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Viking Women: A Reinterpretation of the Bones

By Katy Meyers

According to a new journal article by Shane McLeod in Early Medieval Europe, the concept of the male Norse invaders migrating across England in the 9th and 10th centuries CE is potentially biased. He argues that based on burial evidence, females were equal in number if not outnumbering the males, leading to a new interpretation of the Norse migration. Textual evidence of the Norse invasion into Britain notes the presence of women and children in some of the invading groups, but primarily they focus on the high number of male warriors. McLeod argues that there were more women than previously thought based skeletal analysis, and this requires a reinterpretation of the Norse invasion.

[Snip] Interpretations of the grave goods has relied upon swords meaning male and brooches meaning female. When both swords and brooches were found, the individual was assumed male with a female offering, although McLeod argues that there is no feasible reason why a woman couldn’t be buried with a sword. When comparing analysis done by osteological assessment against the grave good based assessment, McLeod found that the ratio of males to females was more equal. Using skeletal materials to sex an individual can be difficult if the remains are fragmentary or damaged, but it is more reliable than interpreting sex from grave goods which are assigned by unknown cultural standards rather than biology. McLeod’s reanalysis of the skeletal remains from Repton and Heath Wood show that it was more likely that the ratio of males to females was even, and that the mistakes in interpretation was more likely the fault of equating grave goods and gender with biological sex. From this evidence McLeod argues that women did accompany the men on the two great invasions from 876 to 896. This also changes interpretations of the past where it was thought that Norse males intermarried with Anglo-Saxon females. If the men were bringing their wives, it is less likely that the proposed intensive intermarriage occurred.

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