Noteworthy new book - The Bones of Birka | Mechanics' Institute

You are here

Noteworthy new book - The Bones of Birka

The Mechanics Institute Library acquires new books each week. Some you will see on the new books tables, but members often check out some of the most popular books right away. If you do not know how to place a hold on a book, please call us at 415-393-0102 (or send a message to [email protected]). 

Quite a lot of what we think of when we think of "Vikings" comes to us more from popular culture than science or scholarship. Vikings never wore "horned helmets," for example, though we get the image from Richard Wagner who dressed his opera singers in truly mad costumes. Assumptions about Norse society implicit in movies and television shows mostly come to us from 20th and 21st century adaptations of the medieval sagas and not from the sagas themselves.  In short, most of the ideas we have about Vikings are either demonstrably false or unverifiable modern perceptions without evidence to support them. A wonderful antidote for those who have an interest in learning what we can know to be true has recently arrived in the library: The Bones of Birka : unraveling the mystery of a female Viking warrior, by C. M. Surrisi.

A "Trans" Viking? 

I found this a surprisingly quick read. Many may not think of archaeology as a dynamic field of study, but every time an archeologist digs up something new, that find can change or overturn previous ideas and explanations about how people in the past lived and what kind of people they were. Even technological advances, such as DNA testing of minute amounts of organic material still existent on bones, can lead to breakthroughs and brand new insights. This actually happened when scientists subjected the bones of a Viking (Norse) person discovered over a hundred years ago to DNA testing. A body considered since its discovery to be male and, judging from the grave goods, a high status warrior, tested as XX -- no Y chromosome to be found. 

To the surprise of the archaeologists, this discovery exploded through the popular media. They have had to field often contentious questions ever since. A trans Viking?! Really? But what does this DNA test result tell us, beyond the XX chromosome? 

From p. 120:
“A common observation made about the XX result was that the person might have been transgender.” The team didn't outright reject the idea but questioned it. “While we understand this line of thinking in the context of contemporary social debates, it should be remembered that this is a modern politicized, intellectual and Western term, and as such, is problematic (some would say impossible) to apply to people of the remote past. There are many possibilities across a wide gender spectrum, some perhaps unknown to us, but familiar to the people of the time. We do not discount any of them.” [emphasis added]

I cannot think of a better explanation for how we often make the mistake of applying the values, ideologies, customs, social norms and other contemporary frameworks for understanding human behavior to past societies and civilizations we know very little about. 

But this does not stop people from jumping to their own conclusions. In a tour de force of confirmation bias and motivated reasoning, many of those questioning the researchers demonstrate an almost desperate need to dismiss or dispute the fact that a 9th or 10th century society buried a biologically female person with grave goods typical of a warrior (and without any grave goods indicating she was the wife of a warrior).

from p.118-119

“People… do not want to believe that the Vikings buried a female body with all the objects and honors they would a male warrior,” according to Neill Price, leader of the research team. “I still sometimes get questions like, "But can you prove that there wasn't originally a second male body also in the chamber, which has since somehow disappeared?”” I tell them, "No, we can't, but only in the same way that we can't prove there was never a second female body there either. Or three of them in a pile, or an ostrich, and anything else for which there is no evidence whatsoever."

We make progress one discovery at a time. Although this one does not tell us how Vikings constructed gender nor does it give us the full story of all the ways that someone with two X chromosomes made their way through life in Viking society, we do know that earlier depictions of Norse society no longer hold true. 

Posted on Jul. 19, 2023 by Steven Dunlap