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Blogging Kalamazoo 2021: Session 257 - Women in Viking-Age Ireland: Archaeological Approaches

Thursday, May 13, 2021 - 07:09

In addition to a general interest in early medieval cultures, in early Ireland, in Viking-era material culture, the simple fact that I have a book planned in Viking-era Ireland would make a session like this irresistible.

Gendered Patterns of Labor in Early Medieval Ireland: The Bioarchaeological Evidence - Rachel E. Scott, DePaul University

[Note: the presenter has requested that images not be presented on social media out of respect for the human remains. I’m interpreting this narrowly with regard to images this time.]

Focuses on non-urban cultures, rather than Viking-age Dublin as such. Early Irish society was trbial, rural, hierarchical, familiar, patriarchal, and Christian. Contemporary documentation is available, but limited primarily focusing on elite men in religious institutions. It represents an idealized view of society from an elite point of view. This paper compares literary data for two gendered occupations—weaving and warfare—which are likely to also leave physical remains.

A brief overview of gendered occupations within the textual evidence. E.g., textile and food production = feminine; warfare = men. Women participate (textually) in warefare as victims and prizes.

Now we look at the archaeological evidence around these activities. Spindle whorls, spindles, loom weights, needles for textiles. Spear points, shield bosses, some swords in elite burials for warfare. But the physical artifacts themselves aren’t gendered. We can associate them with gender via the archaeological context, especially burials. Unfortunately, Christian Irish burials did not include grave goods, therefore burials cannot provide gender context for artifacts.

However we do have the skeletons. Both weaving and warfare affect the skeleton, via impacts like osteoarthritis or trauma. These can be compared statistically with respect to gender to see if particular skeletal patterns align with gender. E.g., osteoarthritis in the hands. In one site, 1/7 women had osteoarithis in the hands. Individuals with grooves in the teeth may reflect textile practices. ¾ adults from one site with tooth grooves were female. Skeletal trauma can indicate interpersonal violence, esp. skull fractures and facial fracture. In one site, 7% of men had this type of injury and 1% of women. But most men did not have this type of damage.

Thus, the skeletal evidence does not support a pervasive gendered difference in activities, though it does align anecdotally. In general, men’s skeletons show more evidence of heavy manual labor. General trauma (not specifically interpersonal violence) appear roughly equally between men and women. Other than the interpersonal violence injuries, skeletal trauma primarily appears as fracture of long bones. The Irish data on this matches that of some non-Irish agricultural sites.

Gendered differences are of emphasis, not of kind. The skeletal data doesn’t contradict the image of gendered labor, but they don’t support the hypothesis of clear and significant gendered differences in skeletal data indicated by the textual data.

Ale-Feasting Foreigners: Labor and Identity in Viking-Age Dublin - Mary A. Valante, Appalachian State University

Looks at the subject from the concept of diaspora: the outward migration and settlement of people from Scandinavia creating a series of elite centers based both on shared language and ongoing contacts. These centers interacted with their immediate neighbors, and individuals could identify in a variety of ways. Further, there was movement returning to Scandinavia as well as away from it.

DNA, strontium analysis, etc. indicate that as time passed, many of the women of Dublin were born locally, while there is evidence that women among the initial settlers included women from Scandinavia. The question is, how did the residents of Dublin think of themselves as these changes occurred?

This paper looks at how domestic labor in Dublin, especially that done by women, reflects or indicates concepts of identity. Both goods and labor were brought into Dublin from the local community, while luxury goods were brought in through trade. A cosmopolitan place.

Most immigrants to Dublin came from Norway. Overall there are gendered differences in people movements with respect to Scandinavia, with movement out more likely to include men and movement in being more general in gender and ethnicity. But Dublin was a bit different from the norm. Graves and grave goods in Dublin identify women who clearly identified culturally with Scandinavian culture. One author suggests these women represented the elite “organizers” of household labor. There is a discussion of archaeological house-related evidence for women’s domestic activities, such as weaving. E.g., sunken-floor buildings in Dublin where the floors are dug into the bedrock (thought to be associated with weaving) that surround a communal open space with a hearth, though the sunken-floor buildings do not have evidence of domestic habitation such as hearths. Implication is “weaving workshops” with an implication of Scandinavian cultural identification based on the evidence for warp weighted looms characteristic of Scandinavia. Evidence for tablet weaving in Scandinavian culture in general, also in Irish crannog sites [I missed the specific Dublin evidence—I think maybe a lack of artifacts for tablet weaving?]

Discussion of textual evidence for luxury cloths in Dublin. Implication that this is tangential evidence for tablet weaving? I’m not quite following. Was there a status difference in textile work in Dublin based on Scandinavian vs Irish identity? Lot’s of “probably”s in this discussion.

So what about the “ale-feasting foreigners”? Textual evidence for food production, discussion of responsibility for hospitality, very general remarks. Discussion of shift from cattle-focused economy to grain-focused. Speculation that this shift was associated with the need to provide food for Dublin. Irish textual evidence for the high status of mead making as a male-associated occupation. Some general comments on the larger European association of ale brewing with women. All in all, the paper felt like it lost the thread somewhere.

Weapons, Brooches, and Longphuirt: Re-Evaluating the Role of Women in Ninth-Century Dublin - Stephen H. Harrison, University of Glasgow

Longphuirt is a term for Viking camps, military bases, with a D shape facing on a river. Previously thought to be ephemeral, now there’s more evidence for longer term occupation. These are the sites the paper is concerned with.

Increasingly understood to have a complex economy, not just military bases. Evidence for silver as medium of exchange, indicating more complex activities. Popularly understood as male spaces of a “pagan” nature. Examples of male military graves at these sites. But the idea of “male spaces” has been challenged based on more recent evidence. Greater presence of women among the invading groups is being documented, as support staff, not as “warriors.” But, in the argument for military women, see e.g., the Birka “warrior grave” of a skeleton now known to be biologically female (but surrounded by “male” grave goods). Archaeologists argue over whether this is still a “male grave” despite being occupied by a female body, others arguing that the gendered understanding of Scandinavian culture needs to be reevaluated.

Regarding gendered artifacts and spaces, examples of spinning and weaving evidence. Furnished burials provide more evidence for gendered goods, though as a consciously created assemblage. The placing of gendered goods in a grave is symbolic and deliberate, not a “snapshot” of the person’s life. Discussion of types of gendered goods. But not all graves contain “gendered objects”. Possibly this is an artifact of later looting of the grave. Poverty might be another explanation. Possibly it was a deliberate decision not to include the high-status items that are most strongly gendered. Numbers in Dublin: 200 “male”, 50 “female”, 129 “ungendered graves” (including 10 w/female skeletons).

Dublin is the site of the majority of Viking-type burials in Ireland. Because of the size of this data set it provides useful data on gender. ¾ of identifiable graves are male, suggesting a male-dominated society, but in fact comparisons to Norway show similar proportions of gender, simply indicating that the culture may have prioritized burials for men in ways that left evidence.

Key points: gender display was a key element of Viking burials, closely linked to status. In Dublin, female graves are in the minority (but similar to proportions in Scandinavian sites). Women had key role in the community and even “military” sites in the 9th century were complex and had women present.

Major category: