Woman From Ancient Burial May Have Been a Viking Warrior, Brutal Head Injury Suggests

Researchers have identified what may be the first evidence of a Viking woman with a battle injury—potentially casting new light on gender roles in ancient Scandinavian society.

National Geographic Explorer and human remains specialist Ella Al-Shamahi made the find while examining the skull of a Viking woman excavated from a lavish grave in Åsnes, Norway—which dates back to more than a thousand years ago.

During the filming of an upcoming documentary, Al-Shamahi became intrigued by a dent on the front of the skull which no one had investigated before. 3D scans of the remains were made and sent to be analyzed by a forensic expert, who concluded that the dent could have been caused by a slicing impact, like a blow from a sword or similar weapon.

This finding—alongside a handful of other recent discoveries—is challenging the traditional view held by many archaeologists that all Viking warriors were men.

The first significant piece of evidence suggesting that there may be another side to the story came in 2017, when a team of scientists investigated a 10th-century burial—located in Birka, Sweden—of what archaeologists had always assumed to be a male warrior since its discovery more than 100 years ago.

The study—which included a DNA analysis of the skeleton—revealed that, in fact, the warrior was a woman, sending shockwaves through the world of Viking archaeology. While this find has been disputed by some experts, it opens up the possibility that there could be more female Viking warriors waiting to be discovered.

"When the Birka burial was discovered, this was seen as the example of a Viking warrior. And then when it turned out to be female, everyone went, 'Ah, that's surprising,'" Al-Shamahi told Newsweek.

"There is a massive shift in the field at that moment, although some people just still refuse to accept it," she said. "Now the thinking is there may well have been quite a few [female warriors.] But the question is how many. None of us are suggesting 50 percent, but was it really the exception to the rule, or was it something fairly common."

Viking warrior woman
Facial reconstruction of the possible Viking warrior woman who was found in Norway. National Geographic

Al-Shamahi says that since the DNA analysis of the Birka warrior was published, pieces of evidence have emerged from other finds in Scandinavia to support the view that Viking women did fight in battle. In light of this, she suggests that "cultural factors" may be behind the resistance to the idea from some archaeologists.

"I think there's two things: one is sexism. But I also think in archaeology—like a lot of fields—if you have something which is a real shift in thinking, people require a really large body of evidence. A lot of the theory in this field was put down—and certainly many of the skeletons were found—in the Victorian era, so they approached everything with their own gender biases. The truth is, if these were male skeletons, we wouldn't be having this conversation about whether they were warriors or not."

Even though the woman in the Norwegian grave was buried in a prominent hillside position with a remarkable set of weapons—including arrows, a sword, an axe, and a shield on which her head rests—it has always been assumed that she was not a warrior. But the discovery of the head wound could turn that assumption upside down, potentially providing evidence that she was injured in battle.

"You can never be sure what the cause of injury is," Al-Shamahi said. "But if that injury was found on a male skeleton in a grave with those kinds of weapons in that kind of prominent position on the landscape—a telltale sign of an important Viking—the very first theory that would be put forward is that it is a battle injury. Yet there are people doubting she's even a warrior."

Al-Shamahi said her mind went into "meltdown" when she first saw the dent on the woman's skull. In fact, she immediately began to doubt her initial assessment that it may have been caused by a battle injury.

"I was thinking, 'How am I the first one to notice this?' You have to remember, this is a skeleton that has been known about for 100 years, has been studied by scientists and it's on display in a public museum. So I couldn't understand how a TV crew with an archaeologist could notice this."

"I honestly thought we might have made a mistake and I'm seeing things. But then I got it checked out with Carolyn Rando who is a brilliant forensic archaeologist and she said, 'Yes, that is an injury.'"

Intriguingly, further analysis of the brutal injury by Rando revealed signs of healing in the bone, suggesting that the woman had survived the trauma.

Ella Al-Shamahi, Viking warrior woman
Ella Al-Shamahi examining the skull of the potential Viking warrior woman excavated from a grave in Norway. National Geographic

"I think it's significant back then that she survived it," Al-Shamahi said."It's incredible to see it heal over because that makes you think she wasn't a weak woman, there was clearly something about her. I wouldn't want to meet her!"

Furthermore, Al-Shamahi suggests that not only was the woman a warrior, but she was also likely of high status—as indicated by the location and manner of her burial.

"In my mind—and this is where heavy speculation is involved—she was buried with honor. I think she was hugely significant. I think she was somebody who was a force to be reckoned with and was celebrated during her life."

Using the latest criminal forensics technology, the researchers even created a life-like reconstruction of the individual—featuring her brutal injury—revealing for the first time what a Viking female warrior could have looked like.

According to Al-Shamahi, the latest findings are helping to overturn traditional views about gender roles in Viking society, which was long thought to have been dominated by men.

"Just because a society is patriarchal doesn't mean that everybody listens to the gender norms," Al-Shamahi said. "I think there's a lot of evidence to suggest otherwise.

"I was talking to archaeologists and they were pointing out that some of the laws in the Viking period would say things like, 'Women should not bear arms.' The point is, you wouldn't need to put that down into law if women weren't doing it."

"To be fair, there have always been archaeologists who were open to the idea that some women were Viking warriors. For example, there are references to a female leader being in charge of one of the Viking attacks on Ireland. But the resistance to [this idea] has also been quite significant."

Al-Shamahi said that researchers in the field of Viking archaeology are now re-analyzing past burials—of which there are hundreds—in a bid to see if any other warriors, which experts have always assumed to be men, are actually women.

"Traditionally, the problem in Viking archaeology is that people are sexed by metal and not by bone. So they've been looking at the metal that the person is buried with and basing gender on that instead of saying, 'Hold on a second, maybe we should look at the bones.' I think what's happening right now is a revolution in the field where everyone is rethinking things."

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