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S18 Ep4

Viking Warrior Queen

Premiere: 7/7/2020 | 00:00:30 | Closed Captioning Icon

Join a team of archaeologists as they examine one of the most significant Viking graves ever found and test the DNA of the remains of the female warrior buried inside, rewriting our understanding of Viking society.



About the Episode

In 1878, archaeologist Hjalmar Stolpe uncovered a grave containing a large number of weapons and the skeletal remains of what seemed to be a great Viking warrior. For a century, people assumed the body was male until the 1970s when Berit Vilkans, a young researcher, observed the bones had female characteristics. In 2017, a team of Swedish geneticists proved through a DNA study that the great warrior wasn’t a man, but a woman. Join this team of experts as they examine the DNA results and complete a field investigation, uncovering the truth about the only archaeological discovery of a female Viking warrior and battle strategist known to date.

Film Interviewees

  • Alban Gautier – Historian
  • Anders Götherström – Geneticist
  • Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson – Archaeologist
  • Anna Kjellström – Osteo-Archaeologist
  • Maja Krzewińska – Geneticist
  • Peter Johnsson – Swordsmith
  • Lucie Malbos – Historian
  • Neil Price – Archaeologist

Noteworthy Facts

  • Nearly 20 miles from Stockholm, Björkö, Sweden, is a small island just two miles long and a half-mile wide. From 750-950 AD, it was home to Birka, one of the most powerful towns in the region and one of the major centers for trade in the Viking world. Today, Birka is the most important archaeological site of the Viking Age, as it is home to 3,000 graves, more than half of which have not been excavated.
  • In 1878, Swedish entomologist, archaeologist and ethnographer Hjalmar Stolpe and his team found a grave with two horses buried beneath a large block of granite. The grave was numbered Bj 581: Bj for Björkö and 581 because it was the 581st grave unearthed by the archeologist. Inside the grave, Stolpe’s team found 4o of the 206 bones that make up the human skeleton.
  • Bj 581 contained a stockpile of medieval weapons, including a shield, a knife, a bow and arrow, a spear, an axe and a sword, all of which indicated that the grave belonged to a great warrior. Each object was logged, and the bones were placed in bags and stored at the Swedish History Museum.
  • In 1975, nearly a century after Stolpe’s great discovery, osteo-archeologist Berit Vilkans took on the task of cataloging the contents of many Viking graves, including the skeletal remains of Bj 581.
  • After completing her examination, Vilkans noted the bones belonged to a person of average height, that the forearms were thin and slim, suggesting those of a female and that the remaining pelvic bone was characteristic of a woman, rather than a man.
  • Skull bones have certain gender-specific characteristics and could have confirmed Vilkans’ theory but were missing from Bj 581. As a result, in 1975, the identity of the body in Bj 581 remained male in the Swedish History Museum records.
  • In 2017, a team of geneticists from Stockholm University took on the difficult task of mapping the DNA genome of Bj 581’s human remains in an attempt to identify the person’s sex. After separating the human skeletal DNA from everything else that remained on the bones after being buried in soil form more than 1,000 years, the scientists were able to examine a small sample of surviving genetic material. The remains contained two X chromosomes, but no Y chromosomes, proving the body was that of a woman.
  • Analysis showed that a trained warrior used the weapons found in Bj 581; they were not ceremonial. While wealthy women of this time were often buried with their jewelry, Bj 581 was instead buried with tools of violence and warfare.
  • Bj 581 was marked with a granite stone on top that was 8 feet wide, indicating that this was an unquestionably important grave. The grave was also buried with a pouch containing gaming pieces and dice, and by her side, there was a gaming board, all of which are items commonly found in graves of high-ranking military commanders of that era.

Secrets of the Dead: Viking Warrior Queen is a Peignoir Prod and BONUM production for RMC Découverte, in association with THIRTEEN Productions LLC for WNET. Directed by Aleksandar Dzerdz and Gautier DuBois. Written by Aleksandar Dzerdz, Gautier DuBois, and Alain Zenou. Narrated by Jay O. Sanders. Enora Contant and Aleksandar Dzerdz are executive producers for Peignoir Prod. For Secrets of the Dead: Stephanie Carter is executive producer. Stephen Segaller is executive in charge.

Funding for Secrets of the Dead is provided by public television viewers.


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A Peignoir Prod and BONUM production for RMC Découverte,
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© 2020 Peignoir Prod. All Rights Reserved.


♪♪♪ -The isle of Bjorko, in Sweden, is home to one of the largest Viking cemeteries ever discovered, holding more than 3,000 graves.

More than 1,000 years ago, the town of Birka stood here.

A powerful trading hub, it was a busy Viking port.

Hardened warriors ensured its protection.

Among the island's thousands of graves, one stands out.

-What sets this burial apart is that it doesn't just have weapons, it has the weapons.

-These weapons could only have belonged to a mighty warrior.

The modern-day image of a Viking is a big, strong, bearded man, fearless and capable of the worst atrocities.

He sailed the rivers and oceans in search of treasure and glory -- the scourge of the North.

-All the clichés of rape and pillage are not just clichés.

-This grave and its contents have only fueled these clichés.

But in the 1970s, a young osteo-archeologist put forward a startling hypothesis -- the skeleton wasn't that of a man, but a woman.

Now a team of experts is determined to find out who was buried in the grave.

-Horses, weapons, shields -- everything you need to be a professional warrior -- and we now know that this warrior was actually a woman.

-Does this discovery rewrite our understanding of the Vikings?

Scientists and scholars are studying every item in the grave to understand its significance.

-A sword like this could be used by a woman.

It doesn't take an exceedingly strong physique to use it.

-Using the latest archaeological tools, researchers are analyzing the remains of a body more than 1,000 years old.

-When I looked at the innominate bone, it had all the female features.

-But after a millennium, few clues remain.

-Lots of the information is actually missing.

♪♪♪ -These discoveries, the first archaeological proof of a female Viking warrior, could shed new light on the history of this fearsome group.

♪♪♪ -Located on the eastern side of the Scandinavian Peninsula, Sweden is a land of glaciated mountains and vast forests, with lakes among the largest in Europe.

♪♪♪ Nearly 20 miles from Stockholm, on Lake Malaren, Bjorko is a small island just 2 miles long and half a mile wide.

From 750 to 950 A.D., it was home to Birka, one of the most powerful towns in the region.

-1,000 years ago, this was one of the major centers for trade in the Viking world, and there would have been a population of 1,000 persons running around here, living down in the settlement area on the field that you can see below us -- buildings standing closely together, lots of garbage, lots of noise.

[ Dogs barking, indistinct shouting ] -So, it's a kind of gateway for trade coming from outside, from the Baltic and further afield, down from the continent, and when you trade at Birka, then all the things that you buy and sell there can move off into the countryside.

So it's a tremendously important place.

♪♪♪ -Today, Birka is the most important archaeological site of the Viking Age.

Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the island is home to more than 3,000 graves, more than half of which have not been excavated.

Studying Birka, several generations of archaeologists have built an incredible body of research over the years, and discoveries are still being made today.

The archaeological story begins in the late 19th century.

♪♪♪ In 1878, Hjalmar Stolpe has already been leading a large-scale excavation at Birka for seven years.

On this day, his team leader, Erik, finds a grave with two horses beneath a large block of granite.

At 37, Stolpe is a man of experience.

He knows the presence of horses in a Viking grave suggests it belongs to an important person.

For several days, the team attempts to reach what is hidden under the stone.

Finally, they are forced to dynamite the boulder.

This grave is numbered Bj 581 -- Bj for Bjorko, and 581 because it is the 581st grave unearthed by the archeologist.

Stolpe oversees operations himself, and as with the hundreds of graves he's already found, he takes meticulous notes and itemizes the grave's contents.

♪♪♪ What's inside makes all the effort worthwhile... ♪♪♪ One of the most important Viking graves ever found.

-He knows even when he finds it that this is something special.

He makes a whole report about it and sends it to the Royal Academy.

And in that report, one of his phrases is, 'This is perhaps the most spectacular burial in this whole field.'

-In seven years of excavations, Stolpe has found swords, sometimes axes, even spears, but never anything like this.

Bj 581 contains a stockpile of medieval weapons -- shield, knife, bow and arrow, spear, axe, and sword -- a strong suggestion the grave belonged to a great warrior.

-We would think that, 'Well, the Viking Age, there must be weapons in lots of graves,' but there are not, actually.

There are several graves that have weapon or two weapons, but a complete set, that's very, very unusual.

-Each object is logged, the bones placed in bags and stored at the Swedish History Museum.

♪♪♪ The weapons are then sent all over the world on a touring exhibition.

♪♪♪ -Almost any coffee table book that you would pick up on the Vikings would include a picture of this grave because it really includes everything that we expect to find in a warrior context.

-It would take more than a century for the deceased of Bj 581 to reveal the truth.

[ Thunder rumbles ] People have long romanticized the Vikings and their warrior culture.

But are these tales of Norse gangs who terrorized generations of Europeans reliable?

-[ Speaking French ] ♪♪♪ -For almost three centuries, between the 8th and the 11th, these Scandinavian ancestors spread across Europe.

They created trade routes to the East, reaching Baghdad via the Caspian Sea and Constantinople via the Black Sea.

In these territories, where many settled, they were often called the Rus', or 'redheads.'

Further south, they colonized England, led raids in France, and even sailed up the Seine to Paris several times.

They bypassed the Iberian Peninsula, attacking and looting in the Mediterranean from North Africa to Italy.

Vikings were also known for their quests of exploration.

After Scotland and Ireland, they colonized Iceland, then Greenland, and finally landed in America five centuries before Christopher Columbus.

Whether calling themselves Danes, Normans, or Rus', Vikings settled all over Europe and mixed with the local people.

Though they played a key role in world history, not a great deal is known about their culture.

-[ Speaking French ] -For the most part, the Vikings did not write about themselves.

They had writing, they had the famous runes, but we find those used mainly on runic memorials -- essentially, memorials to the dead.

But the Vikings did not write their own histories.

-So, everything that we can read that is contemporary to the Vikings were written by the people that they met, so the people that they attacked, the people that they raided and looted.

They were the ones that wrote the history about the Vikings.

-One of the earliest accounts of the lawless and savage Vikings comes from what is now England.

[ Men shouting ] In 793, on a small island in the northeast of Northumberland, Vikings invaded a monastery sheltering unprotected monks.

-[ Speaking French ] ♪♪♪ -Here begins the idea of the ruthless Viking warrior.

And the Vikings' rich Norse mythology, the Sagas, only added to the legend.

♪♪♪ -When it comes to writings from inside Scandinavia, this is probably -- The most famous sources on the Vikings are the Sagas, the great Icelandic literary tradition.

The Sagas, the word literally just means 'story.'

And some people are surprised to discover that the Sagas are not from the Viking Age at all.

They are from centuries afterwards.

So, these are products of the Christian Middle Ages, where people are writing about their idea of the Viking Age.

So, they're writing about a past but they didn't necessarily approve of -- bear in mind, it's not a Christian past -- but they give us this extraordinarily detailed picture of Viking society.

But we have to ask, is it real?

♪♪♪ -In 1975, nearly a century after the discovery by Hjalmar Stolpe and his men, the Swedish History Museum, where the remains are stored, organizes an inventory of its holdings.

A team of osteo-archeologists is charged with this colossal task, and a young woman named Berit Vilkans is among them.

She is responsible for cataloging the contents of many graves, including those of Bj 581.

-The task of doing an inventory of all the skeletons from Birka, grave by grave.

It's just checking what's in the archive.

-Using Stolpe's sketches, Vilkans rebuilds each skeleton as she logs the bones.

In all, Vilkans analyzes 101 graves that contained 117 people.

She has performed the job of a forensic pathologist and creates a 75-page report listing bones, recording their condition and size, age at death, and numerous other details.

♪♪♪ As often happens, many of the bones in Bj 581 decomposed and disappeared.

Stolpe's team only found 40 of this human's 206 bones.

But analysis of the remaining bones can give a clearer picture of the individual's height.

-The skeleton is very tall. It's a long person.

It's somebody who's over 1 meter, 70 centimeters.

-Several human bones can be used to determine a person's size.

Generally, the longest leg bone, the femur, is key to estimating how tall a person is.

♪♪♪ But in the case of Bj 581, both femurs are incomplete.

Instead, Vilkans relies on the tibias, which are in better condition.

The results suggest a person of average height for the time.

-Bj 581 was about 170 centimeters, based on estimations from the tibia, the only completely preserved long bone.

-The average height for a Scandinavian man then was 5'6', or 167 centimeters.

Contrary to Medieval beliefs, Vikings were not giants.

A woman's height rarely exceeded 5'2'. Based on height, the skeleton of grave Bj 581 seems male.

But another detail attracts Vilkans' attention.

The bones of the forearms are thin and slender, typical of a woman.

-Based on the size, this is from a man, and this is from a woman.

But there are large and tall women, and there are also small and tiny men.

-Using her skills as an osteo-archaeologist, Vilkans then looks at the remaining pelvic bone, the left hip.

Although broken into several pieces, it still proves helpful.

♪♪♪ Childbirth requires women to have different pelvic bones than men, and they are often used to determine gender.

The pubic arch, for example, is much larger in women.

Above that, the ilium is narrower in men.

And finally, the pelvic inlet is wider in women.

-The inlet of the pelvis is larger and more circular in females than in males.

And this is, of course, because there is a baby coming out here.

-For the young researcher, no doubt remains -- the skeleton of one of the most famous Viking warriors, discovered a century ago, is not that of a man, but a woman.

-She made a note when she went through the material that this was probably a female.

-However, the bone is damaged, and the pubis is missing.

The upper part of the skull of the skeleton in Bj 581 could confirm the gender.

Skull bones have certain characteristics that are gender-specific.

-The margins of the orbital is more rounded in males.

And then we have muscle attachments behind the ears and on the occipital bone, which are more pronounced in males, as well.

-Though Stolpe's drawings include the skull, it has since gone missing.

The skull from the most famous Viking grave can't be found.

-So, this material was excavated more than 100 years ago.

During the late 19th century, they also had a tendency to separate the cranium from the post-cranial bones and put in a separate box.

And they have been repacked and put in different boxes, and so on.

-But it's not in the box in the archive anymore.

We think it's out there somewhere.

-It's possible that it is still in the collection.

But, still, of course, it is a problem.

-Aside from Stolpe's drawings, there's no trace of the skull.

In 1975, without conclusive evidence, and despite Vilkans' observations, the identity of the body in Bj 581 remains male.

♪♪♪ [ Train horn blares ] ♪♪♪ 40 years later, in 2016, Anna Kjellstrom from Stockholm University reviewed Berit Vilkans' report.

And both scientists, one in 1975 and one in 2016, make the same observations about the grave's remains.

-In her report, she came actually to the same result that I did.

When I looked at the innominate bone, it had all the female features, so this is why I think it was a female.

-She announced this at a seminar, and there were two reactions in the room.

One of them was me, 'cause I sat there and said, 'Wow!' really loudly, and the other was a colleague at the back of the room who said, 'But that can't be!'

And I think those two reactions have followed this project all the way along, and they're still with it.

-Despite the scientific evidence, many Viking historians refuse to consider the possibility of a female warrior.

[ Men shouting ] The analysis of the bones buried for centuries isn't enough to change minds.

And new questions about the analysis quickly emerge.

-There was a rumor that all the graves were mixed up and it was impossible to use the skeletal material.

-The skeptics had not considered the high standards that Stolpe set for his dig.

Stolpe begins his career as an entomologist, arriving on the island of Bjorko in 1871.

Farmers and cattle occupied the island then.

-He's hoping to find remains of prehistoric insects fossilized in amber, and it's when he goes to the island and sees these thousands of burial mounds, sees the remains of this Viking town, that he begins to change his ideas.

-We can read in his notebooks that he's already intrigued by the human remains, or the cultural remains.

-Stolpe returns to Birka every summer and fall for the next 10 years for the extensive excavations.

His team uncovers close to 1,100 graves, and each is excavated with a rigor and precision that is unprecedented for its time.

Stolpe meticulously documents each bone and item found in every grave.

Today, researchers still rely on his notes.

-Hjalmar Stolpe is one of the founding fathers of Swedish field archeology.

-What sets Stolpe apart from his contemporaries is the kind of scientific rigor, his carefulness that he brings to this.

-So, he used millimeter paper.

He used rulers and technical equipment.

-He was so very, very careful in the way he recorded what he found.

-To me, he's this great scientist because he left everything in order, making it possible for us, more than 100 years later, to go back to his excavations, trust what he did, and do something new.

We can have a new interpretation based on his excellent ground work.

He was a pioneer in that sense.

-Stolpe's detailed catalog will be key to determining who was buried in grave Bj 581.

He ensured there would be no confusion about which grave each bone came from.

All of the skeletal remains have been marked with India ink.

-All the 581 bones are marked with '581.'

It's not magic. It's just proper science.

-Science that can identify who the bones in Bj 581 belong to.

♪♪♪ But are these details enough to alter the common understanding of Vikings in such a radical way?

If the most archaeologically significant Viking grave belongs to a woman, does that change our understanding of Vikings?

Is the fantasy of ferocious men plying the seas in search of gold just a myth?

It is difficult to dismiss the legend of the Viking warrior based solely on observations, no matter how precise.

♪♪♪ The scientific community still needs more evidence before it will be convinced.

♪♪♪ -Using the study of bones alone to determine that is never completely secure, and we needed to be sure, and that's what the genomics, the DNA, have given us.

-Stockholm University geneticists attempt to map the DNA genome of the bones in Bj 581.

♪♪♪ But just finding a usable sample from Bj 581's remains, which have been buried for more than 1,000 years, is a difficult task.

-The soil in Birka is not very good for preservation of skeletons, so many of these inhumation burials actually lack skeletons.

There can be a tooth or just one bone preserved, and the rest has deteriorated.

-150 years ago, Stolpe noted many graves did not contain any bones.

-They're not very well-preserved.

Lots of the information is actually missing.

-Fortunately, this is not the case for Bj 581.

-This is a very well-preserved skeleton for Birka, and it has a complete spine, it has all the features making it possible to estimate height and sex and age and so on.

-The grave's location explains why the skeleton was so well-preserved.

Because the grave was built on a slight slope, rainwater moved away from of it instead of seeping inside and damaging the bones.

While the bones themselves are in relatively good condition, the same is not true for their genetic material, much of which has been destroyed over time.

After all, the bones did spend 1,000 years buried in dirt, where millions of microorganisms flourished.

The first task is to separate the human skeletal DNA from everything else in the soil.

♪♪♪ -In general, we did what we usually do.

That is looking at the ancestry of the individual.

We were unfortunately unable to look at other things, such as functional snips, so, for example, hair and eye color, we were not able to do that with this genome coverage.

-But the genetic material provides clues to the biological sex.

Men generally have an X and a Y chromosome, while most women have two X's.

If no Y is found, the remains will be classified as female.

♪♪♪ -This person had two X chromosomes.

There is no doubt at all. It's a female person.

♪♪♪ -The findings point to an almost certain conclusion -- The skeleton in Bj 581 was a woman, a Viking woman.

She lived between the 9th and 10th centuries.

During this era in Scandinavia, people lived in rural villages and survived by farming, hunting, and fishing.

-It's a society that is divided up into small communities -- family-based, rural societies.

-The society is patriarchal, but women here enjoy more freedom than women in Christian Europe.

They can inherit property, divorce, and sometimes even choose their own husbands.

Clans exercise local authority.

-[ Speaking French ] -Law was not the province of a king or a lord.

It was governed by a popular assembly, more often than not without any kind of violence.

So behind this rather sort of wild Viking image is actually the opposite -- a total respect for the rule of law.

-But that does not mean everyone is treated equally or fairly.

Slaves make up a large part of the population.

And certain discoveries in Birka, where Bj 581 was located, suggest some part of the population was transient.

-[ Speaking French ] -An Arab coin was found in Bj 581, as well as weights used to measure out precious metal.

The archaeologists will use the items found in Bj 581 to reveal more about the woman they were buried with and, more generally, the role of women in Viking society.

-[ Speaking French ] [ Man shouting ] ♪♪♪ -The woman from Bj 581 could have been a merchant or run a workshop.

It is also possible the weapons she was found with belonged to her husband.

No trace of him has been found, but as already noted, many skeletons in Birka's graves had decomposed.

-One of the questions that's been raised about the interpretation of 581 -- Is there just one body in the grave, or could there have been a second one?

And the implication is the second one must be a man.

♪♪♪ Actually, we do find double burials in the Viking Age.

Usually, men and women buried together, it's very hard to know what their relationship is.

Whether they're a couple, whether one is a servant of the other, we don't know.

So, the idea of a double burial is not crazy.

They're never common, but they do exist.

If you look at 581, it's very clear.

Stolpe writes explicitly that this is the only body in the grave.

There is nothing in his documentation to suggest otherwise.

If we look at the objects in the burial, they're all grouped around the skeleton that we have.

There are no other bones labeled as being from the grave.

We've even DNA tested the different parts of the skeleton, and it's from the same individual.

There's no doubt at all that she was alone in the burial.

-A woman was buried in Bj 581, and she was buried alone.

But the grave is remarkable for other reasons.

-The biological sex of the skeleton was not our only question.

Be it man or woman, it's a super interesting grave.

-The grave caused a sensation when it was discovered in 1878 because it contained so many weapons.

-Finding weapons is not that unusual in Viking archaeology.

We find them sometimes in graves, we find them on settlements.

We know that they were a very common part of the material world.

What sets this burial apart is that it doesn't just have weapons, it has the weapons.

-It is a veritable arsenal.

There's a war axe, a combat knife, two spears of different types, two shields, no fewer than 25 arrowheads, and, of course, a sword.

♪♪♪ Close study of these weapons tells when and where they were made, and possibly more about the person buried with them.

-We are fascinated by weapons today, just because of the fact that they are power objects.

If you can look at them the right way, you can learn things about the people who owned them and used them, and also about the people who made them.

They tell you fascinating stories.

-Viking weapons were much feared, particularly the axe.

-The Norsemen were axe people.

They were famous for their skill in the use of the axe.

♪♪♪ This is a very swift and devastating weapon, specially made for fighting.

This is a weapon to kill an opponent in a single blow.

-The two spears found in the grave indicate how popular they were in the Middle Ages -- and how effective.

-The spear is the weapon of choice of the god Odin, who is the god of war.

These are not for throwing.

These are for close-quarter fighting.

It's a weapon for the battlefield.

-Spears were also less expensive to produce, which meant warriors could afford to equip themselves fully.

♪♪♪ It's possible the weapons were simply decorative, never taken to battle.

But analysis shows a trained warrior used them.

They were not ceremonial.

A swordsman, or woman, was much respected in Viking communities.

-The sword has its position because it being expensive and connected to people with wealth and influence, but also because it's a uniquely efficient personal weapon.

So, owning a sword was also making a point that you belonged to an elite in society.

In the grave of Bj 581, we have a sword.

It's a beautiful sword, but it's also a common sword -- a sword that someone who needs a good sword.

It's the sword of a warrior.

♪♪♪ -The question remains -- Is the person buried with the weapons the same person who used them?

One thing to consider is the granite stone that initially slowed Stolpe's excavation.

The island has hundreds of mounds of earth, each indicating a burial site.

Some are marked with a large rock, like a gravestone.

-Sometimes they put up stones on top of the graves, and when they're bowder stones like this, that indicates that it was a male grave.

And the female graves had an egg-shaped, rounder stone on top of them.

So, not always, but if you're lucky, we will find the raised stones or the stone eggs.

-When Hjalmar Stolpe arrived in Birka in 1871, he was captivated by these boulders.

♪♪♪ The granite stone on top of Bj 581 was 8 feet across.

♪♪♪ Stolpe's notes don't mention the shape of the stone, only its size.

♪♪♪ -The 581 is this -- this one.

And if we imagine this huge stone boulder on top of the grave, it would have been highly visible from the sea.

There were no trees here in the Viking Age, so it would have been almost like a landmark when you entered into the harbor of the town.

So, it was a chamber, a subterranean chamber made of wood, like a room underneath the earth, slightly less than 4 meters long and approximately 2 meters wide.

So, in this part, there would have been a ledge with two horses.

Cramped together, two horses very tightly packed.

And then we have the chamber with the dead woman.

When she was found, she was lying slightly on her side, so the sword would have been behind her back, at least in the position that she had when was found.

There would have been one shield at the top of the grave, in the head end, and one shield at the bottom, in the foot end.

She would have had a quiver and a bow, so her archery equipment would have been to her right side, let's say.

One spear in the cauldron, one spear to the left side of her.

And the battle knife would have been fastened to her belt, so that would also be very close in contact with the body.

We have perhaps the most interesting burial of them all, and Hjalmar Stolpe already, when he excavated, noted that this might be the most interesting and amazing burial in the whole cemetery.

Horses, weapons, shields -- everything you need to be a professional warrior -- and we now know that this warrior was actually a woman.

-The woman is buried in an unquestionably important grave.

But that still does not mean she is the person who used the weapons she was found with.

-[ Speaking French ] -[ Speaking French ] -The staging of the grave can also tell us something about its occupant.

-[ Speaking French ] -The archaeologists consider the body in Bj 581 -- its placement and position.

The body is lying on its side.

♪♪♪ The majority of the bodies in the town's other graves are positioned on their backs.

♪♪♪ -We know that the person buried there was sitting down in a chair, perhaps even on the saddle from the horses.

-The sitting position of the deceased means she's upright, giving her a different visual perspective.

-If you look at what the dead are looking at -- there they are, sitting in their graves -- all of them are looking into the town.

Are they guarding it?

Are they protecting it?

We don't know, but there's some reason why they're positioned as they are.

-Viking funeral rites are closely linked to their religion.

They venerated many gods, which earned them the label 'pagan' from the rest of Christian Europe.

-If you ask people today, 'What do you know about the Vikings?'

the one thing that everybody knows is that they go to Valhalla when they die.

-Valhalla is the mythic place where warriors who die in battle go in the afterlife.

The Valkyries select who goes to Valhalla to serve Odin, the god of gods.

-[ Speaking French ] -They either bury the dead or cremate them.

And cremation is by far the most common treatment of the dead, and that's actually what we find in most of the Birka burials.

Inhumation, burying a body, is much more rare.

-While the focus of Viking burials was typically the afterlife, that wasn't always the case.

-We normally think of Viking burials as kind of like a machine to send the dead person into the next world.

Probably most of them are.

But occasionally, you'll also find the idea that they're actually not going anywhere.

They're supposed to stay in the grave.

And it may well be that the dead actually live there.

Maybe the person in 581 lived in that grave.

-Whoever buried the woman in Bj 581 may have wanted her to remain part of the community, with her complete military arsenal.

-Inside each individual grave, it's always different in terms of precisely what objects are there, where are those objects, and probably the sequence in which it's placed.

Everything is very exact.

They don't just throw some things in a hole.

There is a meaning.

-Viking funerals are legendary for their scale and excess, with relatives traveling from all over to visit the deceased.

-We have a couple of eyewitness descriptions of Viking funerals, and they're full of music, of drinking, of eating, of sex, of violence, actually.

Killing animals, even sometimes killing people.

♪♪♪ -One of the eyewitnesses is Ibn Fadlan, secretary to the ambassador of the Caliph of Baghdad.

In 921, he sailed up the Volga in the company of the Rus', the Vikings who settled in the area.

Along with a translator, he spent months in their company and brought back accounts of the people who raided and traded along the river.

♪♪♪ He mentions a chief's funeral with horses and slaves sacrificed in a boat used as a pyre.

Beside him were the personal things he'd need in the afterlife.

Fabulous jewelry has been found in the graves of some wealthy women.

But no jewelry was found in Bj 581, only tools of violence and warfare.

The reaction to what was found in Bj 581 illustrates how easily cultural bias can lead to incorrect conclusions.

♪♪♪ -We have to be careful with making that jump -- so, loads of weapons equals a warrior.

We have to be clear that that is an assumption we're making, but it's quite a good one.

The one thing we can be sure of is that the decision to fill, in this case 581, with weapons makes a connection between that dead person, this precise person, and all those weapons.

That is an idea of warriorness, of warriorhood.

Does it reflect who they were in life?

We think it does.

Nobody had any problem at all about the warrior interpretation of this burial all the while this person was male.

And suddenly, lots of people have a problem with the warrior part the moment this person is female, and that doesn't add up.

♪♪♪ -It's difficult to know if the warrior women in Norse mythology have any basis in reality.

-[ Speaking French ] -In the legendary sagas, there is a very clear depiction of a minority of women fighting on the battlefield.

We find the famous shield-maidens, and these are the figures that have really caught the popular imagination, but these are legends.

-Legends or not, the male warriors sometimes wore pendants representing female warriors -- proof that the image of a woman at arms could be seen as a lucky charm.

After all, it was women, the Valkyries, who sought out the bravest fighters and led them to Odin in Valhalla.

And for Vikings, it was generally women who were in touch with magic and spirts.

-If you want to communicate with everything out there, whether it's gods or the elves that live behind your house, or the spirits of the dead, that communication is very largely through women, and that is a huge domain of power.

Women could be queens, women could be slaves, and all points in between on the social scale, just like men.

They have pretty much sole control over the household, over the farm economy.

Women can also be merchants.

And this is a lot of power.

This is the things that govern the viability of the community.

One of the things that we find a lot in women's graves is keys.

The key opens a lock.

In other words, if you have the key, you control who gets to the things that are valuable enough to lock away.

That's a significant thing.

-While it was not common, there is evidence Viking women did take part in violent raids.

-There actually are some rare instances of women fighting.

There is a battle fought by the Byzantines against the Rus', these Scandinavian peoples of the eastern rivers.

The Rus' lose their battle, and the Byzantines describe how they go over the battlefield afterwards, they're picking up the weapons and the armor.

It's just like a list of things they found.

And they find women among the Rus' dead -- women in armor who have been fighting them along with the men.

In Ireland, there is a source from the 12th century, 'The War of the Irish with the Foreigners.'

And there's one that relates a series of 10th-century raids on Ireland -- the same date as the Birka grave -- in which it lists the names of the commanders of the Viking fleets.

The last name in the list, it talks about the Fleet of the Red Girl -- That she's a Viking, she's a ship's captain, and she commands a fleet.

That is quite an impressive package of roles for one person.

[ Men shouting ] So, those women are there in the documentary record.

I don't think the new work around 581 should surprise us in the slightest.

♪♪♪ -What role do these historical texts play in confirming the identity of the woman in Bj 581?

♪♪♪ -When it comes to interpreting 581 with those sources, I think the first thing to say is that we don't need them.

We can draw our conclusions about a high-status female warrior from the archeology alone.

-It's so important that this person is buried with this sword beside.

You can tell, just by looking at the sword in that grave, that this is a person who respects and knows what the sword is, who is familiar with its use, and whose identity is defined partly by owning this weapon.

♪♪♪ -Mastering combat techniques and weapons takes many years of practice and training.

[ Indistinct conversations ] To become a master of arms, the woman from grave Bj 581 must have spent a large part of her life with warriors.

♪♪♪ -Ya!

-[ Grunts ] [ Swords clanging ] ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ -[ Speaking French ] -[ Grunts ] -[ Speaking French ] ♪♪♪ -The differences in physical strength between men and women do provoke questions about the woman in Bj 581's capability with a sword.

-A sword like this could be used by a young person, could be used by a woman.

It doesn't take an exceedingly strong physique to use it.

In fact, it's well-balanced.

It's nimble in the hand.

It's built for speed and precision, and it's to be used together with a shield as a unity.

♪♪♪ -[ Grunts ] -Of course, it takes lifelong training to learn how to use it properly.

♪♪♪ Look at the swordsmen like elite sportsmen.

These were people in society who had active lifestyle.

They were -- they were healthy until they died.

-A life dedicated to war inevitably has its share of injuries.

♪♪♪ Typically, years of training and violence leave scars on the body, even the bones.

♪♪♪ -You can never say it's a warrior.

I mean, we can see a victim of violence.

-If she were a warrior, the bones of Bj 581 would likely have the marks to prove it.

Certain injuries are indicative of sword fighting.

-When you raise your arm and you try to defend yourself, you may fracture your radius or ulna.

♪♪♪ This is something that could happen, and you can see that in assault victims.

But these kind of fractions may also occur indirectly when you fall on an outstretched hand.

So, these fractures in themselves can't be used as evidence for fighting.

You need something more.

-Researchers want to know whether there is evidence of these fractures on the remains.

♪♪♪ -Well, in case of Bj 581, I couldn't see any types of fractures on the forearms.

-While there's no physical evidence of fighting on the bones, that doesn't mean the woman in grave Bj 581 wasn't a warrior.

♪♪♪ -The prevalence of the weapon-related trauma in materials from the Viking Age is fairly low compared to Medieval churchyards.

♪♪♪ -The village where Bj 581 was found would have been no stranger to raids from other Viking gangs.

♪♪♪ Birka was an important trading village.

Vikings came and went.

And a merchant town was a good place to sell the spoils of plunder.

-Birka is exactly the sort of place that Vikings liked to raid.

And that means a Viking market town is just as vulnerable as everybody else's market towns.

[ Men shouting ] -There were ramparts. There were defensive structures.

There were harbors -- pile the barricades out into the waterfront.

And a hill fort.

We're standing within the hill fort at the moment.

Protecting, defending, but also controlling all the activities down in the town.

-To ensure the merchants' safety, the town housed 40 to 60 warriors in the garrison at the bottom of the fort.

Many of these guards were archers whose job was to stop intruders while they were still far away.

A vast quantity of arrowheads was found in the soil around the ramparts -- proof of the warriors' activity.

One attack in particular left significant archeological traces.

-And when the attackers came, they came up this hill.

So, you can see, there were showers of arrowheads down on the hillside and up here.

Probably entered into that entrance because that's where we have the most heavy fighting.

-Dozens of arrowheads from all over Viking territory have been found.

There are a multitude of them, with different origins and functions.

There are some in the Bj 581 grave that have special three-faceted tips, made in Russia and capable of piercing armor.

♪♪♪ But the woman's remains weren't the only ones in Bj 581.

She was buried with two horses.

Skeletal remains of animals have only been found in the graves of high-ranking individuals.

♪♪♪ The fact that there are so many graves with horses in Birka shows it was a prosperous town.

♪♪♪ In addition to the two horses, Bj 581 also contained a range of riding equipment -- stirrups, a bit, spurs.

It's possible the horses were meant to join the woman in Valhalla.

♪♪♪ Another set of objects found in the grave suggests the woman may have planned the raids.

-On her lap, there was a pouch with gaming pieces and dice, and by her side, there was a gaming board.

♪♪♪ -It's rare to find a complete set, and it's rare to find a board.

When we do find those things, especially when they're very close to the body, they are almost always in graves of high-ranking military commanders.

There are a few other graves like that on Birka, a few other ironbound gaming boards, but not many.

They are all the graves of the super rich.

We don't know exactly, but it's probably hnefatafl, which is the main Viking board game.

It is like chess, in a way.

It's effectively a war game.

The idea is you have to take the King.

-There is a connection between the board game and military strategy.

Both practical, but probably also as a symbol of having acquired the knowledge of military tactics.

-So, if we know that complete sets of games like this are associated with military leaders, they're associated with an idea of military strategy, that certainly makes precisely those associations with this grave.

This is one of the reasons why we think this person is a high-ranking commander.

♪♪♪ -If the woman was a Viking warrior, she would likely have also been feared.

-All the clichés of rape and pillage are not just clichés.

So, presumably, this woman is in charge of things that we would regard as atrocities.

[ Shouting, weapons clanging ] -How the woman in grave Bj 581 died will likely remain a mystery.

A text refers to the swift disappearance of Birka in the middle of the 11th century.

The growing influence of Nordic royal families and Christianity likely played a role.

In 1066, Anglo-Saxons defeated Vikings on the battlefield in England, marking the end of the Viking Age.

♪♪♪ But several weeks later, another Viking descendant, William the Conqueror, seized England for the Normans.

In less than three centuries, the Vikings left their mark on Europe.

Their legacy was not well-documented, and as they converted to Christianity and assimilated with colonized countries, Viking identity disappeared, despite their rich heritage.

♪♪♪ The female warrior in grave Bj 581 has expanded our understanding of that heritage.

-A while ago, someone asked Charlotte and I if we'd like to get in a time machine and go back and meet this person, and our immediate reaction was, 'No!'

I think she'd be terrifying, actually.

-I'm not sure I would like to meet her, but of course I would like to see her from afar.

I think that would be enough, actually.

-The discovery of the true identity of the person buried in Bj 581 is a fitting tribute to Viking culture.

-The Viking lifestyle, especially if you were a warrior, it was all about being remembered, and I actually think that she would have loved for us to be standing here today, talking about her and talking about her achievements more than 1,000 years later.

♪♪♪ -The story of the warrior from Bj 581, and Viking women, has only just begun.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪


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