Birka grave Bj 581 held a female buried in a weapons grave during the 10th century in Birka, Sweden. Although the remains had been thought to be of a male warrior since the grave's excavation in 1878, both a 2014 osteological analysis and a 2017 DNA study proved that the remains were of a female. A 2017 study claimed the person in Bj 581 was a high ranking professional warrior. The study attracted worldwide attention, as well as criticism from some academics who disputed the interpretation of burial goods.[1]

Sketch of archaeological grave found and labelled "Bj 581" in Birka, Sweden, published 1889

Archaeological records


Initial excavation


Archaeologist and ethnographer Hjalmar Stolpe (1841–1905) excavated a burial chamber in the 1870s as part of his archaeological research at the Viking Age site Birka, on the island Björkö in present-day Sweden. In 1889 he documented the grave as Bj 581.[2][3] According to a 2017 press release from Uppsala University, the grave "...served as a model for what graves for professional Viking warriors looked like. Although several features of the skeleton indicate that it may have belonged to a woman, the assumption has always been that the person buried was a male Viking."[4]

The grave was marked by a large stone boulder and was found on an elevated terrace where it was in direct contact with the garrison.[5] The grave chamber was made out of wood, 3.45 m long and 1.75 m wide. The body was found collapsed from a sitting position, wearing garments of silk, with silver thread decorations.[6] The items found in the grave included a sword, an axe, a spear, armour-piercing arrows, a sax, two shields, two stirrups and gaming pieces, dice and the possible remains of a gaming board, as well as one mare and one stallion.[5] Possible shards of a mirror were found.[1]

In the 1980s, it was suggested by several scholars that the rich chamber graves on Birka contained wealthy merchants.[1]

Detailed contents


Besides the skeletal remains, the most notable contents of the grave were the weapons. The sword, a Petersen type E was found in its sheath, near the body, as well as the head of an axe (Petersen Type M), and a fighting knife. Near the sword was a small knife made of iron and a whetstone. Two spearheads, the larger appearing to be the remains of a spear thrust into the grave and the smaller appearing to be from a spear that was thrown in. Additionally, 25 arrowheads of the Wegraeus Type D1, were all that remained of arrows and quiver. There were two shield boss, one against the front wall of the grave, and the other on the opposite wall. The organic material had decayed so that only the metal parts remained. A spearhead in miniature was found, possibly an amulet.[7]

Very little textile material was found around the skeletal remains. What was found was silk with silver brocade. Based on comparison with other graves, it could have been a kaftan. 40 shards of mirror glass were also found. They may have been part of a mirror, or part of the clothing. A simple iron ring pin was found, suggesting a cloak was worn over the kaftan. The hat was of samite silk with silver trim and a tassel.[7]

Additional items found were a bronze vessel, part of "an Arab silver dirham of Nasr ibn Ahmad from the reign of al-Muktadir (AD 913–933)", three tin rods, and the remains of a belt set.[7]

28 game pieces were found, including a king piece. They were wrapped in a bag with three dice and three weights. Additionally, what is presumed to be the iron frame of a game board was found.[7]

On a platform made of clay lay a mare and a stallion, one of which was bridled for riding. Additionally, four ice crampons were found, as well as a large comb made of antler.[7]

Reanalysis of skeletal remains


Studies in the 1970s had questioned the assumption the skeleton was male. Although parts of the skeleton went missing, most notably the upper cranium, in 2014 an osteological analysis was possible. Analysis of the skeleton's pelvic bones and mandible by Stockholm University bioarchaeologist Anna Kjellström in 2016 provided evidence that the bones were those of a female.[3][8] Kjellström acknowledged the uncertainties inherent in analyzing the remains found in the grave: "Whether these are not the correct bones for this grave or whether it opens up reinterpretations of weapon graves in Birka, it is too early to say."[8]

In the popular press, The Washington Post reported, "The warrior was, in fact, female. And not just any female, but a Viking warrior woman, a shieldmaiden". Archaeologist David Zori noted, "numerous Viking sagas, such as the 13th-century Saga of the Volsungs, tell of 'shield-maidens' fighting alongside male warriors".[9]

A study led by Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson published in September 2017 noted Kjellström's "osteological analysis triggered questions concerning sex, gender and identity among Viking warriors".[5] Hedenstierna-Jonson's team extracted DNA from samples taken from a tooth and an arm bone of the person buried in Bj 581. The skeleton had two different X-chromosomes, but no Y-chromosomes, conclusively proving that the bones were that of a female.[10]

The same study also analyzed strontium isotopes on the skeleton to identify the geographic profile of the individual. This determined that she had similar markers with present-day people living in areas that were under the sphere of influence of the Vikings.[5] This generated questions about whether the individual was originally from Birka or had settled there later. The conclusion of the study was that "the individual in grave Bj 581 is the first confirmed female high-ranking Viking warrior".[5] Archaeologist David Zori wrote, "numerous Viking sagas, such as the 13th century Saga of the Volsungs, tell of 'shield-maidens' fighting alongside male warriors".[3] An analysis of the weapons indicated the weapons had been used by a trained warrior and were not ceremonial.[10]

The authors responded to the criticism in a second article published in Antiquity that provided additional information about their methodology and reaffirmed their conclusion.[11]



Gaming pieces


The grave contained 28 gaming pieces, three dice, as well as metal pieces that were probably mounts from a gaming board. The Guardian reported that the gaming pieces could be from hnefatafl.[12] According to Kjellström, "Only a few warriors are buried with gaming pieces, and they signal strategic thinking."[13] This may also indicate that she was a member of the military caste.[14][15] However, Leszek Gardela pointed out that gaming pieces were not uncommon among male and female burials.[16]



As Stolpe wrote his report to the Royal Swedish Academy, he used neutral terms and did not give any interpretation. However, later in a less formal article he referred to the grave as that belonging to a Christian warrior. Authors of the Hedenstierna-Jonson paper stated that "Viking scholars have been reluctant to acknowledge the agency of women with weapons", and that "at Birka, grave Bj 581 was brought forward as an example of an elaborate high-status male warrior grave."[5] Additionally, they cited Marianne Moen's 2011 study that concluded that the "image of the male warrior in a patriarchal society was reinforced by research traditions and contemporary preconceptions".[5] Other scholars have noted that cultural bias can result in incorrect interpretations of burial sites.[10]

The Hedenstierna-Jonson team considered questions about the sex identification of the remains within the context of the martial objects buried with the bones, asserting that "the distribution of the grave goods within the grave, their spatial relation to the female individual and the total lack of any typically female attributed grave artefacts" disputed possibilities that the other artefacts belonged to the family of the deceased, or to a male "now missing" from the grave.[5]

The term "warrior's grave" has been criticized;[1] many researchers prefer the more neutral term, "weapons grave".[17] In 1980 Anne-Sofie Gräslund disagreed with interpreting the graves at Birka as warrior graves, arguing that it implies the deceased was a full time warrior, when it is more likely that presence of many weapons "represents a social elite. The majority of Birka’s graves are considerably less well equipped... The upper strata in society could easily afford to sacrifice not only a sword but also a host of other symbol-bearing items, ranging from peacocks to gilt brooches as abundantly witnessed in the archaeological record".[18] However, in 2017 the results of the DNA test which confirmed that the person in Bj 581 was a woman included the claim that she was not only a warrior, but a professional one and a "high ranking officer". Some scholars have not agreed on such interpretations of complex Viking burial findings, arguing "that viking gender roles may have been more complex than we assume."[19]

Judith Jesch critiqued the study's use of textual sources as well the failure to discuss alternative interpretations:

Many aspects of the new article will lead to further discussion. The authors often make too much of rather slim evidence. The strong link they make between the gaming board and pieces [found with the remains] and the 'command' status of the individual is still unconvincing. In the online supplementary material they refer to "[w]hat appears to be an iron-framed gaming board", suggesting that the evidential basis of their interpretation is insecure. The authors also make much of various "eastern" aspects of the burial but do not address the ways in which this might complicate their classification of it as 'Viking'. But with fragmentary evidence from more than a thousand years ago, some well-informed speculation is useful for moving the discussion forward.[20]

Fedir Androshchuk, archaeologist, in "Female Viking Revisited," Viking and Medieval Scandinavia, pointed out flaws in the archaeological methods, including both the failure to acknowledge the disturbed state of the Birka graves, and also Stolpe's assistance from nonprofessionals (farmers) doing excavation as well as note-taking and drawings. He also noted the original sketch differed from later interpretive sketches of the grave, and the effect of the stone removal on grave contents. He believed Berit Vilkans's records showed a second body.[21]

Hedenstestierna-Jonson stated that Hjalmar Stolpe was known for his meticulous note taking and careful documentation. Each bone found in the grave had been labelled "Bj 5811" with India ink at the time of excavation.[10]

Additionally, Martin Rundkvist, archaeologist, wrote on his blog Aardvarchaeology, "Your skeleton can't tell us anything about your gender, and your grave goods can't tell us anything about your osteo-sex [sex as determined your by bones] …The plan of the grave shows which bones were well preserved. This should be enough to counter the charge that maybe the skeleton currently labelled Bj 581 is not in fact the one found in this weapon grave. This the authors should have written a few sentences about it… We still can't rule out the early removal of an articulated male body. But such an argument ex silentio would demand that we place similar female bodies in all other weapon graves as well. We can't just create the bodies we want in order for the material to look neat."[22]

The Hedenstierna-Jonson study concludes with the comment, "the combination of ancient genomics, isotope analyses and archaeology can contribute to the rewriting of our understanding of social organization concerning gender, mobility and occupation patterns in past societies."[5] Swedish historian Dick Harrison of Lunds University wrote, "What has happened in the past 40 years through archaeological research, partly fueled by feminist research, is that women have been found to be priestesses and leaders, too... This has forced us to rewrite history."[23]

Holly Norton posed these questions: "What does it mean that Bj 581 was a female? What does this tell us about how Viking society was structured? Was Bj 581 unique, or did she represent a category of women that has been largely relegated to mythology? And what can this tell us about how violent conflict was viewed and experienced?"[15]

See also



  1. ^ a b c d Edberg, Rune (2019). "Some comments on the interpretation of Birka grave Bj 581". Marinarkeologisk tidskrift.
  2. ^ Koffmar, Linda (8 September 2017). "Första DNA-bevisen för kvinnlig vikingakrigare" [First DNA evidence for female Viking warriors] (Press release) (in Swedish). Uppsala, SE: Uppsala University. Archived from the original on 17 September 2017. Retrieved 9 July 2020.
  3. ^ a b c Greshko, Michael (12 September 2017). "Famous Viking warrior was a woman, DNA reveals". National Geographic. Archived from the original on 17 September 2017. Retrieved 17 September 2017.
  4. ^ Koffmar, Linda (8 September 2017). "Första DNA-bevisen för kvinnlig vikingakrigare" [First DNA evidence for female Viking warriors] (Press release) (in Swedish). Uppsala, Sweden: Uppsala University. Archived from the original on 17 September 2017.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i Hedenstierna-Jonson, Charlotte; Kjellström, Anna; Zachrisson, Torun; Krzewińska, Maja; Sobrado, Veronica; Price, Neil; Günther, Torsten; Jakobsson, Mattias; Götherström, Anders (2017). "A female Viking warrior confirmed by genomics". American Journal of Physical Anthropology. 164 (4): 853–860. doi:10.1002/ajpa.23308. ISSN 1096-8644. PMC 5724682. PMID 28884802.
  6. ^ Hedenstierna-Jonson, Charlotte (May 2018). "Women at war? The Birka female warrior and her implications". The Society for American Archaeology - Archaeological Record. 18 (3): 28–31.
  7. ^ a b c d e Price, Neil. "Price et al. supplementary material" (PDF).
  8. ^ a b Kjellström, Anna (8 November 2016). "People in transition: Life in the Mälaren Valley from an osteological perspective". Archived from the original on 17 September 2017. Retrieved 17 September 2017 – via ResearchGate.
  9. ^ Greshko, Michael (12 September 2017). "Famous Viking Warrior Was a Woman, DNA Reveals". National Geographic. Archived from the original on 17 September 2017. Retrieved 17 September 2017.
  10. ^ a b c d "Secrets of the Dead / Viking Warrior Queen / Season 18 / Episode 4". Archived from the original on 11 July 2020. Retrieved 7 May 2021.
  11. ^ Price, Neil; Hedenstierna-Jonson, Charlotte; Zachrisson, Torun; Kjellström, Anna; Storå, Jan; Krzewińska, Maja; Günther, Torsten; Sobrado, Verónica; Jakobsson, Mattias; Götherström, Anders (February 2019). "Viking warrior women? Reassessing Birka chamber grave Bj.581". Antiquity. 93 (367): 181–198. doi:10.15184/aqy.2018.258.
  12. ^ Cocozza, Paula (12 September 2017). "Does new DNA evidence prove that there were female viking warlords?". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Archived from the original on 17 September 2017. Retrieved 16 September 2017.
  13. ^ Strickland, Ashley (14 September 2017). "Iconic Viking grave belonged to a female warrior". CNN. Archived from the original on 17 September 2017. Retrieved 16 September 2017.
  14. ^ Nutt, Amy Ellis (14 September 2017). "Wonder woman lived: Viking warrior skeleton identified as female, 128 years after its discovery". The Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Archived from the original on 17 September 2017. Retrieved 16 September 2017.
  15. ^ a b Norton, Holly (15 September 2017). "How the female Viking warrior was written out of history". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 16 September 2017. Retrieved 15 September 2017.
  16. ^ Gardeła, Leszek (2021). Women and Weapons in the Viking World: Amazons of the North. ISBN 9781636240695.
  17. ^ Surrisi, C. M. (2023). "Discussion Questions". The Bones of Birka. Chicago Review Press. ISBN 9781641607070.
  18. ^ Edberg, Rune (1 January 2020). "Some comments on the interpretation of Birka grave Bj 581". (Marinarkeologisk tidskrift, 3, 2019).
  19. ^ Foss, Arild S. (2 January 2013). "Don't underestimate Viking women". Archived from the original on 26 March 2017. Retrieved 17 September 2017.
  20. ^ "Viking 'warrior women': Judith Jesch, expert in Viking studies, examines the latest evidence". HistoryExtra. 4 March 2019. Retrieved 26 November 2023.
  21. ^ Androshchuk, Fedir (1 January 2018). "Female Viking Revisited". Viking and Medieval Scandinavia. 14: 47–60.
  22. ^ Rundkvist, Martin (12 September 2017). "A Female Viking Warrior Interred at Birka". Aardvarchaeology. Retrieved 7 December 2023.
  23. ^ Anderson, Christina (14 September 2017). "A female Viking warrior? Tomb study yields clues". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Archived from the original on 21 September 2017. Retrieved 21 September 2017.