A 1,000-year-old grave may have held a powerful nonbinary person

By | August 16, 2021

For decades, a roughly 1,000-year-old grave in southern Finland has been thought to have held a powerful woman who might have been a warrior. But an individual who was biologically male may have actually have been interred there, researchers now say. And there are signs that this person was perhaps a respected individual with a nontraditional gender identity.

Discovered in 1968 at a site known as Suontaka, the Finnish grave held a largely decomposed human skeleton. Only two leg-bone fragments were successfully excavated. The grave also included jewelry traditionally associated with women and two swords, including one with a bronze hilt, typically attributed to men. Items in the Suontaka grave date to the latter part of Finland’s early medieval period, between 1050 and 1300.

Now, an analysis of a tiny amount of nuclear DNA extracted from a leg-bone fragment suggests that the grave held an individual born with an extra X chromosome, say archaeologist Ulla Moilanen of the University of Turku in Finland and colleagues. Symptoms of this condition in present-day males, known as Klinefelter syndrome, include low testosterone, lack of facial and body hair, enlarged breasts and learning and language-related problems. Effects of this rare condition on growth and appearance range from mild to noticeable.

That genetic evidence, combined with the unusual mix of male- and female-related items in the grave, suggests that the grave held an individual who was nonbinary, Moilanen’s group says. Gender identity refers to a person’s concept of self as male, female, a blend of both or neither. It often, but not always, coincides with a person’s biological sex. Nonbinary individuals have gender identities that are not strictly male or female.

Even in early medieval societies that emphasized masculinity and warfare, some individuals who didn’t fit community expectations about how males and females should behave may have been interred in ways that commemorated their nontraditional social gender identities, the scientists conclude July 15 in the European Journal of Archaeology.

“This burial [at Suontaka] has an unusual and strong mixture of feminine and masculine symbolism, and this might indicate that the individual was not strictly associated with either gender but instead with something else,” Moilanen says.

The nature of that alternative gender identity remains a mystery. Further complicating matters, early medieval gender identities may have been shaped by poorly understood social and community forces, not personal choices, Moilanen says.

Men today vary greatly in their responses to Klinefelter syndrome, says psychologist Chris Kraft, codirector of clinical services at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine Sex and Gender Clinic. Some develop nontraditional gender identities, while others express confusion about their gender identity. But many men with Klinefelter syndrome adopt a traditional gender identity for their biological sex. Reasons for these differences are poorly understood.

“It’s hard to know how someone in early medieval Finland would have reacted to having Klinefelter syndrome,” Kraft says.

Intriguingly, though, the Suontaka individual not only had a likely case of Klinefelter syndrome but was also buried with that curious mix of male and female items. Moilanen’s group studied 23 animal hairs and three bird feather fragments retrieved from soil that had been excavated with the leg-bone fragments. Based on that evidence, the Suontaka individual was likely dressed in feminine clothes made of sheep’s wool and furs from animals that included rabbits or hares, the researchers say. Bird feathers came from a pillow or bedding, which along with brooches placed in the grave were associated with females, the researchers suspect.

But in a move closely tied to early medieval ideas about masculinity, a hiltless sword was apparently placed on top of the man’s body at the time of burial. A fancier sword with a carved bronze hilt was probably placed next to the body later, perhaps to show continuing respect for the Suontaka individual, the investigators suggest.

A mysterious 1,000-year-old grave in Finland included a mix of traditionally male- and female-related items, including this sword with a bronze hilt.Finnish Heritage Agency (CC BY 4.0)

The new study plausibly suggests that the Suontaka grave held a respected person who had neither a typical male nor female sense of their social gender identity, says archaeologist Marianne Moen of the University of Oslo, who was not part of Moilanen’s group.

But even if a woman had been placed in the grave with swords and jewelry, the evidence would indicate that some individuals with outside-of-the-box identities — such as a woman who viewed herself as biologically female but socially male according to conventions about warriors at the time — were respected in early medieval Finland and perhaps elsewhere in Scandinavia, Moen adds.

Other researchers have controversially proposed that an approximately 1,000-year-old grave in Sweden held the remains either of a Viking warrior woman or a woman buried with the apparel and weapons of a warrior (SN: 9/13/17).

Rare instances in Scandinavia of early medieval graves containing men who were buried with jewelry and other feminine items have been difficult to interpret. Perhaps the closest parallel to the Suontaka individual is a man who was interred at Vivallen, Sweden, nearly 1,000 years ago with attire of both high-ranking males and females, as well as jewelry and a small knife, Moilanen says. Some researchers suspect that this man was a ritual specialist, since there is evidence that shamans dressed in women’s clothes in early medieval Scandinavia.