The Bones of Birka

C.M. Sur­risi
Chica­go Review Press
March 21, 2023 

Pre-order now! Available April 18, 2023

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.


“A his­to­ry of Vikings, archae­ol­o­gy, and the assump­tions we make, shown through the sto­ry of an unex­pect­ed dis­cov­ery. In 1871, Swedish ento­mol­o­gist Hjal­mar Stolpe trav­eled to the small Baltic Sea island of Björkö seek­ing fos­silized insects trapped in amber. Instead he found the remains of aban­doned Viking town Bir­ka. Intrigued, he became a pas­sion­ate advo­cate for a new type of archae­ol­o­gy that inte­grat­ed nat­ur­al sci­ences. One of his most sig­nif­i­cant finds was grave Bj 581, con­tain­ing skele­tons of a human and two hors­es, weapons, and the remains of splen­did clothes, among oth­er things. Stolpe was sure he’d found an impor­tant Viking warrior—naturally, he assumed, a man. In 2009, an exam­i­na­tion by Swedish archae­ol­o­gy pro­fes­sor Anna Kjell­ström, whose spe­cial­ty is oste­ol­o­gy, indi­cat­ed that the bones were like­ly female. DNA analy­sis lat­er revealed that the Bj 581 war­rior had XX chro­mo­somes. 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. Occa­sion­al­ly her prose lacks clar­i­ty and the nar­ra­tive feels adrift; how­ev­er, 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 Reviews)

“… 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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