The Legacy of a Powerful Woman

Viking Burial
Burial Bj 581, Birka.
Taken from the American Journal of Physical Anthropology 8 SEP 2017

New research on old data can lead to surprising results. Sometimes it is the mere fact that we find particular things surprising that should surprise us.

This is an old argument. I’m surprised that we are still debating it.

So it is with the much discussed reanalysis of Grave Bj581 at Birka in Sweden. Sometime in the ninth or tenth century the community there laid to rest a warrior in a richly accompanied grave. All the items necessary to display the prowess and status of the deceased were there: weapons; horses; and a board game as a symbol of past strategic achievement. The evidence indicates that, for the community, this was one of their most significant individuals. Late in the nineteenth century, archaeologists came to excavate and study the remains; luckily for them both skeletal material and grave goods had survived. We don’t know of the inner deliberations of those who first worked on the site, but we do know that the grave came to be known as ‘anomalous’ because it was always hard to reconcile the gracile nature of the skeleton, which suggested it might be female, with the aggressive nature of the grave goods, which suggested that it must have been male.

Birka Bj581was thus consigned to the annals of history, though the graves at the site have continued to fuel academic debate and the refinement of arguments down the years. And, occasionally, Bj581 was singled out for attention. In the 1970s, analysis suggested that the deceased might have been female, but the idea proved hard to accept. This year, the results of some serious DNA analysis have been published and they indicate, conclusively, that the bones are those of a woman.

Even so, this seems a difficult idea for some people to grasp. It has sparked a flurry of writing. There have been attempts to explain away the finds as the results of poor recording, or perhaps a different narrative. I suppose there will always be those who find the equalities of a diverse society hard to accept. For me they are a wakeup call. A reminder that we cannot, should not, ever, allow our preconceptions to colour our ideas of the world of the past.

How much other diversity has been missed by the ways in which we use grave goods to interpret the sex of the deceased. Skeletons are rare finds: all too often we rely on other evidence, but perhaps we should stop this practice. I wonder just how many women have been missed in the past. Our society treats women in very specific ways and we still have, as it turns out, very specific ideas of appropriate behaviours for girls and boys. But we have no idea whether specific gendered roles operated in the past, and if they did, we have no idea what they were.

It is the same with so many things, even other elements of archaeology. Bias is a dangerous thing. For example, we have assumed for too long that Scottish history starts post Ice Age with the arrival of Early Holocene hunter-gatherers. Finds of possible earlier artefacts were swept under the carpet because we knew, didn’t we, that they should not be there. We sought alternative explanations for the material evidence. Only now are we beginning to recognise the patterning which these artefacts represent and to develop an interpretation of early Scotland which, while still ‘under construction’, and perhaps a touch more difficult than our understanding of more recent, long researched periods, might, hopefully, approach possible reality.

We need to stop letting our preconceptions blind us to the more interesting aspects of life in the past. Of course, the cynical among you might, rightly, note that in accepting the fact that Bj581 is female we are merely bowing to the predominant biases of our own day – a time in which the role of women in society is still a matter of debate. But in acknowledging this, I hope we can rise above it.

Bj581 has sparked a lively debate in the papers and elsewhere: she is still a powerful woman. It is a bit depressing that we have needed her to remind us of our responsibilities to those who went before. But hopefully we have finally come to learn the lesson. I like to think that she might have been pleased.