The Impact of Gender and Sex in Viking Culture

by Jay Boyd, Anthropology

Abstract: As Neo-Nazis in the United States use Norse Runes as dog whistles and other elements of Viking cultures to encourage “tradition,” part of archaeologists’ job is to reveal the truths of such history. Studies specifically focusing on sex and gender in Viking cultures are few but the topic is growing in popularity. This is partly because in written records, women who seemingly break gender norms are well-documented, but they are few in the archaeological record. As technology expands our abilities, different methods, such as linear enamel hypoplasia (LEH), grave goods analysis, and aDNA analysis can be better utilized to determine levels of gender equality and the treatment of possibly gender non-conforming people. At sites such as Sigtuna and Skagafjörður, where grave goods were less prevalent, LEH was used to determine levels of gender equality. It is at these sites where environment as a lurking variable must be addressed as an added stressor. At Birka and Suontaka, where grave goods are present and sex is secondary, grave goods analysis and aDNA analysis must be used to tell us about possible Viking warrior women.

gender, sex, vikings, mortuary archaeology, bioarchaeology


The Nordic Viking cultures have long drawn much fascination for their rich religious and militaristic culture. In the modern day, Norse runes are used as white supremacist dog whistles, and the image of militaristic masculinity is used to defend today’s patriarchal institutions. Is this perception accurate? Were Vikings the violent patriarchs as they are often depicted, or were women treated with autonomy and some semblance of equality? How were those who did not fit within the modern sexual binary perceived? Bioarchaeology, the study of human remains for stress, disease, and trauma, can be enlightening in the study of these possible inequalities. Though research on the significance of sex and gender in Viking cultures is sparse, sites such as Sigtuna, Skagafjörður, Suontaka, and Birka have given archaeologists invaluable insight into the topic. Through close study of these sites, it becomes clearer that gender roles in Viking cultures were more complex than popularly believed.

Background: Issues in Research

Research on sex and gender in Viking studies has become more prominent in the last 30 years, but even then, it has not been very easy to find (Fig. 1). Upon searching “Viking” and “gender” on the Web of Science, 46 results are presented. Between 1997 and 2022, the year that saw the most publications on this topic was 2020, with nine publications, including two that indicated that such study is relatively new. 2021 follows in pursuit with seven articles. These years also seem to mark an increase in mainstream knowledge and understanding with regard to  sex and gender. In almost every other year, there were no more than two journal articles written on this topic, with the exception of 2012 with four articles, 2018 with three, 2019 with five, and 2022 with three. Sixteen of these entries are classified as archaeological. If “Viking” is searched with “bioarchaeology” or “osteology,” six and two results are presented, respectively. Several of the 16 Viking archaeology research articles were published in the same journals; four were published in Medieval Archaeology, two each in Journal of Archaeological Science and Journal of Archaeological Science Reports, and one each in a variety of other archaeology journals. Most of the journals publishing such research are quite specialized, as they deal specifically with archaeology in the Scandinavian peninsula and nearby countries like Estonia. This is only natural, as these countries are home to many Viking age sites.

Figure 1: Bar chart displaying the number of publications available on Web of Science including keywords “Viking” and “Gender” made by year since 1997 until 2022.

In looking through these 16 articles, they presented a variety of topics. Seven of these concerned the art and material culture of Vikings, one of which examined depictions of Vikings in modern picture books. Others covered topics like Viking iconography, literature, and fashion. One of these 16 articles discussed technology, specifically a shipwreck connected to a Viking woman named Turid Fiskarbekk. Four of these pieces discussed diet and two were about disease and health, which are directly related to bioarchaeology. One of the articles about disease and health concerned human sacrifice, which likely contained evidence of skeletal trauma indicative of sacrifice in Viking burials. Diet and disease can also both be observed in skeletal remains. The final two articles presented by the Web of Science dealt with zooarchaeology, gender, and the built environment.

It should be noted that research not initially believed to directly concern gender may still shed light on the impacts of sex and gender in Viking cultures. Gendered differences can be seen in all kinds of bioarchaeological research. In studies on disease or malnutrition, one could study how many men and women were afflicted to show how people of different genders were affected differently. If female remains are found to have higher or lower rates of disease, malnutrition, or other ailments than their male counterparts, these results can inform gender archaeologists on social structures in the past. Though this broadens the scope of research that address sex and gender inequality, it makes researching this topic somewhat more difficult than one may at first think.

Background: Historical and Methodological

The term “Vikings” refers to the Scandinavian cultures known for their extensive pillaging and colonizing of nearby countries and even as far away as Iceland, Greenland, and Newfoundland and Labrador between the 8th and 11th centuries. As it is one of the most iconic aspects of Viking culture, much mainstream attention is paid to Viking warriors, and the existence of female Viking warriors has long been debated. Despite evidence of such figures being found in literature and written accounts, little archaeological evidence exists. Perhaps this is simply due to taphonomy. Perhaps this is due to the variation in modes of burial, as practices ranged from elaborate boat burials to burials in cemeteries to cremation. However, it does seem that certain modes of burial were preferred in different regions, as inhumation was preferred in Northern Viking Norway and cremation was preferred in Southern Viking Norway (Strand et al.). Keeping this in mind, it is still not entirely clear if cremation was also preferred for those of lower classes, which is a possibility that would make gathering information about working class Vikings somewhat more difficult. When the remains of an individual found at a site are fragmentary, this proves challenging to bioarchaeologists could otherwise analyze skeletal remains for information that can tell us more about what life in the Viking age was like.

Of course, not all Viking women were warriors. They made textiles, bore children and held various other occupations. They were involved in the colonization of Iceland and Greenland, migrations, and experienced their own unique stressors in adapting to these new environments. Physical differences that are affected by these changes in lifestyle can be seen in their skeletal remains through the use of bioarchaeological analysis, which shines light on the variety of ailments experienced during their lifetime. Childhood stresses are visible in the tooth enamel; trauma to the skeleton before, around, or after death leaves visual and tactile features; and different diseases leave similar features archaeologists can identify years after death.

Human teeth grow during approximately the first twenty years of one’s life in a series of bands. Each cycle takes places over the place of 7 to 9 days in which ameloblasts lay enamel to form each band, making up our teeth. When an individual undergoes stresses in early childhood while the teeth are still developing and energy used in this process is needed elsewhere, formation of the enamel briefly halts to redirect this energy. These stresses can include illness, malnutrition, or even weaning in early childhood. The pausing of the formation of enamel creates visible bands on teeth that archaeologists use to tell when an individual experienced these childhood stressors and at what point in their development (Robert et al. 2005).

The archaeological estimation of sex is also used as a mode of bioarchaeological analysis and relies on several of these visible and tactile skeletal features. For each feature, a scale ranges from definitely male, likely male, unknown, likely female, or definitely female is used to grade each feature. Many of these features are found on the skull and pelvis, like the mastoid process, mental eminence, subpubic concavity, and the greater sciatic notch. These and other indicators of sex are used by archaeologists to estimate where a set of human remains may lie on this scale of male to female.

However, sex estimation is exactly that: estimation. As Lee Colwill explains in The Queerly Departed, osteological and genomic sexing have been criticized for their essentialist prioritization of assignment to a particular sex over social identity. It is with this in consideration that makes bioarchaeology anthropology. While human remains can tell archaeologists a lot about how ancient peoples lived, both the biological and the cultural are required to draw conclusions about a group of people. Material culture such as grave goods are placed purposefully by those who share a community with the deceased and therefore represent how they were perceived by their community in both life and death. This blend of perspectives is important for any holistic analysis.

Site Analyses and Significance

It is important to again note that not all Viking women were of high status or class as the Viking warriors discussed later. Therefore, attention must be paid to the Viking women who were not given elaborate burials. When no grave goods are present, all archaeologists have to study are their remains. This is what Laura Maravall Buckwalter and Joerg Baten did using Linear Enamel Hypoplasia (LEH) as a litmus test for gender equity in Viking Scandinavia. While this defect is described as a non-specific stress indicator because a variety of stresses can cause it, it can be used to detect sex-based preferential treatment in children in comparing ratios across gender. The authors assert that if male children are preferred over female children, LEH will be seen in higher rates in females than males. They also acknowledge the theory of “female buffering” in which females are thought to be more resilient in the face of famine or other environmental stressors. If this hypothesis were true, equal rates of LEH across genders would indicate preferential treatment in childhood for male individuals. However, such a biological advantage sounds dubious, and I will ignore it for the sake of simplicity.

In her research, Buckwalter found that Viking Scandinavia had “significantly lower incidence of LEH among females in rural areas than males” (Buckwalter and Baten 2019, 187). Though she found some variation connected to variation in region, as LEH incidence was lower for females in Denmark and Finland but higher at Sigtuna, an urban settlement in modern-day Sweden. It is noted that women in the Mediterranean were disadvantaged, experiencing higher rates of LEH, and therefore experiencing more childhood stressors. These variations point to female children facing fewer stresses in Denmark and Finland and more stresses at Sigtuna, which could, if compared to rates in male individuals, mean that either children faced more stresses or male children were favored over females. Moreover, women in the Mediterranean were found to have even greater rates, showing that gender equity was substantially less in these regions than in medieval Scandinavia (2019, 187).

In contrast, Skagafjörður, Iceland, was colonized and became home to a Viking settlement in the 11th and 12th centuries. Nearly a millennia later, archaeologists studied the 53 skeletons from the Keldudalur Cemetery, (Zoëga et al. 2015) 14 of the 27 adults were osteologically sexed as female, 10 as male, and three individuals were too fragmentary for sex estimation to be performed (Zoëga et al. 2015, 576). This cemetery is thought to have served one family for between 100 and 200 years. These individuals were likely greatly impacted by the change in environment that colonization brought, and these stressors left visible evidence in the skeleton, as this study collected data concerning developmental defects, trauma, dental caries and tooth loss, and diseases like porotic hyperostosis, degenerative join diseases (DJD), and other infectious diseases.

Zoëga recognizes climate variability and environment as possible stressors for the Viking colonists. The environment was indeed formidable, complete with volcanoes and tundra. This meant that agriculture was difficult to maintain, and Viking settlers often relied on livestock and foraging to survive (2015, 575). Also noted is that “cold temperatures can lead to increased risk of trauma, prolonged exposure to domestic pollution from indoor heating and cooking fires, increased potential for zoonotic diseases from animals and waste within households, and periods of seasonal starvation” (2015, 575). These elements would be evident in the remains found at Keldudalur, as healing or lack thereof from trauma, evidence of disease, and nutrition could all be gleaned from each individual.

Archaeologists found no statistically significant differences in how these defects and diseases affected the population across age and gender (Zoëga et al. 2015, 579). Specific ailments like DJD were more prevalent among older individuals but were otherwise seen somewhat equally among males and females. However, a third of the adult females had dental defects, while only a tenth of the males did. Incidences of trauma were also highly gendered, as 27.3 percent of adult males showed evidence of trauma, while only 7.1 percent of females did (2015, 580). The areas most affected by this trauma include the skulls, ribs, and extremities. In a 2019 book chapter entitled “Life on the Northern Frontier: Bioarchaeological Reconstructions of Eleventh-Century Households in North Iceland,” Zoëga corroborates that “the life of the pioneer was likely difficult, both in terms of physical exertion and the social uncertainty those who settled…experienced…[as] even after 100 years of settlement, living conditions were still demanding and…periodic shortages were a way of life” (2019, 127). It is quite possible that on these colonial frontiers where life was filled with uncertainty and conflict, gender equity was lesser, which could explain this disparity in comparison to Vikings buried in Scandinavia.

On the mainland, during excavations at Suontaka in Finland in 1968, a Viking individual was found alongside two swords, one hilted, one not; two brooches; and jewelry. Using soil analysis, it was later shown that the hilted sword had been added to the burial sometime after the initial burial, showing continued interest in and care for this individual. At the time of this discovery, it was common for archaeologists to sex individuals using only the grave goods present in the site. Therefore, as the brooches and jewelry were used and the presence of the bronze swords was ignored, archaeologists concluded that the individual buried with these items was female. The conditions for the survival of all organic matter, including bone, determine how well they preserve or decompose. In this case, the bones at Suontaka were “almost fully decomposed and consisted of a soft mass, [as] only fragments of two femora could be lifted from the ground” (Moilanen et al. 2021, 46). As this bone material was so highly degraded, osteological analysis could not be performed.

Because of this lack of surface bioarchaeological data, it is difficult to gather much more information about this individual using non-invasive techniques. Taphonomy is partly to blame, as soil conditions allowed for accelerated decomposition of bone. However, despite the fragmentary nature of the femora, ancient DNA was extracted and sequenced using technology that simply did not exist at the time of the original dig, ultimately showing that the individual had an XXY karyotype, now known as Klinefelter syndrome, one of the most common intersex conditions in humans (Moilanen et al. 2021, 50). It is possible this individual was not aware of this condition, but with modern knowledge, it is possible that they may have had osteoporosis, which means they would have had lower bone density with a greater risk of fracture. This decreased bone density could have also meant they were at greater risk of bone fracture, but as there is very little bone matter left, this is impossible to determine as having happened to this individual (Robert et al. 2005, 242). However, the onset of this disease could have been offset by the athletic activities that came along with being a Viking warrior, as the use of these bones would have strengthened them significantly. Regardless, with this individual’s intersex condition as well as the variety of goods found in their grave, living a life outside the gender binary is a fair conclusion (Moilanen et al. 2021, 51). Again, it is likely this individual was not aware of their condition, as many intersex people today do not know until they undergo genomic testing. However, it seems that their community regarded them as what we may call today “non-binary,” or an individual who fits outside the man-woman binary in a sort of grey area. This seems especially so considering the brooches and jewelry in addition to the hiltless and hilted swords. Our knowledge today of gender and sexual identities is quite useful in drawing conclusions on individuals like this.

The individual at Suontaka is not the only Viking warrior burial in the archaeological record to have defied the gender binary. The Birka site in Eastern Central Sweden seems to be one of the most well-recognized cases of mistaken gender or sexual identity in regard to Viking warriors. Birka was a key trading center from the late 8th and into the 10th centuries and therefore saw cultural diversity in the people and objects who found themselves there (Hedenstierna-Jonson et al. 2017, 853). As Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson recounts, BJ 581, the best-known warrior grave at Birka, stood out as particularly “well-furnished and complete” (2017, 853). Due to the grave goods found with this individual, when their grave was originally found in 1878, they were initially sexed as male due to the interpretations made based on the items. These include “a sword, an axe, a spear, armor-piercing arrows, a battle knife, two shields, and two horses, one mare and one stallion (2017, 854). It is unclear if there are signs of trauma on the horses that would suggest slaughter for burial or if they died of other causes around the time of this person’s death. A set of gaming pieces was also found near the lap of the individual, which further indicates their occupation as a warrior, perhaps specifically a strategist (2017, 858).

In aging and sexing the individual, Hedenstierna-Jonson cites Anna Kjellstrom’s presentation of her osteological analysis in 2014. She found that the epiphyses were completely fused to the preserved remains, and the lower molars showed signs of wear consistent with those at least 30 years old (2017, 855). They also analyzed the greater sciatic notch and preauricular sulcus of the pelvis, which were broad and wide, respectively. In addition, the mandible lacked projection of the mental eminence typical of male sexual dimorphism. Interestingly, no evidence of long-term disease or healed trauma were found that could verify the interpretation of this individual as a warrior (2017, 855). Of course, the lack of this evidence also does not mean they were not warriors, as they could have succumbed to disease, which would not have left traces on the skeleton due to quick progression of illness. This osteological paradox leaves no certainty in how this individual lived or died and further analysis for evidence of skeletal use or overuse does not seem to have been performed.

Upon sequencing DNA from the left canine and left humerus, the individual once assumed male was found to have XX chromosomes, raising questions about women as warriors (2017, 855). It bears repeating that grave goods are placed intentionally by an individual’s community after their death, reflecting how they were perceived by that community. Though this individual was assigned female in osteological analysis, it does not seem that they lived their life as a woman, or at least did not perform the roles expected of women. As Price notes in their response to criticisms of their original study, while their sex may be female, their gender is something that can be negotiated further with more study (Price et al. 2019, 191). It is especially important for archaeologists to recognize the balance of bioarchaeology and material culture analysis in cases like this where the individual in question could have lived as an identity not assigned to them at birth, what we would refer to today as a transgender existence.

In a world where women and those who might not fit within the expected gender binary are under attack, it is of immense importance for archaeology to be used to study the history of such oppression or a lack thereof. Evidence of gender equity and individuals that do not conform to the binary in the past expose the fallacies of the misogynistic and anti-transgender rhetoric of biological essentialism, “gender criticism,” and male chauvinism. The rates of lesser LEH in females than males in Scandinavia versus the higher rates of enamel defects in Iceland really tell us more about the stresses of changes of environment than gender equity, as it is often known that such conflict often greatly impacts marginalized populations. While this does not imply that Scandinavian women were not marginalized, it indicates that their marginalization was not of the same intensity of the Icelandic Viking women. These women reflect a working class of Vikings, though women and gender non-conforming people were also found to have been warriors. Regardless of their sex or gender, the individuals at Suontaka and Birka were treated with respect to their identity, at the time of their death and well after, letting us believe that their gender and sexual identities were also respected by their communities.

Still, the impact of gender and sex on Viking culture is not entirely clear. While the burials of people with XX and XXY genome karyotypes with materials indicating their involvement in patriarchal occupations, not all women had the opportunity to break through this glass ceiling. However, as enamel defects can tell us, Viking women seemed to experience no unique stressors compared to their male stressors in mainland Scandinavia. Further study must be done, and a balance of bioarchaeology and material culture analysis is crucial for the holistic analysis needed for topics of such importance.

Works Cited

Colwill L. 2021. The queerly departed: Narratives of veneration in the burials of Late iron age Scandinavia. Trans and Genderqueer Subjects in Medieval Hagiography:177–198.

Hedenstierna-Jonson C, Kjellström A, Zachrisson T, Krzewińska M, Sobrado V, Price N, Günther T, Jakobsson M, Götherström A, Storå J. 2017. A female viking warrior confirmed by Genomics. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 164:853–860.

Maravall Buckwalter L, Baten J. 2019. Valkyries: Was gender equality high in the Scandinavian periphery since viking times? Evidence from enamel hypoplasia and height ratios. Economics & Human Biology 34:181–193.

Moilanen U, Kirkinen T, Saari N-J, Rohrlach AB, Krause J, Onkamo P, Salmela E. 2021. A woman with a sword? – Weapon grave at Suontaka Vesitorninmäki, Finland. European Journal of Archaeology 25:42–60.

Price N, Hedenstierna-Jonson C, Zachrisson T, Kjellström A, Storå J, Krzewińska M, Günther T, Sobrado V, Jakobsson M, Götherström A. 2019. Viking warrior women? Reassessing birka chamber grave BJ.581. Antiquity 93:181–198.

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Zoëga G, Murphy KA. 2015. Life on the edge of the Arctic: The bioarchaeology of the Keldudalur Cemetery in Skagafjörður, Iceland. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 26:574–584.

Zoëga G, Murphy KA. 2019. Life on the northern frontier: Bioarchaeological reconstructions of eleventh-century households in north Iceland. In: Bioarchaeology of Frontiers and Borderlands. 1st ed. University Press of Florida.

Citation Style: American Journal of Physical Anthropology