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Wednesday, June 29th, 2005, 10:31 AM
Transvestite Vikings?
by Tina Lauritsen and Ole Thirup Kastholm Hansen

Men armed with weapons led the way in warfare. Women were in charge of the household and held the keys to the home. This sums up the general perception of Viking-age gender roles, a perception held by both laymen and most archaeologists. This is very likely to represent the truth about the majority of the Scandinavian population a thousand years ago. But the total picture may be somewhat more complicated. A number of prehistoric graves from Scandinavia, Holland and England challenge traditional assumptions about gender roles in the Viking Age. These prehistoric graves contain men buried in women's clothes and with what we perceive as typical female grave goods; and in death women have been supplied with weapons for their journey to the other side.

Since archaeology was established as a science in the first half of the 19th century, it has been common practice to look primarily at the grave goods when seeking to determine the sex of a buried individual. Traditionally archaeologists have had a very rigid perception of the division of labour between women and men. A consequence of this is ascribing certain artefacts to male individuals and other artefacts to female individuals. Thus the presence of jewellery, sewing needles etc. in a grave makes it a female burial whereas the presence of weapons and/or tools indicates a male burial. This method is called archaeological sex determination.

Fortunately modern natural sciences have provided us with more objective and reliable methods of sex determination. Today it is possible to determine the sex of a buried individual by osteological investigations (by investigating the pelvis and skull characteristics of well-preserved adult skeletal remains, it is possible to determine the sex to 97%) or by extraction of DNA. However the archaeological sex determination is still the most common method used. This is partly due to the lack of well-preserved bone material, and partly due to conservatism. And, in terms of expensive DNA-testing, due to the ubiquitous lack of money, of course.

As the following archaeological material will show, the method of archaeological sex determination is certainly not trustworthy. On the contrary it serves to maintain a perception of prehistoric gender roles that might be wrong, or at least inadequate.

Viking-age burials
Near the Danish village of Gerdrup, north of Roskilde, a Viking-age (early 9th century) double grave was excavated in 1981. The grave contained two well-preserved skeletons, according to osteological investigation, a male and a female. The 35-40-year old male probably suffered a violent death by hanging. Furthermore it seemed as if he had his legs tied together. Probably he was a sacrificed slave. The c. 40-year old female was buried more peacefully with an iron knife, a needle box of bone and a spear as grave goods. Iron knives are the most common Viking-age grave goods and occur in both female and male burials; and – according to archaeological sex determination – needle boxes are female artefacts, while spears are male artefacts. Thus the Gerdrup-grave is a somewhat diverging grave with artefacts traditionally regarded as belonging to the female sphere found together with corresponding male artefacts. It has been proposed that the deceased woman was a female warrior or more likely a woman with some kind of male status – as head of a family lacking a man because of travel business or death. Some of the women depicted on the tapestry of the Oseberg ship burial also carry spears (Christensen 1981).

Female burials with weapons from the 11th – 12th century also occur in Balticum and Finland. Among them are a number of female graves from the Estonian island of Saaremaa, mainly wealthy graves, where the most common weapon is an axe, but spears and javelins also appear. In two graves from Finland – from Kalvola and Tyrväntö – swords are found together with rich typically women’s ornaments. In the grave-field of Luistari grave no. 35 contained a female with an axe; and in no. 404 the skull and limb bones of a male – two axes were placed beneath him – was lying at the feet of a female skeleton (Mägi 2002). (Re Saaremaa: read Marika Mägi’s article in VHM 2/02).

From Norway a number of similar burials containing “mixed” artefacts are known. Many of these graves were excavated in the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, and are therefore not as well documented as the one from Gerdrup. A complete overview does not yet exist, but at least 20 graves of this kind can be traced (in Petersen 1928). All of these graves contain the well-known oval brooches together with weapons. The majority of these graves are from the early 9th century. Sometimes one weapon occurs, but it is not uncommon to see two or three weapons in a single burial. The most common weapon is the axe, but swords as well as spears often appear. This is the same picture as in the Viking-age weapon burials seen as a whole.

But what are these Norwegian graves? The traditional answer is that these graves are double graves with female and male burials mixed together – due to poor documentation, poor preservation or maybe disturbances. This could be the truth concerning some of the graves. But, seen in the light of the Danish Gerdrup-grave and the Baltic graves, it might also be a poor excuse for not raising a debate about the perception of Viking-age gender roles.

Anglo-Saxon burials
A number of Anglo-Saxon graves show the same problems about sex determination as the above-mentioned Viking-age graves.

On the Dutch grave-field of Oosterbeintum in Friesland, grave no. 398 contained a male skeleton (osteological determination) with “female” grave goods. This man was buried with two brooches, 40 beads and a bracelet – almost identical to the ornaments found in most of the other female graves in the cemetery. The dating of this grave is 450-550 AD (Knol et al. 1996).

From the British Isles several burials of this kind are known. In Buckland, Dover, 11 burials containing grave goods not corresponding to the osteological sex determination were excavated. Seven males were buried with brooches, keys, pearls, bracelets etc. Three females were buried with spears and one with a shield boss (Evison 1987). The same was true in Sewerby, Yorkshire, where three male graves held jewellery (Hirst 1985), and in West Heslerton where osteology determined that three weapon burials with spears were female (Haughton & Powlesland 1999). From Kempston in Bedfordshire and Harwell in Berkshire burials with “mixed” grave goods are known – that is weapons and female jewellery (Meaney 1964).

Problematic interpretation of burials
These examples illustrate the unreliability of archaeological sex determination. This method involves a great risk of making ethnocentric interpretations of the prehistory. Gender is culturally constructed and beliefs about the nature of females and males vary between different cultures. These beliefs affect the attitudes each sex holds about the other and the behaviour each sex adopts toward the other. The danger of archaeological sex determination is that the archaeologist risks confusing the beliefs and practices of his or her own culture with those of the prehistoric culture in question. Most people's ideas about what is natural for humans to think and do, or not, are products of enculturation into a specific culture at a particular time. Our ideas and the practices of our own society are not universal or even inherent in human nature.

Another problem is the interpretation of grave goods and burial custom. Common archaeological practice is to label a grave containing weapons as a warrior grave. Obviously weapons associate to warfare, but they might as well symbolize other things. We cannot know whether weapons in a grave meant a deceased warrior, or perhaps a certain status in society or they might just indicate that the buried individual was a free man – as opposed to a slave. Other meanings could be at work, but these few examples serve to illustrate the complex meanings that can be inferred from prehistoric burial customs. Things are not always as simple as they seem. And identifying graves with confusing gender characteristics gives us a warning to be more careful in relying exclusively on archaeological sex determination in future research.

The above-mentioned archaeological examples of burials containing individuals of one biological sex: male or female dressed in the clothes or with the artefacts usually interred with the opposite sex have almost never been profoundly dealt with. Usually the people describing these graves blame the gender-confusing facts on an uncertain osteological determination of sex.

Skeletal remains are often so fragmented that osteological sex determination hardly is an option. Although this is a valid objection, the number of grave finds in question has now become so great that we can no longer ignore the possibility of the existence of individuals who cross-dressed in the Viking Age. But if we accept cross-dressing as a possibility, how are we to explain this behaviour?

Cultural construction of gender
Ethnographic accounts show that certain cultures have more than the two biologically determined gender categories, male/female. In our modern Western culture sex determination is done when a child is born – according to its sexual genitals – and after that it never changes. Unless of course an individual chooses to undergo a surgical sex transformation, or in rare cases where a child is born with the genitals of both sexes. But, even if a person in our culture has had a surgical sex transformation, most people find it difficult to accept the person as belonging to the other sex just like that. In our Western culture there is only room for two gender categories, the biologically determined ones. But 3rd or even 4th genders have existed for over a thousand years. A few examples in short:

An example of 3rd gender is known from India. Here the term Hijra has existed for more than 1000 years. Hhijra can be translated as eunuch or intersexual. The hijras are devotees of the Mother Goddess Bahuchara Mata. Men become hijras because they do not fit in with the traditional patriarchal way of living in India. Maybe because they are impotent, homosexuals or intersexed, circumstances that make it impossible for them to have a family of their own and fit in with the castes in Indian society. The hijras dress and act like women and undergo emasculation. Hijras perform on various occasions e.g. the birth of a male child and at weddings and they serve the goddess at her temple. Hijras engage in occupations that neither "normal" women nor men in the Indian society engage in and thus they constitute an alternative gender category in society. Hijras earn their living by performing at college events, prostitution with men and by begging. Today India is becoming more and more secularized due to influences from Western cultures. Because of this, hijras have lost a great deal of respect and they now have the lowest status in Indian society. Emasculation is now illegal in India and it is quite possible that hijras as an alternative gender category will soon become extinct (Herdt 1994).

Another example of gender crossing is known from the Balkans. In some cases where the male heir (and future patriarch) of a family has died, or has never been born, women can carry on the traditional male role. Thus they wear men’s clothing and weapons; they attend to the traditional male obligations in society, including warfare. Often these women are buried in men’s clothes (Herdt 1994).

Which scenario fits the Viking Age?
The problem stated in this article does not necessarily mean that we have to totally redefine Viking-age gender roles – that all men were fancy queers and all women bloodthirsty Amazon warriors. But it certainly ought to give food for thought.

As mentioned above, we cannot know what the grave goods really symbolized. This fact is an eternal uncertainty, though we can still put forward some qualified ideas. To suggest the Viking-age society as being matriarchal would not be serious, but to perceive some nuances in the gender roles would only enrich our image of this period.

In this article we have dealt with three categories of burials: 1) women buried with male artefacts; 2) men buried with female artefacts; 3) graves with mixed male and female artefacts, but no skeletal remains. These categories are the result of our traditional way of thinking about gender-specific artefacts. We could be wrong ascribing certain artefacts to men and others to women. But if our general assumptions about the above-mentioned graves are correct, we must seek to explain why some people cross-dressed or were buried with mixed grave goods during the Viking Age. Women buried with weapons might be "masculine women" – women interested in traditional male activities and therefore having the opportunity to become female warriors. Or perhaps the answer is more like the Balkan example: women taking over traditional male activities. Likewise "feminine men" could be an explanation: men with special skills for traditional female handicrafts. Physical disabilities, like blindness, could be a reason, too.

Finally a quotation from Saxo serves to remind us to stop projecting our own contemporary perceptions of gender roles onto prehistoric cultures. Future archaeological research must deal more open-mindedly with gender roles and stop relying exclusively on archaeological sex determination.

“There were, in days of yore among the Danes, women who changed their female beauty into male being, and devoted most of their time to martial arts, so that the disease of exuberance should not dull their courage. For they hated all kinds of voluptuous life style and hardened body and soul continuously by the means of endurance and exertion. And, thus giving up all female weakness, forced their souls to achieve male cruelty, and they were so keen on warfare that you might think that they were no longer women. Mostly they were women with strong souls or slim, tall figures who choose that way of life. As if they forgot the traditions into which they were born, and preferred harshness instead of soft words, battle instead of caress, thirsted after blood instead of kisses, practised the art of war instead of the art of love, and held spears in those hands which should have been occupied by weaving, and they did not think about the marriage bed, but death, and attacked with sharp weapons the men, whom they could have pleased with their beauty.”
(Saxo, 7th Book – “Sigar”. Authors’ translation from Danish)

References and further reading
Christensen, T. 1981: Gerdrup-graven. In: Romu 2, Roskilde Museum.
Christensen, T. & P. Bennike, 1983: Kvinder for fred?. In: Skalk no. 3, 1983. Højbjerg.
Evison, V.I. 1987: Dover: The Buckland Anglo-Saxon Cemetery. London: Historic Buildings and Monuments commission for England. Archaeological Report no. 3
Gilchrist, R.1999: Gender and Archaeology. Contesting the past. London & New York.
Haughton, C. & D. Powlesland 1999: West Heslerton: The Anglian Cemetery Vol. I+ II.
Herdt, G. (ed.) 1994: Third Sex, Third Gender: Beyond Sexual Dimorphism in Culture and History. New York.
Hirst, S.M. 1985: An Anglo-Saxon Inhumation Cemetery at Sewerby East Yorkshire. York University, Archaeological publications 4.
Knol, E. et al. 1996: The early medieval cemetery of Oosterbeintum (Friesland). In: Palaeohistoria 37/38. Rotterdam.
Mägi, M. 2002: At the Crossroads of space and time. Graves, changing society and ideology on Saaremaa (Ösel), 9th – 13th centuries AD. Tallinn.
Meaney, A. 1964: A Gazetteer of Early Anglo-Saxon Burial Sites. London.
Petersen, J. 1928: Vikingetidens Smykker. Stavanger.
Sørensen, M. L. S. 2000: Gender Archaeology. Polity Press.

Source: Viking Heritage Magazine (http://viking.hgo.se/Newsletter/default.html)

Wednesday, June 29th, 2005, 06:40 PM
Sigh, I read the title and I have only one thing to say: Stupid and idiotic. There even was a law calling for skóggangr for any man seen in woman's clothing. :speechles

Wednesday, June 29th, 2005, 06:53 PM
It's funny how the conclusion drawn fits in so well with the modern leftist agenda of tolerance. Though not all men were warriors, I somehow doubt that one would bury a man in good standing in women's clothing. Perhaps a more viable conclusion would be that these "transvestite" men were buried thusly to dishonour them. I would be interested in learning what these "weapons" and "women's clothes" were, as the items may be of symbolic meaning.

The Horned God
Wednesday, June 29th, 2005, 07:39 PM
Could it have been a form of postumous humiliation for criminals perhaps, or for men deemed to have been cowards in life? Just a thought.

Wednesday, June 29th, 2005, 10:58 PM
I want to know how the women clothes lool like. Maybe they were burried in clothes they had brought back home from Asia like a Burnus or a "tunika palmata" from the Roman Empire....