During the late nineteenth century, more than 1,000 Viking graves were uncovered on the Island of Birka near Stockholm. One tomb, known as Bj 581, was deemed the most significant Viking grave ever excavated, the final resting place of an important warrior — and therefore a man.
Bj 581 retained its significance in modern times. But in 2017, DNA testing revealed that its bones contained XX chromosomes, rocking academic and popular understanding of gender roles in the Viking Age. Minnesota-based author C.M. Surrisi interviewed the Swedish scientists behind the DNA discovery — and their critics — for a new young adult book: The Bones of Birka: Unraveling the Mystery of a Female Viking Warrior, forthcoming in April 2023. The following conversation with Surrisi has been edited for length and clarity.
In the grave, there was a full collection of weapons and a game board associated with battle strategy sitting on the corpse’s lap. There were no items in the grave that the archeologists of the time would have identified as feminine [such as] kitchen weights and buttons, things that they had deemed — in their gendered mindset — as woman stuff.
In the 1970s, an osteologist [a scientist who studies bones] was reevaluating ancient graves housed in the Swedish History Museum. She assessed the bones in Bj 581 as female. Everyone discounted that at the time because osteology was not considered 100 percent reliable in determining sex. In 2014, osteologist Anna Kjellström performed another evaluation and determined the bones to be female. Some archaeologists said, “Well, that’s ridiculous. What could she possibly know? She’s a woman, and she’s an osteologist.”
It went along like that until a woman named Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson participated in a project tracing the genomes of the Swedish people. She elected to DNA test the bones in Bj 581 and found them to be XX. In 2017, Hedenstierna-Jonson and other scientists published a peer-reviewed paper stating that they had discovered a female Viking warrior.
There was a meltdown in the archeological community. It erupted online — pages and pages of blog posts and criticisms, “You must have made a mistake.” The teardown of their work took a variety of approaches. Some people said, “You don’t know what you’re doing,” and some said, “It can’t be possible. There must have been a male body in that grave at some point.”
They began to get death threats. There were people who felt that a woman’s place is in the home, and if that was ever true, it had to be during the Viking Age — Viking men carried weapons, and Viking women cooked. Some academics said, “It’s not enough proof to be able to say there were female Viking warriors.” Hedenstierna-Jonson and her team reply, “We are not saying that; we are only saying that we found one.”
I’m not an archeologist. I practiced law for 20 years and then got an MFA in writing for children and adults. I attended a lecture at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis right after the 2019 paper came out, and Hedenstierna-Jonson and another archeologist, Neil Price, spoke to over 500 people. After it was over, all I could think was that I wanted to write this book for young adults. I started to interview the archeologists over Zoom.
When I sent them the first draft of an outline, they said, “We can see that you favor our view [but] you should interview our critics.” So I interviewed several. One of the biggest criticisms was that even if the bones contain XX chromosomes, we don’t have any way to definitively call that person a woman. Some people in the transgender community, and others, said, “You just cannot know how [this person] identified.”
Through this process, I met Dr. Marianne Moen, an expert on gender archeology in the Viking Age. She believes determining sex should not be an archeologist’s first priority after opening a grave and that archeologists should assess graves more objectively. Plenty of graves are considered unequivocally female because they contain jewelry, a certain kind of clothing, and kitchen utensils. But Moen assessed graves from Norway and Sweden and found that quite a few male graves contained “female items,” and vice versa.
Archeologists often impute the biases [of their modern time] onto people of the distant past. The Victorians were the worst of this, and archeology was blooming during that period. Today there is a heightened awareness of gender archeology as a growing field, and how we assess people of the past. My observation has been that Bj 581 was a wake-up call.
This turned out to be a story that is so much more than DNA testing. When my agent first went out with the book, several publishers said, “Oh, good, a book about a female Viking warrior; tell us all about her.” They missed my point.
The scientists making these discoveries were discounted to some degree because they were women. I thought that if I told the story through their eyes, and for young adults, it might make archeology, genetics, and osteology look interesting and real. I am inviting them into the field, into academics, into science. It is not dry, dusty, and boring — it is the opposite. Oddly, you could say it’s alive.