Thursday, August 4, 2011

Lady Pirates: Raiders and Colonists

Anthropologists, historians and pirate geeks have known for a long time that the Vikings, as that collective group of seafaring Scandinavian tribes were known, were some of the best free booters ever to take a prize.

More akin to buccaneers than privateers, Vikings are best known for plundering on land. If there is a similarity between the Vikings and the privateers of the early 19th century, it is their fondness for preserving the vessels they raided in order to add to their profit. Just as a privateer would take a captured ship back to his home port, the Vikings were keen to colonizing the lands they plundered. Iceland, Greenland, France, Scotland, Ireland and perhaps even places as far afield as Russia and North America were all sites of Viking colonies.

This indisputable fact makes the tone of a recent article from USA Today a little puzzling. According to it, a number of Viking burial sites have been located recently in Eastern England (where, exactly, the article does not say). After what one imagines was selective study of the burials, experts from the University of Western Australia have released their findings in the Journal of Early Medieval Europe (which will henceforth be referred to in this post, following the JAMA tradition, as the JEME). Somewhere in the study, Shane McLeod of UWA is quoted as saying:

There is some archaeological evidence for early Norse female settlement…

I have to repeat one single word: some? The evidence, quite frankly, is all over the world. The study even mentions the famous “Danelaw”, a Scandinavian fiefdom in Eastern England that was only brought to heel when William the Conqueror began massacring the indigenous island peoples. Why would anyone imagine that the Vikings wouldn’t bring their women to their new colonies?

The theory that the Vikings began their sea raiding because of overpopulation and, as a result, reduced resources in the Norse land is a fairly well accepted one, so it stands to reason that women would accompany their men to greener shores. This migration is very much mirrored in the migrations of European settlers to North and South America, Africa and Australia in the early and pre-modern eras. The very idea that Viking women being in a Viking settlement is some kind of surprise seems a little disingenuous.

The silver lining, if you will, in the JEME study is one of rethinking previous assumptions. The 14 bodies looked at in the study were found to be approximately half male and half female through osteological testing (6-F, 7-M, 1-unknown). It was also found that as many women as men were laid to rest with swords; one woman was also buried with a shield.

McLeod points out that this should make scholars step back and rethink previously excavated gravesites where any skeleton found with weapons was assumed to be male. If nothing else, this is a good lesson for all anthropologists and archaeologists. I would go further to say that just because a skeleton is found with “women’s things” it should not automatically be assumed to be that of a female. Our follies as modern researchers can be many, and foisting our gender biases on historical cultures is just one of them.

If you’ve got a moment, do click over and read the brief article. If you’re ready to feel you blood boil – just a little – read the comments as well. And thank a Viking next time you meet one – man or woman. Those sea raiders were colonists too, and they surely had a hand in shaping the world we live in.

Header: Gudrid and her son Snorri; statue in Laugabrekka National Park, Iceland. Read more about these Viking colonists at


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Good point about making assumptions. Always a bad idea. And commenting on the internet seems to bring out the worst in some people (he said in a comment on the internet)...

Pauline said...

Most people who take the time to comment are actually trying to add to the conversation but, very unfortunately, being able to hide behind a pseudonym or the dreaded "anonymous" moniker can turn a few into "trolls".

Charles L. Wallace said...

Sadly, the total of what many people know about Vikings consists of cartoon characters, football mascots, and Capital One commercials.