Think of a Viking warrior and you probably imagine a fearsome, muscular, bearded man. Well, think again. Using cutting-edge facial recognition technology, British scientists have brought to life the battle-hardened face of a female fighter who lived more than 1,000 years ago.
The life-like reconstruction, which challenges long-held assumptions that Viking warrior heroes such as Erik the Red left their women at home, is based on a skeleton found in a Viking graveyard in Solør, Norway, and now preserved in Oslo’s Museum of Cultural History. The remains had already been identified as female, but her burial site had not been considered a warrior grave “simply because the occupant was a woman”, according to archaelogist Ella Al-Shamahi.
As they worked on reconstructing her face for a 21st-century audience, scientists found that not only was the woman buried amid an impressive collection of deadly weaponry, including arrows, a sword, a spear and an axe, she also had suffered a head injury consistent with a sword wound. Her head, resting in her grave on a shield, was found to have a dent in it serious enough to have damaged the bone.
Whether the wound was the cause of death is unclear as scientific examination has revealed signs of healing. But Al-Shamahi believes that this is “the first evidence ever found of a Viking woman with a battle injury”.
“I’m so excited because this is a face that hasn’t been seen in 1,000 years… She’s suddenly become really real,” said the expert in ancient human remains, who is to present a forthcoming National Geographic documentary featuring the reconstruction.The skeleton was always identified as female, but never as a warrior, even though her grave was “utterly packed with weapons”, added Al-Shamahi.
Dr Caroline Erolin, a senior lecturer at the University of Dundee in the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification which worked on the reconstruction, said that the face was built up anatomically working from the muscles and layering skin. She added: “The resulting reconstruction is never 100% accurate, but is enough to generate recognition from someone who knew them well in real life.”
New technology also recreated the grave, showing how weapons were placed around the skeleton. In the documentary Al-Shamahi travels across Scandinavia to examine Viking burial sites, using visualisation techniques to reconstruct their contents, noting that such discoveries are “transforming” our knowledge.
Among other skeletons in the new research is the Birka Warrior, which was unearthed in Sweden over a century ago, surrounded by a stash of weapons, including arrows. Until recently, it was assumed to be the remains of a man, but science has proved that it was female.
Al-Shamahi said that she “could have been a military commander”, although some experts still resist the idea that women could have been such warriors.
While she acknowledges that women risked being overpowered in hand-to-hand combat, she argues that they could have been long-distance killers, firing deadly arrows from horseback, making them “an equal match for men”.
Professor Neil Price, a Vikings expert and archaeological consultant on the project, believes that the findings challenge assumptions: “There are so many other burials in the Viking world… It wouldn’t surprise me at all if we find more [female warriors].”
Viking Warrior Women airs on National Geographic on 3 December at 8pm
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