The Bones of Birka: Unraveling the Mystery of a Female Viking Warrior

Chicago Review. Apr. 2023. 208p. Tr $19.99. ISBN 9781641607063.
Gr 9 Up–In 1871, a Swedish entomologist named Hjalmar Stolpe went to the island of Björkö in the northern Baltic Sea to search for bits of amber. Instead, he found what would become one of the greatest archeological sites, the Viking town of Birka that included a burial mound of what appeared to be a high ranking warrior, called Bj 581, dubbed the King of Birka. Given what was known about Viking society and the limits of scientific inquiry at the time, it was assumed that Bj 581 was male. However, with the development of DNA analysis and osteology (the study of bone), modern scientists, like Dr. Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson, have been able to determine that Bj 581 was, in fact, biologically female. Surrisi begins with an engaging synopsis of many related aspects including, but not limited to, an introduction to Viking society, archeological techniques developed by Stolpe himself, and the history of Birka. Much of the second half of the book discusses the many upset reactions from the archeological community to this discovery and the scientists’ efforts to defend their finding. Surrisi’s final chapters provide an in-depth, nuanced, and thought-provoking discussion of gender roles and identity in Viking society as well as how bias can affect interpretation of artifacts, all of which are equally engrossing. The work is well documented with notes and sources as well as a useful glossary, discussion questions, and resources; final illustrations not seen.
VERDICT A great recommendation for history lovers, but also an important addition to society’s current discourse on gender expression, roles, and identity.

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