10 thoughts on “These can’t be women– they have swords!

  1. Interesting. It may be worth pointing out that while the Sagas don’t shy away from depicting powerful and influential women, there’s no mention of women going raiding, and that for at least a time in Iceland (I dunno about other lands, but their laws were based on Norway’s) women could not be outlawed (which is what usually set off a viking expedition). I wish the article were more detailed, though: were the women and their arms buried separately from the men, or were they paired or grouped into households? Is the contention that women went raiding (such as at Lindisfarne) or accompanied warships heading to Britain looking for land? If the women participated in raids, did they also stand in the shieldwall during warfare? The article quotes a paragraph that makes it sound like a revelation that Scandinavians came looking for land, but that’s already well known, and it’s to be expected that when you try to settle somewhere you bring your household and possessions.

    I don’t mean to rain on anyone’s parade. The possibilities are really cool–I’m just hungry for more specific information! It would be awesome if women both went raiding and stood in the shieldwall. I mean, that’s an easy way to double your numbers!

  2. The categorization of ancient remains and artifacts is difficult, and it’s certainly a field where bias has been known to produce faultly conclusions and no doubt continues to produce faulty conclusions that haven’t been detected yet. But physical size and strength and particularly upper body strength are genuinely relevant to primitive warfare (from what I recall of my ancient history, there seems to be a correlation between the rising importance of warfare and increasingly patriarchal social organizations as you move from the earliest civilizations to the classical period), so associating swords with men is not one of the most foolish things archeaologists have ever done. Of course, that men are on average larger and stronger than women doesn’t mean there aren’t individual exceptions, and in any event less than ideal warriors can be more useful than no warriors at all; the ancients did employ children in warfare, for example. But I recall my ancient history professor mentioning that while the use of children indicated that there were roles in ancient warfare that obviously didn’t require more strength than women would possess, there still didn’t seem to be any evidence of ancient societies employing women in warfare in any significant numbers. Perhaps biased researchers have missed the evidence, but some of them have looked for it.

    There still remains the possibility that swords had other significance than indicating that the person was a raiding warrior. The article suggests that the mistake was concluding that swords indicated raiding parties, and that finding women suggested the Vikings probably did more colonizing and less raiding than previously thought, and I have to admit that looks to me like the most likely interpretation of what has happened here.

  3. boo. I must agree with maxhgns & protagoras. seems very at odds w depictions in the sagas. then again, the sagas were altered, so I’ve heard, by later scribes–for example, to fit w church doctrine. so who knows…tho, I can think of at least a few key stories that would make no sense at all if women raiding were common. so, it would’ve been big rewriting, I think. I like the idea, anyway!

  4. Though I’m all for facts that show women were not subservient chattel, I’m not that excited about women as blood thirsty, violent raiders. Should we all cheer if it is proven that they raped men, too?

  5. Thanks for sharing this! I’m not surprised many Viking women owned swords!

    From an archaeological perspective (from an archaeologist), I can see how this mistake could have been made. Throughout the course of archaeological inquiry many things have changed. In the old days (100+ years ago) no one cared about bones. They only cared about artifacts, and what stories they could create from those artifacts. Heinrich Schliemann’s excavation of Troy and Mycenae is the perfect example of this.

    More recently, starting in the 1960s, archaeology has become more scientific. We are now interested in looking at every bit of data we can find. This was a big revolution when it happened, you can Google Lewis Binford and the New Archaeology for more information on that.

    Archaeology used to be done by a bunch of rich old men with their own private interests, but today there are higher standards. There’s a whole subset of anthropology for the study of bones, physical anthropology.

    And, a lot of modern archaeologists are feminists! One of Binford’s wives- Sally Binford- was a serious feminist. They tend to question the major premises of those old, rich, male archaeologists. Check out this post about her: http://susiebright.blogs.com/susie_brights_journal_/2008/05/sally-binford-n.html. Totally awesome!

  6. This could be an example of the so-called “biographical fallacy” in archaeology when it comes to the interpretation of grave goods, namely the apparently common-sense but often wrong tendency (including among archaeologists in many cases) to infer that the objects buried with the dead provide us with a straightforward indication of what that individual did in life. Often the real significance of grave goods is metaphorical, relevant more to cultural biography than individual biography. In other instances the “object biography” itself is deemed significant even if it does not directly relate to the person’s activities in life (such as when ancient people were buried with objects that turn out already to have been unusable antiques when buried).

    Archaeologists have found, so I understand, that some cultures that idealized the warrior, for example, would often symbolically ascribe (through grave goods, etc.) warrior status in death to individuals who did not achieve, or even *could not* (whether for social, physical, or practical reasons) have achieved, warrior status in life. So I wonder whether something like that is going on here. I haven’t seen reported in the news stories enough info on this question from the archaeologists involved.

    It would be interesting to know if there is any evidence (beyond simply the burial assemblage) that the swords buried with the women actually belonged to them or were used by them, such as indications that the swords were were made and balanced with a smaller user in mind, or that their construction was consistent with non-ceremonial swords, or that the female remains showed injuries consistent with the practice of arms, etc.

  7. Just as a follow-up thought, the so-called “biographical fallacy” can cut both ways; it likely had something to do both with the initial (erroneous) assumption that the women’s remains were men’s remains, as well as the subsequent assumption that the swords buried with the women belonged to or were used by them in life.

  8. […] These can't be women– they have swords! « Feminist Philosophers Yup, that's how archaeologists studying the Vikings used to reason. Which is how we got our image of all-male bands of marauders. Then someone thought to actually look at the bones. Turns out half of them were women […]

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