The Bones of Birka

C.M. Sur­risi
Chica­go Review Press
April 18, 2023 

Junior Library Guild Gold Standard

The Bones of Birka

Unraveling the mystery
of a female Viking warrior

When archae­ol­o­gist Dr. Char­lotte Heden­stier­na-Jon­son dis­cov­ers that the bones con­tained in the most sig­nif­i­cant Viking war­rior grave ever opened are in fact female, she and her team upend cen­turies of his­tor­i­cal­ly accept­ed con­clu­sions and ignite a furi­ous debate around the real­i­ty of female Viking war­riors and the role of gen­der in both ancient and mod­ern times.

In The Bones of Bir­ka, author C. M. Sur­risi intro­duces young read­ers to the events that led up to this dis­cov­ery and the impact it has had on sci­en­tists’ and his­to­ri­ans’ views of gen­der roles in ancient soci­eties and today. This is the inside account of the Bir­ka war­rior grave Bj 581 archae­o­log­i­cal endeav­or, includ­ing all of the dreams, set­backs, frus­tra­tions, excite­ment, pol­i­tics, and per­son­al­i­ties that went into this his­to­ry-chang­ing dis­cov­ery.

The find­ing has raised cru­cial ques­tions about research bias, aca­d­e­m­ic dia­logue, and gen­der identity.



  • Junior Library Guild, Gold Standard



“Surrisi’s book … packs a lot of infor­ma­tion into just 156 pages, not count­ing a glos­sary of sci­en­tif­ic and Viking words and dis­cus­sion ques­tions. The author gives read­ers just enough infor­ma­tion about the Vikings and when and why they con­quered so many coun­tries, as well as women in Nordic sagas, sci­en­tif­ic devel­op­ments in inter­pret­ing infor­ma­tion from bones, and the whole ques­tion of gen­der roles and what a woman war­rior might be like dur­ing her life­time. Bot­tom line: Why were so many sci­en­tists for so many years com­fort­able think­ing the Bir­ka bones belonged to a man? Why so much resis­tance to the idea the corpse could have been a war­rior woman?” (Maryann Gross­mann, Pio­neer Press read the full review)

“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.” (School Library Jour­nal, Karen T. Bilton)

“Mys­tery writer Sur­risi cov­ers this com­pelling story—including how the archae­o­log­i­cal world react­ed to the news and what gen­der (includ­ing trans­gen­der iden­ti­ty) and sex might have meant in the Viking world—in minute detail along with touch­ing upon the his­to­ry of the Vikings, how we’ve learned about them, and how our under­stand­ing has changed over time. … her scope and the thor­ough­ness with which she tells the sto­ry give read­ers a very good feel for how sci­en­tif­ic research works and how bias impacts inves­ti­ga­tion. A worth­while account of a provoca­tive find. ” (Kirkus Reviewsread the full review)

“… riv­et­ing his­tor­i­cal detail paired with com­men­tary sur­round­ing pre­con­ceived notions and their effect on analy­sis makes for a thought-pro­vok­ing telling. (Pub­lish­ers Week­ly)

“… An eye-open­ing and infor­ma­tive look at chang­ing his­to­ry” (Book­list)

C.M. Surrisi

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