The Gerdrup Grave

For many, the Viking Age was the epitome of an age when men went raiding to prove themselves as real men, while their womenfolk stayed at home doing the knitting. Today, we know this "truth" was largely the result of a superimposition of 1800s gender roles onto the Viking Age – concepts in other words that arose in the early days of archaeology as a profession. The newer and more nuanced view of Viking gender roles is partly due to improved methods for determining the biological sex of the deceased. Bone and DNA analyses have gradually undermined the belief that men were buried with weapons and riding equipment and women with sewing needles and the house keys. Sometimes this is true, but other times the situation is reversed – there are lots of female graves that hold weapons and sometimes we even get situations where the skeleton we believe to be biologically a man, has been buried in clothing usually associated with women. Proof that not everything happened by the conventional history book, can be seen at ROMU’s ancient history exhibition in Roskilde. Here you can see a burial site from 800, which was found and excavated in 1981 near the village of Gerdrup, north of Roskilde. There are two skeletons in the grave. One is a 35-40 year old man lying on his back with crossed ankles. This suggests his feet have been tied. His head is twisted unnaturally toward his left shoulder and his neck was probably broken. Perhaps he was hanged. As a grave gift he has been given a worn iron knife. The second skeleton is a middle-aged woman, also lying on her back. She has been partially toothless for several years and in appearance would have seemed like an old woman with a collapsed mouth. Pelvic evidence suggests she had birthed at least one child. There’s an iron knife and a needle sheath in the belt area, and along her right leg a 37cm long-lance head of iron. A hanged man and a woman with a sewing needle and a lance – the Gerdrup Grave is certainly mysterious. Who is the man? A slave forced to go to the grave with his Noble Lady? This is quite possible, because there are double graves elsewhere in which one of the deceased was apparently killed as part of the burial rite. But who was the woman? Many colourful theories have been put forward: was she a warrior or perhaps a troll woman? The most likely answer though is that the woman came from society’s upper strata, and was therefore buried with a special sign of nobility – a lance.