Powerful then, dangerous now?

Marianne MoenMarianne Moen is a feminist archaeologist currently working on her PhD project at the University of Oslo. With an undergraduate degree in archaeology from the University of Edinburgh in 2005, she’s lived and worked in different fields for a number of years in both the UK and in Norway before finally returning to her main interest of archaeology. With understandings and representations of gender as a main research interest, her current work is focused on gender in the Scandinavian Viking Age.

What makes a woman dangerous 1000 years after her death?

How much of a threat can a dead and decayed body of a nameless woman really pose? Judging from the academic treatment of the Viking Age female double burial found at Oseberg in Norway, the answer seems to be quite a substantial one. Enough at least, that in the 100 years since the burial was excavated, academic debate regarding it has centred on finding explanations and interpretations that nearly all share a common purpose of removing the two women from any position of political power, and to place them outside the public sphere. Probing the reasons behind this uncovers a complicated web of bias and prejudice, both conscious and unconscious.

The Viking Age – mostly populated by men?

Mention the word ‘Vikings’ and a score of images spring to mind. The Viking Age has seen sustained interest both from academic quarters as well as in popular culture over the last 150 years, and consequently a great deal is known about the culture and beliefs of the time[i]. With this degree of knowledge however, comes a very real danger of believing the Viking Age to be a known entity, and a tendency to think of it as a time whose values and ideologies closely resemble our own, when instead it was a different world entirely.

Representations of the Viking Age very often focus on the male, on doughty men who go out and conquer, pillage, trade and settle in foreign parts. These men run, order and lead society, taking care of public speaking, politics and leadership in general. Women, when discussed at all, are placed in the background, happily tending the hearth and remaining within the boundaries of the home. Very occasionally, we may encounter a shield maiden, a feisty young girl who will almost inevitably eventually revoke her violent ways to settle down as a wife and mother. The Viking Age man can be anything he wants, the Viking Age woman is usually a housewife, and a content one at that.

And yet, there is a great deal of evidence which does not support this image. Both written and archaeological sources show women trading, travelling, fighting and taking on leading roles in religious activities. There is even evidence of women as chieftains. This evidence is not hard to find, nor is it scarce. Nevertheless, scholars of the Viking Age, both historians and archaeologists, will often confidently state that women did not lead active public lives and were bound to the homestead, whilst positions of power were nearly invariably held by men. We can still read confident statements to the effect that women were not allowed to carry weapons, or participate at legal gatherings at the Þing. Such statements are directly contradicted by substantial amounts of written and archaeological evidence and there is plenty of research which highlights this[ii], but still these ideas somehow remain generally accepted in academic discourse.

We are looking at a very real divide here, between the Viking Age as we’re told it was, and the Viking Age as it appears in the evidence. This divide naturally begs the question why. Why is evidence of powerful women in the Viking Age still downplayed or ignored in modern scholarship?

In order to answer this, I believe we need to look to the naturalisation of modern western gendered value divisions, and how they are justified in part by a belief in their longevity. First however, I will outline an example of the different treatments of men and women in academic interpretations of the Viking Age.

Ship burials – the burials of kings and chieftains

It is commonly thought that Viking Age populations used large burial mounds to symbolise status and ownership. When these burials contain ships, they are usually termed chieftain’s burials, and used to support theories of local power structures. Much is made of how such burials show the elite’s ability to display wealth and influence in order to exert dominance and control. Unless of course, the burial in question is shown to have been constructed for a woman, in which case scholars will cast about for alternative explanations which allow them to continue placing women firmly outside the sphere of public power. Where a woman is buried, there will be no talk of dominance or power. Women with power, we are made to understand, do not fit with the gendered ordering of society which the Vikings supposedly shared with us. Thus, female burials are treated differently from male ones, even when they are directly comparable, as the case below illustrates.

The Oseberg burial: a ship burial not like the others

In the 1860s, a magnificent ship burial was excavated at Gokstad in Vestfold, Norway. It was covered by a barrow of monumental size, and contained a great wealth of grave goods. Then, in 1904, an even more spectacular find was uncovered, also in Vestfold in Norway. The burial at Oseberg was also covered by a monumental barrow, and contained grave goods even more wealthy than the burial at Gokstad. The Gokstad burial is nearly always talked about as containing a chieftain. The Oseberg burial on the other hand, has been interpreted in turn as a religious sacrifice, as a young lady sent in marriage from Denmark to a Norwegian chieftain, as a priestess, as the mother of a well-known Viking, and even as having possibly contained another, male burial, of which there now remains no trace. Hardly ever is it suggested that it may be the burial of a chieftain, or a local leader. The difference between these two burials is of course the gender of the interred: Gokstad contains one man, Oseberg contains two women. Other than this, the burials are comparable in almost every way. The grave goods have more similarities than differences, the ships are both large, seagoing vessels, the barrows are of comparable size, they are placed in comparable locations and are dated to within 70 years of each other. The evidence here speaks very clearly in favour of women with political power, and yet interpretations consistently shy away from this explanation, presumably because it does not fit with what we think we know about women and men in the Viking Age.

Women as leaders

If we strip away the ‘knowledge’ that women did not have political power in the Viking Age, what we’re left with is strong evidence that they did. Oseberg is, apart from the gender or those buried, comparable to other mounds from the same period, which are argued to be an integral part of the political power play at the time. We do not actually know of any reason why women could not be chieftains in the Viking Age, we just have an assumption that they could not which has become so firmly fixed as to be upheld even in the face of contradictory evidence.

The logical conclusion to be drawn from Oseberg would be that this is the burial of two women who were likely leaders or chieftains. But this conclusion is not what we see in the prevailing interpretations. As seen above, these explanations tend to try and remove the women from any role of direct power, and place them somewhere where they do not threaten a male-dominated power structure. To see the reasons behind this, we need to cast back to the foundations of our current knowledge.

Victorian values in an academic present

Across Europe, archaeology became a discipline in its own right in the course of the 19th century. Ideas about human progress and evolution therefore coloured many early theories, and significantly, Victorian values of gendered divisions of labour were applied to the past without necessarily considering if evidence supported this. It would have been highly inappropriate for the wives and daughters of scholars of the time to have worked, hunted or fought in battle, and because this morality and gender ideology was seen as natural, these things were equally unthinkable when considering past societies. And so, the Viking Age became a world which shared Victorian ideals of appropriate occupations for men and women, and these ideas have been perpetuated throughout the last 150 years. Voices of dissent have been raised, pointing out that the evidence doesn’t support such a model, as well as saying that we need to stop projecting our own ideology on to the past unquestioningly[iii]. And yet these voices are still in the opposition, and still struggling to become part of mainstream academic debate. One must ask the question therefore, if this is because a past which shares the view that women were somehow ‘other’, always outside society and never the driving factors of progress and change, is maintained because it justifies our own social injustices. Diminishing the importance of women in the past is a useful tool in upholding a social structure which fears and ridicules women in the present: the argument goes that if women have always held a secondary role in society, this must be because it is the natural order of things.

Of course, the Oseberg burial was excavated over a century ago, and thus it’s not unreasonable to suppose that the early theories were coloured by a world view in which women were not considered adults on a par with men. And this is indeed reflected in early theories, as we can see in a publication from 1928 which described the burial as “naturally limited, as it lacks male artefacts”. Unfortunately, such bias has not been left behind in the distant past, but is instead perpetuated into modern scholarship. To name but a few: in 1995, a theory was put forward that Oseberg was a religious sacrifice, a theory influenced by the sex of the interred, as other burials of a comparable nature were not given the same interpretation. In 2005, an article suggested that there had been a third, male burial, which has since disappeared without a trace. In 2007, the suggestion was made that the burial was that of a young Danish woman, sent in marriage to a Norwegian chieftain. This final theory builds on the evidence that the ship’s timbers originated in Denmark, and was built some 10-15 years before its final depositioning. Setting aside the obvious sexism of an interpretation which robs the buried women of any agency, this theory also falls flat on that the youngest of the women was 50 years old when buried. Hardly a young bride, in other words.

What we can take away from these examples, is a sense that these two powerful women, buried such a long time ago, are still dangerous enough to sustain a need for them to be discounted and discredited by poorly reasoned arguments.

Powerful then, dangerous now

The example of Oseberg shows that there were powerful women in the Viking Age, and that they could wield symbols of power, command resources and be worthy of burials on a monumental scale alongside men. From other sources, we can conjecture that such women were not considered a threat to their male contemporaries. But to modern scholars, such powerful women become dangerous, subversive and threatening. This has resulted in consistent attempts to diminish the role of women, to make them less than their male counterparts.

Our problem is not that we don’t have evidence of powerful women in the Viking Age. It is instead that such evidence as we do have, tends to get distorted to fit in with what scholars seem to feel is appropriate.  Is it really so dangerous, to allow women a place in prehistory that isn’t tied to the kitchen sink? Judging from the treatment of the Oseberg women, it must be. They must be dangerous women indeed, to be threatening gendered values and ideologies 1000 years after their death.

Further reading

[i] Further reading on the Viking Age in general

Neil Price and Stefan Brink (eds) The Viking World, 2008

[ii] Further reading on gender roles in the Viking Age

Neil Price The Viking Way: Religion and war in Late Iron Age Scandinavia, 2002

Nancy L. Coleman and Nanna Løkka (eds) Kvinner I Vikingtid, 2014 (Norwegian language)

Marianne Moen The Gendered Landscape, 2011

Lotte Hedeager Iron Age Myth and Materiality, 2011

[iii] Further reading on gender and archaeology and Victorian influence on modern scholarship

Elisabeth Arwill-Nordbladh Genuskonstruksioner I Nordisk Vikingatid: förr och nu, 1998 (Swedish language)

Roberta Gilchrist Gender and Archaeology, 1999