist is compiling data on all female burials containing weapons from the 9th and 10th centuries in Denmark, Sweden and Norway. He believes about 30 such burials have been located—10 more than previously known.

The roles of men and women in Viking culture remain the subject of intense academic debate. Back in 2017, DNA testing revealed a set of famous warrior remains from Birka, Sweden, belonged to a woman and not a man. The results were published in The American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

Baylor University archaeologist Davide Zori, who wasn't involved with the research, previously told National Geographic the Birka burial had been held up "as kind of the 'ideal' Viking male warrior grave." He explained: "[The 2017 study] goes to the heart of archaeological interpretation: that we've always mapped on our idea of what gender roles were."

Gardela said researchers face several problems when trying to determine the sex of a graves' owner. Many of the graves from the time no longer contain any bone material, for example.

Archaeologists have instead used objects like jewelry to identify burials as female. "Fortunately, in the case of the grave of the alleged Slavic woman, the bones have survived, but no injuries are visible that could point to the cause of death," Gardela said.

Poor preservation also makes it hard for archaeologists to figure out the function of weapons found in the graves. Most of the female burials Gardela is investigating contain axes, but others have arrowheads or spears. Many of the graves also contain miniature weapons.

Whether the full-sized weapons were ever actually used in battle is also difficult to know. Those in a better condition may have been specifically made as funerary ornaments, or used as domestic tools. The weapons may also simply have been sharpened and refined before burial, Gardela added.

Although warrior women are found in historical texts and legendary sagas, this doesn't mean they were ever common, the scientist said. Archaeologists don't have enough evidence to support the concept, Gardela told Science in Poland.

In literature, he said, women "participate in expeditions in full gear, they even lead entire armies to attack." But in reality, he thinks women may have sometimes used weapons, for example in rituals or in self-defense—but this was probably uncommon.

Viking, Warrior women
Leszek Gardeła examines an ax discovered in the ancient grave of a woman. Gardela is trying to determine if such objects were actually used in battle, if they were ornamental, or if they were simply domestic tools. Mira Fricke/Science in Poland