Analysis of a 1,000-year-old medieval grave in Finland has unveiled a surprise a century later – the remains of an early medieval warrior buried there that was thought to hold the body of a female warrior may have been nonbinary.
These new findings of the modern analysis challenge previous long-held beliefs about gender roles and expression in ancient societies. It suggests that nonbinary people were not only accepted but valued and respected members of their communities. Researchers concluded this in their study that is published in the peer-reviewed European Journal of Archaeology.
Ulla Moilanen is the study’s lead author and an archaeologist at Finland’s University of Turku. Moilanen said that the findings are a reminder that “biology does not directly dictate a person’s self-identity.”
The Discovery of the Nonbinary Person’s Grave
Located in Suontaka Vesitorninmäki, southern Finland, Archaeologists first discovered the grave in 1968 during building work. The remains were buried alongside a sword and jewelry such as oval brooches as well as found in fragments of woolen clothes — which were “a typical feminine costume of the era,” the researchers said.
However, unusually, the grave furthermore held a hiltless sword placed on the person’s left side. Another sword, probably deposited at a later date was buried above the original grave – these are accouterments that are more often associated with masculinity.
Finnish Heritage Agency (CC BY 4.0)
According to the researchers, for decades the archaeologists had assumed that two bodies – a man and a woman, had been buried in the Suontaka grave. Or that it was the evidence strong female leaders – even woman warriors, existed in early medieval Finland.
“The buried individual seems to have been a highly respected member of their community,” Ulla Moilanen said. “They were laid in the grave on a soft feather blanket with valuable furs and objects.”
But, the DNA Analysis of the person that was found decades later showed the grave held the remains of only one person – and that they found chromosomes that didn’t match what’s expected for males or females. The researchers based in Finland and Germany concluded that the buried person likely had the Klinefelter syndrome and was anatomically male.
Usually, a female has two X chromosomes (XX) and a male has one X and one Y (XY). According to the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) in Klinefelter syndrome, a male is born with an extra copy of the X chromosome (XXY).
The syndrome affects about 1 in 660 males and those with Klinefelter may have low levels of testosterone, a smaller penis, undescended testes, enlarged breasts, and infertility. They are still genetically male and often do not realize they have the extra chromosome (XXY) as many people aren’t diagnosed until they are older and test their fertility levels; others are never diagnosed.
The Finnish researchers noted that the remains were “badly damaged” and warned that the DNA results were based on a small sample. Only a relatively small number of genetic sequences could be read which meant that they had to rely to some extent on modeling and through its use, they said they “found overwhelming evidence that the genetic data of the Suontaka individual most closely resemble an XXY karyotype.”
It was likely that the body in the Suontaka grave had the chromosome (XXY) they said based on their data and the honorable as well as high-status burial led them to conclude the person may have identified as outside the traditional gender divisions. “The overall context of the grave indicates that it was a respected person whose gender identity may well have been non-binary,” the researchers wrote.
“If the characteristics of the Klinefelter syndrome have been evident on the person, they might not have been considered strictly a female or a male in the Early Middle Ages community,” Moilanen said. “The abundant collection of objects buried in the grave is proof that the person was not only accepted but also valued and respected.”
Challenging Traditional Ideas
The new research challenges the idea that “ultra-masculine environment of early medieval Scandinavia” wherein the men with “feminine social roles and” the men who “dressed in feminine clothing were disrespected and considered shameful,” the researchers concluded.
The person buried may also have been accepted as a non-binary person “because they already had a distinctive or secured position in the community for other reasons”, the researchers said. For reasons such as coming from a wealthy or influential family or being a shaman.
According to the Washington Post, author Dianna E. Anderson said, “We’ve always been here”. “Being nonbinary isn’t an invention of the 21st century. We may have only started using those words, but that’s just putting language to an existing gender that’s always been around.”
Although the researchers use the term nonbinary in their study, it’s complicated as people choose whether to identify as nonbinary. “This individual most likely looked like a male, but they were dressed in feminine clothes, and we don’t know how they felt about themselves or how they identified themselves,” the Study’s lead author – Ulla Moilanen said.
She said the study’s authors avoided using the term “intersex”. According to her, this was because it could refer to a person with ambiguous genitalia, which was not what researchers were trying to convey.
As far as calling the person nonbinary: “I know that some people have gotten very angry about that term, but we think that this is quite a neutral term to describe this individual,” Moilanen said.
Archaeologists and Historians Supporting the team’s findings
Live Science reported that Marianne Moen who is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oslo’s Museum of Cultural History said “I find it exciting to see new work engaging with complex questions of gender, bodies, and identities.”
“It’s great to see the expansion of knowledge available to us through scientific analysis, especially when it is placed in context with a wider societally relevant debate, as this article does,” Moen added.
“I think it is a well researched study of an interesting burial,” said Leszek Gardeła who mentioned that it is interesting that there was a sword buried on the left side of the person’s body, noting that there are a few examples in Scandinavia where women had a sword buried on the left side of their body despite the fact that swords were usually laid on a person’s right side.
“[It] demonstrates that early medieval societies had very nuanced approaches to and understandings of gender identities,” said Gardeła, a researcher at the National Museum of Denmark.
Feature Image adapted from sketches of Finnish Heritage Agency (Figure A) and drawing by Veronika Paschenko (Figure B).