Viking Women Immigrated to England, but Were They Warriors or Wives?

Today's Daily Mail and Wednesday's USA Today have short articles summarizing a recently-published study by Shane McLeod, called "Warriors and women: the sex ratio of Norse migrants to eastern England up to 900 AD."  It's an interesting little piece, in which McLeod takes issue with the assumption that the Viking "warriors" were only men, an assumption that has been based primarily on grave goods and our own preconceptions about men and women in antiquity.  Previous research into Viking graves has resulted in estimates of 80-85% males, and this has clearly affected how scholars viewed the Vikings and their contributions, writes McLeod.  It's hard to tease out McLeod's data in this paper, which was written for the journal Early Medieval Europe and is historical in bent, but he seems to have limited his sample to those burials from which sex could be estimated osteologically and which chemical analysis revealed were almost certainly Viking immigrants (Budd et al. 2003).  McLeod concludes:
The reappraisal of the burial evidence for Norse migrants in eastern England up to 900 has provided a different perception of the possible numbers of Norse women involved in the early settlement period. Based on jewellery finds and the notion of an undocumented secondary migration, it has been suspected by some scholars that substantial numbers of Norse women were involved in the settlements. But there has previously been little substantive evidence to validate this claim, leading other scholars to suggest that the Norse settlers were overwhelmingly male. 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. Furthermore, there is osteologically sexed burial evidence of Norse women in England during the earliest campaigning period of the great army of 865. It is possible that with further advances in science more evidence is likely to appear, providing a larger sample to work with, and enabling similar reappraisals of burial evidence from other areas of Norse settlement. The present results suggest new ways of understanding Norse migration and acculturation in late ninth-century England.
Reconstruction of a Viking boat (credit)
While I like the fact that McLeod tackles old assumptions in this short article, there are a couple worrying aspects.  The part about "acculturation" is not well laid out, as McLeod and others are assuming that Viking men would have acculturated to local habits more easily with Anglo-Saxon wives, and that having Viking wives may make researchers reevaluate acculturation.  Attempting to figure out biocultural relationships between two groups of people who hadn't previously met is quite difficult.  Witness, as one example, the centuries of literature on "Romanization" in the provinces in the Roman Empire.  Only within the last decade has there been a backlash from scholars against a far too facile understanding of the bi-directional process of culture sharing.

The other worrying part is that McLeod uses terms like "wives" and "widowed" in his paper, which makes the assumption (and conveys the idea) that the Vikings were married in the contemporary sense.  I could point to the literature on the Roman army as a cautionary tale here.  It had been assumed for centuries that the Roman army was only composed of men and that women and children, if they were present, lived outside the fort.  Finally, new evidence is being found and old evidence is being reevaluated, suggesting previous scholars were simply seeing what they wanted to see: Roman soldiers weren't married, and women certainly didn't live in the fort, in spite of the massive amount of evidence to the contrary.  My point is, without further investigation, we don't know if the Viking men and women found were spouses - Could they have been siblings or other kin?  How about slaves? Could the women have been warriors themselves?  I don't know anything about Viking relationships, though, so perhaps the conclusion that the Viking women were wives is valid.  McLeod does note that the sample may be biased, and there may not have been a 50/50 ratio of males to females, but the Daily Mail article picked up on this concept of "wives" and pairs of Vikings.

Overall, though, a nice article.  It highlights how far we've come in archaeological and historical scholarship on issues of sex, gender, and cultural biases, but also shows how far we still need to go.  It demonstrates that bioarchaeological research - even quite technical papers - can be used by social scientists and humanists to support arguments and conclusions.  And it lets me mention the always-brilliant work of Budd, Chenery, Montgomery, and Evans, who do amazing things with isotopes in England.

(For more, see Katy Meyers' post at Bones Don't Lie. I'm woefully behind on my news feed at the moment and just noticed her summary of the article.)

P. Budd, C. Chenery, J. Montgomery, J. Evans, & D. Powlesland (2003). Anglo-Saxon Residential Mobility at West Heslerton, North Yorkshire, UK From Combined O- and Sr-Isotope Analysis Plasma Source Mass Spectrometry: Applications and Emerging Technologies, 195-208.

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for
S. McLeod (2011). Warriors and women: the sex ratio of Norse migrants to eastern England up to 900 AD Early Medieval Europe, 19 (3), 332-353.


Razib Khan said…
compare mtDNA vs. Y lineage ratios. the two populations are not to far apart, but with better forensic techniques and larger STR databases it'll be feasible in the near future. ancient DNA would be best.
eaplatt said…
Ah, well, I'm at a disadvantage commenting here, since the link to the article directs me to a webpage that wants me to get out my credit card to buy it! Not gonna do that, not when I'm already up past my bedtime. Will have to track down the original later, I guess. But, after sifting through the recaps, a few random thoughts:

--> When I read about burial mounds and grave goods, the word "status" pops into my head. I'd say that the women they found were of a higher status than a typical peasant wife or slave. Should a small number of high-status bodies be used to gauge the gender ratio of a historical population?

--> The Vikings definitely married (or betrothed, or whatever you want to call it) local women, or just raided for women. The Vikings were, after all, big players in the slave trade, and they apparently kept some Irish/Celtic women for wives or concubines back home, since Irish mtDNA has turned up in Iceland and Norway. The Vikings no doubt did the same to women in the British and insular West German areas, too. I'd guess that few, if any, of these women got the full burial-mound treatment when they died!

Food for thought. I'm off to bed!

-- eaplatt
BDNf said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
BDNf said…
Is there any trace of injury caused by fighting on some of the women's skeletons ?
Razib Khan said…
btw, re: women warriors. in any large numbers of course not. unless you're proposing that the male-female upper body strength difference is an artifact of recent evolution or something.
Drawdet said…
Totally agree with Raznib.

Isn't it far more likely swords, n armour symbolic, such as

husbands if body lost in battle.

And I believe Aztec women who died in childbirth were buried with a warriors honours so may be something similar.
Thanks for the comments, everyone! Of course, the physical dimorphism between males and females - particularly in muscle mass and therefore strength - and the higher testosterone levels in males generally mean that males are the aggressors or warriors in a culture. But it annoys me when we assume about a past population that women were passive, that they were buried with "male" objects because it reflected their status as someone's property. Take ancient Rome, for example. Most gladiators were male, but there were female gladiators. What should we expect to find in their burials? Would we interpret gladiatrix burials correctly, or would we assume they were the spouses of gladiators?

Ancient DNA would be an excellent thing to do on this population. I haven't seen a study to that effect (just the Sr/O to tell homeland) yet, though.

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