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.


  • “Gen­der and Vikings: Assump­tions Can Mis­di­rect Sci­ence,” Robin Kirk, Rights in Time, inter­view, 15 June 2023


  • 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)

“Sur­risi, author of mid­dle-grade nov­els (The Unof­fi­cial Lola Bay Fan Club), takes read­ers on a fas­ci­nat­ing jour­ney explain­ing what led up to Stolpe’s dis­cov­ery of Grave Bj 581. Sur­risi explores Viking cul­ture, and how, with new­er sci­en­tif­ic meth­ods to exam­ine his­tor­i­cal sites, sparked the furi­ous debate regard­ing the role of gen­der iden­ti­ty in ancient and mod­ern times.

“Chap­ter Ten, Face-to-face with a Bir­ka War­rior, offers a bal­anced dis­cus­sion on gen­der pol­i­tics in arche­ol­o­gy and how under­stand­ing a soci­ety or events of the past can become dis­tort­ed when we exam­ine them using long held beliefs about sex and gender. 

“Includ­ed is a glos­sary, ques­tions for dis­cus­sion, resources, source notes, and index.

“Only 148 pages, this well-researched non­fic­tion title may not be the type of book you read in one sit­ting. With so many details about Viking cul­ture and the sci­ence of arche­ol­o­gy, there is a lot to absorb. Those curi­ous about ancient life, par­tic­u­lar­ly that of Vikings will appre­ci­ate it. Text blocks through­out give more detailed expla­na­tions of what is men­tioned in the text. Black & white pho­tos enhance this fas­ci­nat­ing sto­ry.” (The Non­fic­tion Detec­tives)

“… most of the ideas we have about Vikings are either demon­stra­bly false or unver­i­fi­able mod­ern per­cep­tions with­out evi­dence to sup­port them. A won­der­ful anti­dote for those who have an inter­est in learn­ing what we can know to be true has recent­ly arrived in the library.

“I found this a sur­pris­ing­ly quick read. Many may not think of archae­ol­o­gy as a dynam­ic field of study, but every time an arche­ol­o­gist digs up some­thing new, that find can change or over­turn pre­vi­ous ideas and expla­na­tions about how peo­ple in the past lived and what kind of peo­ple they were. Even tech­no­log­i­cal advances, such as DNA test­ing of minute amounts of organ­ic mate­r­i­al still exis­tent on bones, can lead to break­throughs and brand new insights. This actu­al­ly hap­pened when sci­en­tists sub­ject­ed the bones of a Viking (Norse) per­son dis­cov­ered over a hun­dred years ago to DNA test­ing. A body con­sid­ered since its dis­cov­ery to be male and, judg­ing from the grave goods, a high sta­tus war­rior, test­ed as XX — no Y chro­mo­some to be found. 

“To the sur­prise of the archae­ol­o­gists, this dis­cov­ery explod­ed through the pop­u­lar media. They have had to field often con­tentious ques­tions ever since. A trans Viking?! Real­ly? But what does this DNA test result tell us, beyond the XX chromosome? 

“We make progress one dis­cov­ery at a time. Although this one does not tell us how Vikings con­struct­ed gen­der nor does it give us the full sto­ry of all the ways that some­one with two X chro­mo­somes made their way through life in Viking soci­ety, we do know that ear­li­er depic­tions of Norse soci­ety no longer hold true.”  (Steven Dun­lap, Mechan­ics Insti­tute Library, 19 July 2023: full review)

“I liked this one. It was more sci­en­tif­ic rather than nar­ra­tive non­fic­tion — but it was real­ly inter­est­ing. It fol­lowed a log­i­cal time­line. I liked the ques­tions it raised due to the gen­der reveal of the Viking grave. I loved how they explored the reac­tions around the world upon learn­ing the bones were female — and how that changed some peo­ple’s opin­ion of the grave and the Viking Cul­ture. It does make you think…” (YA Book Nerd)

“This non­fic­tion book tells the sto­ry of an excit­ing and huge­ly sig­nif­i­cant Viking find on the Swedish island of Björkö in 1878. Based on the posi­tion and con­tents of the 10th cen­tu­ry grave (which includ­ed two hors­es, silk cloth­ing, and a full com­ple­ment of weapons) it was assumed to be that of an impor­tant war­rior. The Bones of Bir­ka goes on to detail the intrigu­ing dis­cov­ery (through oste­ol­o­gy and genom­ic test­ing) that the occu­pant of the grave was bio­log­i­cal­ly female. Intend­ed for teens, this is an acces­si­ble read for any­one inter­est­ed in archae­ol­o­gy or Viking his­to­ry. This book also does an excel­lent job of demon­strat­ing the need to exam­ine our assump­tions and ask the right ques­tions to avoid research bias. (

“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)

“While aimed at teenagers and school libraries, this book would be very use­ful to any­one inter­est­ed in becom­ing a medieval­ist. Besides being [ab]out the his­to­ry, this book is also about those who enter the field, the his­to­ry, and what it is like to do research. It is also a great overview of the sto­ry of Bj 581.” (

C.M. Surrisi

Social media

Don’t miss any news!

Receive noti­fi­ca­tions by e‑mail when there’s book news to share.