21 The Excavation of Masculinity

(Within Archeological Interpretations)

Christian Estrada


When most people think about archeology, they probably imagine Indiana Jones exploring past civilizations’ ruins, avoiding booby traps, and discovering crystal skulls. And while that might sometimes be the case, there is a lot more to this Anthropology sub-field.

Archeology is the study of human history through the recovery and analysis of material and biological remains left from past activities. This field has proven to be a “powerful tool,” that allows us to “know, understand, and explain”[1] the story of humanity. However, sometimes archeologists are given too much power. Similarly to historians, when we put our trust in a small group of individuals for centuries, allowing them to analyze, interpret, and articulate history. We can run into integrity issues due to their possible biases, whether conscious or not, being interwind within their work. The archeologist interpretation is supposed to be their educated guess, after ruling out every other scenario as to what could have occurred at any given site. Still, sometimes one might think something is so apparent and is influenced by known stereotypes.

Let’s put ourselves in an archeologists’ shoes and see what we come up with…

Dr. Hjalmar Stlope

Black-and-white portrait of a mustachioed Hjalmar Stolpe; he is wearing a dark suit and his arms are crossed. His expression is serious.
Image source: Culin, Stewart. “Hjalmar Stolpe.” American Anthropologist, New Series, 8, no. 1 (1906): 150-56. Accessed November 9, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/659172.

Dr. Hjalmar Stolpe was a “distinguished Swedish archeologist and anthropologist”[2] who lived from 1841-1905. Stolpe graduated from the University of Upsala with a Ph.D. in botany and zoology. He began his career conducting scientific investigations on “the ants on the island of Gotland” and not too long after; he became interested in the field of anthropology and how it related to nature and animals. The presence of flora and fauna within assemblages fascinated him, and “at his own initiative and expense”[3] he conducted archeological excavations. Since then, he has made several contributions within the field of anthropology and had some remarkable discoveries. One unique discovery he is responsible for is a Viking burial site, known as BJ.581.[4]

A detailed sketch, from an overhead perspective, of the excavated burial site of a viking warrior. The warrior's skull, spine, and leg bones are surrounded by various weapons, and at the warrior's feet are the skeletons of two horses.
The image above is a later version of the original field sketch of the BJ.581 unit, done by Dr. Slope in 1889. Image Source: Hjalmar Stolpe, “BJ.581 Viking Warrior Field Sketch”, Sweden 1889, https://fof.se/sites/fof.se/files/styles/full/public/bild/b746bc5a88faa832_org.jpg?itok=NehCwXZq.

The BJ.581 grave unit is located on “the first Viking age settlement of Birka on the island of Björkö in Lake Mälaren,”[5] which is now a part of modern-day Sweden. Birka is considered “one of the most powerful towns”[6] within the region from “750-950 AD”[7]making it a convenient and popular trading hub within the Viking circles. The settlement sustained a population of “700-1,000 inhabitants”inhabitants”[8] until it became the gravesite of roughly “3,000”[9] during a gruesome battle. This enormous settlement site contains an extensive amount of material culture even though no “more than half of the graves have been excavated,”[10] making it “the most important archeological site of the Viking age”[11] to date.

BJ.581 (depicted to the right in Hjalmar Stlope’s 1889 field sketch of the site) is not an ordinary Viking age burial. It is “one of only two burials from the entire island”[12] that has a complex set of weapons and cultural remains and is “among the 20 richest graves on the site.”[13] Within a “3.45m x 1.75m and 1.8m deep”[14] wooden chamber, concealed various remnants of BJ.581 for years until Stlope discovered a fully clothed skeleton of a Viking warrior strategically placed on a wooden stool surrounded by several weapons, game pieces, and even animals. The weapons within the assemblage include a “broad-ax, fighting knife, two spears, two shields, a quiver of 25 armor-piercing arrows, a bow (not well preserved), a sword, and a small iron knife[15].” Placed on the lap of the Viking warrior, there was a “full set of 28 gaming pieces, including a king piece[16]” within a bag. The addition of this game within the assemblage indicates that the warrior was also an “officer who worked with tactics and strategy and could lead troops in battle[17].” Two horses, “one of which, still bridled for riding, had been arranged[18]” on a platform just above the remains.

Now that we know all contents of the BJ.581 site, it’s time for the difficult task of interpreting the significance behind the cultural and biological remains and determining who and what occurred within the deceased’s life.

At this moment, you know roughly the same amount of information as our Archeologist, Hjalmar Stlope, so take a few moments to reflect on the knowledge of the material remains and glance at the field sketch again. Take a Guess! what do you think the gender of the Viking warrior is?

Now that you’ve made your guess, you could have come up with one of three options…

  1. The gender of the Viking warrior within this assemblage is a male because he was buried with several different types of weapons (such as a sword, ax, shield, etc.), and may have been an influential figure because he was also strategically laid out with two horses.
  2. The gender of the Viking warrior within this archeological assemblage is female because her skeleton doesn’t seem that large and women skeletons are typically smaller.
  3. There is not enough information to determine the gender of the Viking remains.

If you choose A, you would have chosen the same as our anthropologist Hjalmar Stlope and a sample of 13/15 of my closest peers within the Wake Forest community when presented the same information,[19] but you would be incorrect. If you choose B, then you would have also guessed wrong due to its reasoning. Skeletons can come in a variety of sizes for both genders. And if you choose C, you would be correct! One cannot conclude the gender of remains within a burial by merely looking at the material remains found around the skeleton. However, sometimes the assemblage and material culture can help you determine the gender of the remains within its social context. It should never stand on its own. The most reliable way to know the gender of any given skeleton is by analyzing their DNA and “using a chromosomal definition of sex[20]” where you would check for either 2 X chromosomes (Female) or 1 X and 1Y (Male).

The Gender Reveal

Thankfully, after “generations of Viking scholars to the present day”[21] never challenging the gender decision of BJ.581 because they believed it was “both well-founded and justified by the context and contents of the grave”[22] geneticist’s curiosity made a jaw-dropping discovery. In 2017 geneticists from Stockholm university noticed “several characteristics of the skeleton indicated”[23] that it may be of a female rather than a male and looked into option C.[24] They mapped the DNA genome, and “the surviving genetic material contained two X chromosomes and no Y chromosomes,”[25] indicating the 1,000-year-old remains are of a FEMALE Viking warrior.

During the Stlope’s initial excavation in 1889, he did not have access to the abundance of technology we have today, so one can’t necessarily fault him for not running a DNA test. However, at the time, there were several other techniques he could have utilized, one being osteology, the study of bone structures and their functions. This practice has been utilized since “1796”[26] when Soemmerring, a German anatomist, “illustrated the first sketch of the female anatomy,”[27] starting a “movement to define and redefine sex differences”[28] in various parts of the body. Even today, osteology within humans can be challenging because there “are fewer differences between the sexes” remains” remains. Still, if you know where the clear signs are, like a woman’s pelvis having a “bigger and wider subpubic angle, ventral arc, and pelvic inlet”[29] which allows for childbirth, then one could tell. But not Stlope; he “felt no intrinsic need for there to have been a female warrior buried in the grave”[30] and assumed that this individual had to be a male due to the elaborate, “masculine-like” burial. Also, at the time, no other female Viking warrior burial had been reported; he didn’t even question the inconsistencies within his actions.

For example, within his notes, he “even at the time” recognized BJ.581 “as being of unusual character.”[31] But when interviewed at the Royal Academy, he stated that BJ.581 is “perhaps the most remarkable of all the graves in this field.”[32] Therefore if BJ.581 was one of the most remarkable, why did he not properly examine the remains and correctly identify the gender? Would it have diminished the significance of the site to archeologists in the early 1900s? Was the thought of a masculine “fierce female-Viking fighting alongside men, although it is continuously reoccurring in”[33] middle age “art and poetry”[34] too taboo? We will never know Stlope’s proper reasoning but from either his negligence due to the systems of power at the time, being against the narrative, or an honest mistake, his gender stereotyping infiltrated the field of anthropology, resulting in the misrepresentation of BJ.581 and a false report of Viking Warriors.

Impact of Stlope’s Actions

You might be wondering, why does this simple mistake matter? What was the impact? And besides an inaccurate narrative being shared around the world for centuries … nothing directly. However, one could say that the most crucial thing lost from this action was knowledge and the impact it could have had on the world. The BJ.581 Viking lived, fought, preserved, and died. The labels and gender stereotypes of the 19th century were not present within their lifetimes, yet anthropologists like Stlopes projected their beliefs on the corpses. Therefore, the “relation of gender”[35] to the profession of a Viking was irrelevant. Still, their real story gets muffled by androcentrism, centering around a masculine point of view when imposed on them. In addition to the lost history of the female Viking warriors, if the first discovery of BJ.581 in 1889 was the honest discovery, it would have been the first reported burial of a high-ranking female warrior. That story would have transcended the sexisms, stereotypical, androcentrism theme of the 19th and early 20th century and could have possibly encouraged an earlier start to women empowerment movements.


Although the misrepresentation of the Bj.581 gender by Hjalmar Stlope for 130 years is disappointing, it can also act as a lesson for future generations. The Female BJ.581 warrior is most likely not the only case of misgendering, and Stlope’s is not the only anthropologist to skew history. Anthropology is not the only field that started with the routine of imposing the beliefs of their time on the past civilizations, resulting in lost history. It can be found throughout almost every discipline. Therefore, today and even in the future, we will have to continue unpacking and reviewing the past’s historical reports from all subjects, scanning for inconsistencies and biases centered around stereotypes and sexism. As educated individuals, we need to be aware of our personal biases and know whether we think we have them or not. We tend to analyze the past through the current norms of today. And once we are mindful of that, we won’t make the same mistakes as those who preceded us, bettering the process of record-keeping and research.


Christian Estrada is a Junior (class of ‘22) at Wake Forest University. He is an Anthropology major and a Biology/ Cultural Heritage and Preservation double minor.

  1. Harris, Jenifer F, and Charlotte A Smith. “What Is Archaeology? How Exploring the Past Enriches the Present,” n.d.
  2. Culin, Stewart. "Hjalmar Stolpe." American Anthropologist, New Series, 8, no. 1 (1906): 150-56. Accessed November 9, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/659172
  3. Culin, “Hjalmar Stlope.” American Anthroplogist
  4. BJ.581 gets its name from being the 581st site excavated on Björkö.
  5. Price, Neil, Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson, Torun Zachrisson, Anna Kjellström, Jan Storå, Maja Krzewińska, Torsten Günther, Verónica Sobrado, Mattias Jakobsson, and Anders Götherström. “Viking Warrior Women? Reassessing Birka Chamber Grave Bj.581.” Antiquity 93, no. 367 (2019): 181–98. https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2018.258.
  6. Robinson, Jennifer. “Viking Warrior Queen.” PBS. Public Broadcasting Service, August 5, 2020. https://www.pbs.org/wnet/secrets/viking-warrior-queen-full-film/5276/.
  7. Robinson, “Viking Warrior Queen.”
  8. Price, “Viking Warrior Women? Reassessing
  9. Robinson, “Viking Warrior Queen.”
  10. Robinson, “Viking Warrior Queen.”
  11. Robinson, “Viking Warrior Queen.”
  12. Price, “Viking Warrior Women? Reassessing
  13. Price, “Viking Warrior Women? Reassessing
  14. Price, “Viking Warrior Women? Reassessing
  15. Price, “Viking Warrior Women? Reassessing
  16. Price, “Viking Warrior Women? Reassessing
  17. Price, “Viking Warrior Women? Reassessing
  18. Price, “Viking Warrior Women? Reassessing
  19. On November 15th, 2020 I asked a sample of 15 of my Wake Forest peers what they thought the gender of the Viking Warrior was after being presented with the same information stated above. 13 of the 15 choose A and the other two choose, the correct answer, C
  20. Price, “Viking Warrior Women? Reassessing
  21. Hedenstierna-Jonson, Charlotte. “SUPPLEMENTARY Material] Viking Warrior Women? Reassessing Birka Chamber Grave Bj.581.” Antiquity, 2019.
  22. Hendenstierna-Jonson, “Supplementary material”
  23. Koffmar, Linda. “Första DNA-Bevisen För Kvinnlig Vikingakrigare.” Uppsala universitets startsida. Accessed November 9, 2020. https://www.uu.se/nyheter-press/nyheter/artikel/?id=9274.
  24. On November 14th, 2020 the Koffmar, 2020 source was google translated from Swedish to English by me (Christian Estrada)
  25. Robinson, “Viking Warrior Queen.”
  26. Schiebinger, Londa. "Skeletons in the Closet: The First Illustrations of the Female Skeleton in Eighteenth-Century Anatomy." Representations, no. 14 (1986): 42-82. Accessed November 19, 2020. doi:10.2307/2928435.
  27. Schiebinger, “Skeletons in the Closet:
  28. Schiebinger, “Skeletons in the Closet:
  29. Price, “Viking Warrior Women? Reassessing
  30. Price, “Viking Warrior Women? Reassesing
  31. Price, “Viking Warrior Women? Reassessing
  32. Price, “Viking Warrior Women? Reassessing
  33. Hedenstierna‐Jonson, Charlotte, Anna Kjellström, Torun Zachrisson, Maja Krzewińska, Veronica Sobrado, Neil Price, Torsten Günther, Mattias Jakobsson, Anders Götherström, and Jan Storå. “A Female Viking Warrior Confirmed by Genomics.” Wiley Online Library. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, September 8, 2017. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/ajpa.23308.
  34. Hendenstierna-Jonson, “A female Viking Warrior
  35. Price, “Viking Warrior Women? Reassessing


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Gender and Sexuality Throughout World History Copyright © 2020 by Christian Estrada is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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