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Gender Distribution Among Gotland Viking Burials


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Archeaological Artifact Analysis Conducted on Gotland Viking Burials.

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Gender Distribution Among Gotland Viking Burials

  1. 1. Jeff GrimmAnthropology LabFinal Paper Gender Distribution Among Gotland Viking Burials Did the Vikings import their textiles or manufacture them on the isle of Gotland Sweden?This is the question being asked by Barbra Klessig for her masters thesis on Gotland Vikingtextiles. Barbara is a textile archeologist who believes that Gotland was importing the majorityof it’s textiles from abroad during the Viking age. She hypothesizes that though some productionwas occurring on the island, it was small and localized. Barbara had asked me to determine basedon certain criteria the gender distribution of the graves from her sample. Specifically I wasasked to document which female graves possessed textile tools and which did not. Thepercentage of females with textile tools is important as it could potentially reveal the extent oftextile manufacturing on the island.Background Gotland is an island off the coast of Sweden that was once inhabited by the Vikingculture. Burials within the sample that was investigated occured during the Viking age, an era ofEuropean history that fits toward the end of the larger European Dark Age time period. TheEuropean Dark Ages ranged from the slow deterioration of the Western Roman Empire to thebeginning of the first European Crusades, roughly from 400 - 1000 AD. The Viking periodextends roughly from 790 AD to 1100 AD, when Vikings migrated down from the northern partof Europe, raiding, setting up trade routes, establishing settlements and improving on their ownlands through the import of foreign goods (Edge & Paddock).
  2. 2. Method Because information on Viking burials is more readily available then settlementinformation, several burials and graveyards were examined for this project. These graveyardshave been systematically excavated since the 1950s up until the present though some artifactswere being procured as far back as the 1800s (Klessig). Because the bodies were not includedwith their associated artifacts and because the goal of my project was to find textile tools, genderwas to be determined from the artifacts themselves. In addition, I am not aware of whether thesexes of the individuals are even available translated in English. I analyzed 397 burials from 93 sites ranging all over Gotland with the goal ofascertaining the gender of each burial artifact set and locate any textile manufacturing toolswithin female burials. I used one of four categories to classify each individual as, male, femalewithout tools, female with tools and an undetermined category. I worked from a printed roster ofall the sites and burials using four highlighter markers to mark each listed burial artifact set intoone of the four categories. Each burials artifact set was photographed and published in the book Die WilkingerzetGotlands, a publication of Gotland Viking burial artifact sets. I worked set by set through thebook starting first with male graves as they were the easiest to identify. The first criteria Iexamined for male graves was the presence of weapons other then the utilitarian multi-purposeknives found with both male and female graves. In Viking society warfare was a gender stratifiedactivity regulated exclusively to men (Klessig). Any presence of weapon grave goods surelyindicates the burial of a male individual. By far the most numerous of the weapons cataloged
  3. 3. among the burials was a plethora of axe-heads made of metal. Axes bore a special significanceamong the Vikings because of their unique utilitarian nature. A Viking man fought with his axe,chopped wood with his axe and could even build a ship with just his axe (Cantor). Being sohandy and so vital to the Vikings as a tool and weapon, it is not surprising that so many axe-heads appear within the grave goods examined. The second most numerous weapon I noted was the sword. A weapon of specialimportance and often a sign of rank within the warrior class (Cantor) many, of the swords hadbeen denatured. The reason for denaturation could be speculated as a way of keeping graverobbers from recovering the swords from the burials and keep the coveted weapon out of thehands of anyone except the intended, deceased, owner. Spear heads were found as a third weaponcategory and occurred usually in sets. Spears often held a similar place in Viking society as theaxe though not as important (Cantor). These implements were used for both hunting and combat,analogous to the modern day shotgun. Belt decorations and metal belt buckles were another major indicator of a male grave asmen typically always wore leather and women sported woven belts (Klessig). These genderspecific differences in belt construction stems from the speculated utilitarian nature of theVikings. Because men within Viking Society often were subjected to more physically taxingactivities and in many instances had to travel great distance it makes sense that they would utilizeleather as a belt material. Additionally leather holds up belt mounted objects, such as swords,much more readily then woven materials (Klessig). Male broach cloak pins were identified due to there stylistic bull horn shape, and thicklines. These broaches were made of a bronze colored metal and sometimes were shaped oftenlike twined rope. These broach cloak pins were always found with weapons when weapons were
  4. 4. present, and often were a major identifier of male graves. Female burials were often differentiated on the basis of female artifacts present and theabsence of any male artifacts. The major differentiating female artifact used for genderidentification was the animal head broaches. Stylistically exclusive to Gotland these broachesdepict heavily abstract animal heads that would have been worn on the over apron of a Vikingwomen. Because these animal head broaches are so unique looking and a female exclusive item,when paired with other female paraphernalia I almost always labeled the burial artifacts asbelonging to a female. Other female items consisted of an sort of tortoise broaches (named so because theyresemble a tortoise shell) crystal jewelry, keys, chains and intricately beaded jewelry. Thetortoise broaches were standard Viking female apparel found elsewhere throughout Scandinavia(Klessig). Because they are associated strictly as a female item they operated as a secondaryindicator when animal head broaches were not present. Jewelry with silver/gold chains and/orcrystal also were indicative of a female burial. One female artifact that puzzled me was theinclusion of keys made of bone, wood and metal. To my recollection these keys did not turn upin male burials grave goods and purpose within the grave can only be speculated. A possibleconnection between women and the keys may involve the fact that keys were domestic itemsused to secure items within the house as well as the house itself. This could indicate that womenwere seen as a domestic gender, tied intricately to the homestead. The main focus of my analysis was always the search for recognizable textile tools withinthe grave goods. Three particular items I attempted to become familiar identifying were thespindle whorl, the needle and the pattern card. Spindel Whorls were difficult to visually identifydue to the nature of not actually having the artifact on hand. Spindel whorls look suspiciously
  5. 5. like large beads and because the book did not include any scale I attempted to become familiarwith the shape of the tool. Spindel whorls differ in shape from beads in that the spindel whorltakes on a wide flying saucer shape while beads tend to be more round and orb like. I identified afew needles which I speculate was made of bone as well as some patterning cards that seem tohave partially bio-degraded. The needles were initially problematic as I confused them with thecloak pins, which are also needle like objects sans an eye. Upon clarification from Barbara, Ilearned that cloak pins are much more decorative and because of the decoration would notfunction to pass through any material. The final undetermined category consisted of all burial grave goods that could not beplaced into the previously discussed groupings. The artifacts I associated with these were oftenbeads, burial nails (more on these), knives and scraps of metal. The major factor that went intodetermining the sorting of artifact sets into this group was the absence of any gender identifyingcultural material. Several issues arose while working on this project, some of them already mentionedabove. The largest problem I encountered was that I did not have the actual artifacts in mypossession to analyze. Working from a book I relied much on Barbara’s first hand knowledge ofthe artifacts and culture surrounding each artifact. The book also did not include basic amenitiesof an archaeological publication such as scale and dimension with only one view of each artifactavailable. Often artifacts can be grouped based on the materials the artifact consists of. Havingno information regarding material types for the artifacts all I could do was make an educatedguess based on visual texture and color. Finally, artifact sets seldom fell into nice and neat gendercategories. Many artifact sets possessed gender specific items for both genders. Barbara and Ispeculated that this may be a condition of bioturbation from farming activity, animals and maybe
  6. 6. even grave robbing. When faced with these artifact collections I used a 2:1 ratio counting howmany identifiable gender artifacts were present for both male and female. Upon completing mycount I would compare both the female and male artifacts and whichever group had morereceived the designation. While this may inevitably eliminate whole burials by combining twotogether changing the outcome of the project, there would be no way for me to separate ordistinguish the two (or more) otherwise.Conclusion After tallying up all 397 burials in their respective categories I found that 205 of theburials were male (51%), 112 were female (28%), 88 of the female burials had no tools, 25 of thefemale burials had textile tools (7%), 70 were undetermined (17%), and 9 were missing (3%).With such a small percentage of textile tools appearing in the sample the data seems to supportBarbara’s Klessig’s hypothesis that the Viking people in Gotland were in fact importing moretextile tools then they were producing during the Viking era.
  7. 7. Works CitedCantor, Norman F. The Medieval World. 1st ed. New York: Macmillan, 1966. Print.Edge, David, and John Miles Paddock. Arms & Armor of the Medieval Knight: an Illustrated History of Weaponry in the Middle Ages. New York: Crescent, 1996. Print.Klessig, Barbara. Personal interview. 7 Nov. 2011.