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Vikings? More like Valkyrie, amirite?
July 23, 2011 11:10 AM   Subscribe

It turns out that a bunch of the bodies in Viking burial sites that were categorized as male because they were buried with swords, etc, are actually female if you look at the bones. More details.
posted by rmd1023 (52 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite

 
Blind spots happen in other kinds of archaological analysis. A paleoindian burial site in Buhl, Idaho,(That's the abstract - full article behind a paywall there, or apparently online here.) was found with a needle and "bone implement of unknown function" that had presumably been broken in two. (picture halfway down the page here). But if you look around in the fiber arts community, that 'ornament' looks a lot like another common tool. There don't seem to be any google-able scholarly archaology articles pointing this out, but the folks researching the history of weaving/spinning/etc from the fiber arts side of things, it's pretty '[no citation needed]'.
posted by rmd1023 at 11:10 AM on July 23, 2011 [5 favorites]


Also, thanks to KathrynT for googling help on the bobbin thing.
posted by rmd1023 at 11:11 AM on July 23, 2011


They sacked your village backwards and in high heels.
posted by louche mustachio at 11:19 AM on July 23, 2011 [89 favorites]


"Although the results presented here cannot be used to determine the number of female settlers, they do suggest that the ratio of females to males may have been somewhere between a third to roughly equal," the study concludes.

Well, yes, I think that makes sense. We are talking about settlers, after all. You had to have both, because surely some were running off and getting killed in raids and eventually you would need baby Vikings to replace them, right? Seems like a silly mistake for archeologists to make.

A wizard scientist should know better.
posted by misha at 11:20 AM on July 23, 2011 [3 favorites]


That certainly makes more sense. A "migration" that doesn't involve women is a short-lived migration indeed.
posted by mhoye at 11:20 AM on July 23, 2011 [7 favorites]


louche mustachio: if I could favorite your comment nine times, I would.
posted by madred at 11:23 AM on July 23, 2011


Is there evidence that they were fighting with these weapons? One of the articles described the grave in which these bodies were found at Repton Woods as "a mass grave", which does make it seem so. Also, I'm not aware that the Chronicle mentions female fighters among the Danes, which should(?) have been noteworthy.
posted by Jehan at 11:28 AM on July 23, 2011


Jehan, I am not knowledgable about Viking gear, but is it possible that a female fighter wouldn't be that distinguishable from a male? Especially if she was setting your house on fire while you ran away?

Not that it wouldn't be surprising, and yes, I would love to know there were Viking warrior women, but would never assume so without more evidence.
posted by emjaybee at 11:32 AM on July 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


You'd think a dead giveaway would be the steel bras.
posted by happyroach at 11:39 AM on July 23, 2011 [5 favorites]


Yeah, the textile arts conference I was at where the Buhl woman's grave goods were presented was a hoot. the presenter put up the picture of the needle, and then put up the picture of the "unknown object" and said "And what do you think these are?" and everyone in the room said "Bobbins!" nearly simultaneously. If you work with such tools regularly, it's as obvious as the fact that the needle is a needle.
posted by KathrynT at 11:43 AM on July 23, 2011 [7 favorites]


Jehan, I am not knowledgable about Viking gear, but is it possible that a female fighter wouldn't be that distinguishable from a male? Especially if she was setting your house on fire while you ran away?

Well sure, in any given encounter things would have moved so fast that it might not have been possible to identify who was who, if indeed the English hadn't already run for the hills. But the attacks and settlement of England lasted for tens of years, with Danes eventually taking half the land. I can't help but think that if women fighters had been a large part of the Danish here, it would have been known and mentioned.

If the grave in which they were found wasn't a war grave, then the outcome is still interesting as it means that weapons were considered a normal part of women's gear, whatever use they were put to.
posted by Jehan at 11:51 AM on July 23, 2011


Validation for Margaret Ehrenberg's book Women in Prehistory, wch talks about graves being interpreted as male solely on the basis of weapons. I'm sure it's out of date now in many ways, but it was formative for me in around 1989. I'm sad in some ways to see Ehrenberg is now out of academia and working in Chinese herbal medicine.
posted by paduasoy at 11:52 AM on July 23, 2011 [3 favorites]


I was a history major in college, and I took a couple class class that relied entirely on archeology for their evidence. While I'm sure I'm being overly broad and someone with an expert's background will no doubt think I'm wrong, the whole field seemed so hand-wavy. It's like they dig something up, look at it for a couple seconds, and randomly decide what it is. I know this must be wrong, but it seems like archeologist spend half their time saying "this squiggly line looks like... a snake! I pronounce these the snake worshiping people of Snakeopolis!"
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 12:11 PM on July 23, 2011 [7 favorites]


Viking marauders had patterns filed into their teeth

Tooth filing was a worldwide craze among Viking men
posted by homunculus at 12:11 PM on July 23, 2011


I wonder whether the tooth filing was done post-mortem.
posted by hermitosis at 12:43 PM on July 23, 2011


I'll be happy when the internet is littered with the gravesites of paywalls. I'm fine with NYT charging for content, but these scientific journals charging really bugs me.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 12:50 PM on July 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


A wizard scientist should know better.

Temperance Brennan woulda caught that shit in a minute.
posted by entropone at 12:50 PM on July 23, 2011 [4 favorites]


I've managed to get hold of the article, and here's my take.

The grave mentioned is from Repton, which was used as an overwintering base for the Great Heathen Army in 873-4. That army's campaign managed to overthrow several English kingdoms, and so the people who took part are likely to be among the earliest settlers in England. The "mass grave" nature is reflective of the large number of deaths in winter or from a disease, but not connected with fighting. Two hundred and sixty-four people were buried in the grave, of which it was already known that about 18% were female. Archeologists had suggested they were English women and described them (possibly sexist) as "camp followers". However, carbon dating established that the site used for the mass grave already had a certain number of English burials, so precise knowledge of when and where skeletons came from was not always possible.

It is known from written sources that Danish settlers in the 890s included women and children, specifically as attached to men (as wives or sons). But it has long been believed that only a few Danish woman came as settlers to England in this early period, before 900, and tiny numbers were attached to the army. The best evidence of early female settlement comes from easily gendered brooches of Scandinavian design. Sexing skeletons according to gravegoods has been difficult, because although English women were known to have been buried with knives, the presence of Danish design jewelry has often caused similar burials to be regarded as male. A majority of burials believed to be Danes have been considered male.

However, osteological testing was performed on 14 burials known to be or associated with Danes. Some of the gravegoods suggested males, although others suggested females or were ambiguous. The outcome of the testing was a roughly even split between male and female. But several females had gravegoods such as knifes and swords which would have otherwise been sexed as male without osteological testing. This suggests that Danish women were more common in England in the period before 900 than had been believed. This in turn raises the possibility that the settlement and acculturation of the Danes happened in a way differently than previously thought.
posted by Jehan at 1:05 PM on July 23, 2011 [10 favorites]


which was used as an overwintering base for the Great Heathen Army


This is a good thread because I learned the phrase THE GREAT HEATHEN ARMY exists.
posted by The Whelk at 1:08 PM on July 23, 2011 [20 favorites]


This is a good thread because I learned the phrase THE GREAT HEATHEN ARMY exists.

If you notice, this was the fall/winter army of 873, and there was also a spring/summer army in 874. The fashionable Dane could pillage all year round.
posted by Jehan at 1:13 PM on July 23, 2011 [4 favorites]


Indeed, it suggests that female migration may have been as significant as male...

Wow. These scientists are geniuses. Boys and girls liked to move together. GENIUS.
posted by hal_c_on at 1:32 PM on July 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Temperance Brennan woulda caught that shit in a minute.

When I was getting my anthropology B.A., we learned that it's been pretty common to gender-type skeletons based entirely on grave goods. What makes it extra ridiculous is that it's really easy to tell complete male and female skeletons apart. If the pelvis is still there, a layperson with an afternoon of training could probably tell the difference. A good forensic anthropologist can tell just from looking at the knee joint. Kind of off-topic, but interesting: a professor of mine told us that 19th-century skeletons are very easy to tell apart because Victorian women's ribcages were often badly deformed by their corsets.
posted by Nibbly Fang at 1:33 PM on July 23, 2011 [5 favorites]


A "migration" that doesn't involve women is a short-lived migration indeed.

Maybe not, but I'd certainly volunteer for that short-lived migration effort. Sounds like great fun.
posted by hippybear at 1:41 PM on July 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


The Very Fabulous Heathen Army.
posted by The Whelk at 1:51 PM on July 23, 2011 [6 favorites]


Fascinating. Thanks.
posted by nickyskye at 1:55 PM on July 23, 2011


Metafilter: The Very Fabulous Heathen Army.

(Oh come on, you knew someone had to do it.)
posted by WidgetAlley at 1:56 PM on July 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Wow. These scientists are geniuses. Boys and girls liked to move together. GENIUS.

They previously assumed that male settlers had sought wives from the English. It was a perfectly reasonable model for migration, and not entirely unseen in more modern times.
posted by Jehan at 2:12 PM on July 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


A "migration" that doesn't involve women is a short-lived migration indeed.

"They will leave their wives and their children, for a man knows that anywhere in the night he can encounter the one and engender the other."

Borges, "Hengist wants men"
posted by Segundus at 2:15 PM on July 23, 2011


I mean, carrying off the local women was like a trademark Viking thing. Like helmets with horns on...
posted by Segundus at 2:18 PM on July 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


And I know Hengist was not a Viking, but mutatis mutandis.
posted by Segundus at 2:21 PM on July 23, 2011


I'll be happy when the internet is littered with the gravesites of paywalls.

And future post-human archaeologists will consider them to have some unknown religious significance, and to be overwhelmingly male.
posted by happyroach at 2:36 PM on July 23, 2011 [4 favorites]


Sigrid Olafsdottir will fucking fight you.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 3:24 PM on July 23, 2011 [4 favorites]


I mean, carrying off the local women was like a trademark Viking thing. Like helmets with horns on...

...which they never actually wore.
posted by Sys Rq at 3:41 PM on July 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


I mean, carrying off the local women was like a trademark Viking thing.

So you're saying female vikings wouldn't do that?
posted by Mcable at 3:45 PM on July 23, 2011


MetaFilter: The Great Heathen Army
posted by Mental Wimp at 4:01 PM on July 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


I mean, carrying off the local women was like a trademark Viking thing. Like helmets with horns on...

Well, if you believe some more modern scholarship, the local women were as likely to throw themselves at the clean, well-groomed vikings in preference to the filthy, ill-kempt locals.

Which, I guess, makes the carrying off just like the horned helmets (didn't happen).

Regardless of whether women were going looting and pillaging, I've always been under the impression they were active in defending the homesteads when the men were out at sea, anyway. The notion of thei shield maiden was well-established enough that it's the root for Eowyn when Tolkien was cribbing classic elements of old Germanic and Nordic mythology, after all.
posted by rodgerd at 4:28 PM on July 23, 2011


I thought there were a number of recentish articles suggesting there was a gender imbalance in Viking society because of high female infanticide, and which suggested that was one of the causes for Viking raids?
posted by lesbiassparrow at 4:48 PM on July 23, 2011


You couldn't wait for VikingSword to post this?
posted by shothotbot at 5:28 PM on July 23, 2011


Hey guyz. Did you know Vikings didn't really wear horny helmets??
posted by stinkycheese at 6:31 PM on July 23, 2011


hippybear: "A "migration" that doesn't involve women is a short-lived migration indeed.

Maybe not, but I'd certainly volunteer for that short-lived migration effort. Sounds like great fun.
"

Well, okay then.
posted by gingerbeer at 6:59 PM on July 23, 2011 [3 favorites]


This is the second time this week for me that How To Train Your Dragon has been shown to be surprisingly accurate. Really looking forward to seeing my first Night Fury now.
posted by maryr at 7:15 PM on July 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


is it possible that a female fighter wouldn't be that distinguishable from a male?
Duh.
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:52 PM on July 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


This isn't really surprising at all; a quick survey of the romance-novel literature suggests that up to 40% of the female population in Viking settlements was made up of modern women hurled backwards in time, and although they might have melted in Olaf's firm yet tender embrace they certainly didn't stand for any discriminatory crap like not being buried with the same swords as any other member of the community.
posted by No-sword at 10:20 PM on July 23, 2011 [9 favorites]


I thought there were a number of recentish articles suggesting there was a gender imbalance in Viking society because of high female infanticide, and which suggested that was one of the causes for Viking raids?

Yes. This. Also the assumption of widespread polygamy within cultures from which people went viking.

Despite the fairly small sample group here, and despite the conclusions being fairly tentative, this might end up challenging some fairly fundamental stuff. There's always been a big hanging question about WHY so many men might have exploded out of Northern Europe during the Viking period (maybe also earlier and later). The explanations offered have tended to work back from the assumption that it was mostly men who emigrated to conclusions about Scandinavian culture and society involving female infanticide and polygamy. Sort of a "There were lots of young men leaving? They must have been looking for wives! Because they killed all their daughters!!" deal.

But if it turns out there were substantial numbers of women leaving as well, that sort of extended reasoning just isn't necessary. Instead it's possible to stick with more mundane explanations such as steady but relatively fast population growth in a region scarce in some resources (eg good agricultural land).

Also, if this one takes off, it has the potential to throw the cat amongst the pigeons with respect to existing interpretations of the current genetic and linguistic evidence of the Viking presence in England and Scotland. But that's for another thread.
posted by Ahab at 11:58 PM on July 23, 2011


cultures from which people went viking.

Wait... "vike" is a verb?
posted by hippybear at 7:26 AM on July 24, 2011


Yep!

Well no,, Viking is the name of an activity, " to go on a long sea voyage, possibly for raiding or piracy" the people's who did this regularly were called Vikings.
posted by The Whelk at 7:44 AM on July 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


Several Medevial pundits insisted on calling them "Vikingers" and were fortunatly burned at the stake.
posted by shothotbot at 8:07 AM on July 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


The English at the time called them Danes, and I prefer that name too. "Viking" has lots of bad stereotypes so I'm unwilling to use it.
posted by Jehan at 10:42 AM on July 24, 2011


Not a Favre fan, huh?
posted by maryr at 3:32 PM on July 24, 2011


Oglaf
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:33 PM on July 24, 2011


This isn't really new news, as pauduasoy noted above. I remember reading in Christine Fell's Women in Anglo-Saxon England about how forensic anthropologists had discovered that some of the pagan Anglo-Saxon graves previously assumed to be of men due to grave goods were actually of women. There are also graves that contain both "women's" and "men's" grave goods.

Gender isn't a simple thing in any culture.
posted by QIbHom at 11:40 AM on July 25, 2011


on a side note, I just discovered Viking Metal, and it is an awesome genre of music
posted by farmersckn at 4:04 PM on July 29, 2011


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