The cartoon version of my Scandinavian ancestors has swarms of fiercely bearded men charging off of their longships into monasteries, where they lopped the heads off priests and plundered the gold and silver from the altars. While I admit that I find that imagery quite romantic and appealing, the truth was more complicated: they were also settlers and traders. Also, the beards may have been less common than we thought—an examination of Viking graves in East England, graves that were assumed to have belonged to men because they contained swords and shields, has revealed a surprise. When they examined bones directly to determine sex, almost half of them were female.
Women may have accompanied male Vikings in those early invasions of England, in much greater numbers than scholars earlier supposed, McLeod concludes. Rather than the ravaging rovers of legend, the Vikings arrived as marriage-minded colonists. “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.
One major caveat: old decayed skeletons that are often fragmentary or broken can be hard to sex. Skulls are subtle and sex differences are variable; pelves are pretty reliable in modern skeletons, but thousand year old bones? All bets are off. What you really want is DNA analysis, which is more expensive and which this study did not do.
But now I’m curious about something. Burying women with swords may have just been a mark of respect or wealth, and not at all indicative of their use in life, but I know some graves have revealed evidence of violent death in battle; were any of those women? I’d be surprised if more than a small minority of Viking women were actually involved in warfare, but there is a mythical and historical tradition of the Germanic and Celtic tribes having women fighting, so it would be interesting to see some verification of that.
Also, I’m married to a purebred Scandinavian woman, so I want to know if there is a possibility of some deep-seated berserkergang genes in her makeup, so I’ll know not to piss her off. Wouldn’t want to forget to take the garbage out, and have some howling Valkyrie chasing me around the house with a sword, you know.
(via Making Light)