Dr. Leszek Gardeła examining the axe found in a woman’s grave in western Norway. Photo by Mira Fricke.

The axe-wielding woman was buried over 1,000 years ago in the Viking cemetery on the Danish island of Langeland. New research suggests her axe was Slavic.

The burial was discovered many years ago, and was the only one at the cemetery to contain weapons. But until now archaeologists hadn’t noticed that the axe she’s buried with is a typical Slavic design.

It was recently re-examined by Dr. Leszek Gardeła at the University of Bonn, who is collating details of all the 9th-10th century women’s graves which contain weapons in the area of Denmark, Sweden and Norway. Both her axe and the form of her burial (a chamber grave with an additional coffin) appear to originate from the southern Baltic, which means she could be Slavic, said Gardeła in a statement published on Science in Poland.

During the Middle Ages, the island of Langeland was a melting pot of Slavic and Scandinavian elements, so the presence of a possible Slavic woman buried in a Danish cemetery is not necessarily surprising, and new research suggests that the presence of Slavic warriors in Denmark was even more significant than previously thought.

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An artist`s reconstruction of the grave in Bogøvej on the island of Langeland in Denmark, where a woman with an axe from the South Baltic area was buried. Fig. Mirosław Kuźma.

Gardeła has been collating details of all the 9th-10th century women’s graves which contain weapons in the area of Denmark, Sweden and Norway.

Until now, it was believed that there were about 20 of them, the most famous of which is the Birka Warrior – an ‘archetypal’ high-status warrior grave. Originally discovered in 1878, the burial was always assumed to be male, until DNA testing in 2017 revealed her to be female.

Gardeła’s research has identified another 10, including the grave of the alleged “Slavic woman”, bringing the total to 30.

But there is still plenty to be learned. Axes are the weapons that women’s graves are most often equipped with, less frequently arrowheads or spears. In addition to real weapons, in numerous women’s graves there are also miniatures of weapons in the form of, for example, small shields, axes or swords.

But exactly what these weapons mean, and whether they were warriors, remains a question.

Both archaeological and literary evidence points to the existence of female warriors who participate in expeditions in full gear, and who even lead entire armies to attack, says Gardeła.

Unfortunately, bones in graves from this period don’t often survive, which makes it difficult to say how the individuals died, or confirm their biological sex.

Researchers are convinced that some of the graves containing weapons are women’s burials mainly because of additional equipment, for example typically female ornaments and jewellery.

“Fortunately, in the case of the grave of the alleged Slavic woman, the bones have survived, but no injuries are visible that could point to the cause of death”, Gardeła adds.

Likewise, it can de difficult to determine the purpose of the weapons found in graves.

“Some of the axes are so badly preserved that such analyses are not possible. Those that are in a better condition look as if they were placed in the grave just after being made – it may be due to the fact that their blades were sharpened, hence there are no nicks on them. But it is possible that some weapons were made specifically for the funeral” – he points out.

Based on his research, Dr. Gardeła draws the conclusion that in the world of Vikings, women used weapons occasionally. While tales of Amazons are legends, some women may have been warriors, while others may have used tweapons for ritualistic purposes (for example magical or divination ceremonies), or self-defence.

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Dr. Leszek Gardeła studying a miniature axe and jewellery from a women`s grave in Svingesaeter, Norway. Photo: Leszek Gardeła

Dr Leszek Gardeła plans to publish a monograph on this topic in 2020 as part of the project “Amazons of the North”, which he pursues at the University of Bergen and the University of Bonn.

This year, the researcher published his findings in the book “Magic, women and death in the world of Vikings”.

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Maiya Pina-Dacier

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