An early medieval grave discovered in 1968 at Suontaka Vesitorninmäki, Finland, had long puzzled archaeologists as the grave consisted of a female skeleton with a bronze sword. This was a unique discovery because swords are usually found in the graves of men, and not women — women are usually found with sickles. The gender and biological sex identity of the warrior had been circumspect since it was first discovered after some water pipeline workers accidentally ran into it. It was dated to the late eleventh or early twelfth century CE.
The investigations that had followed various theories had been forwarded to explain what was to modern anthropologists an anomaly. Now, a team from Germany and Finland has discovered that the warrior was actually a transgender.
Traditionally, before the study of bone remains (osteology) and genetics became a staple of archaeological investigations, the sexual identity of an individual in a funerary context was determined largely by grave goods, especially the clothes found in association with the burial.
But it is unclear how grave goods would represent gender identities of the past. It is difficult to ascribe a gender identity of the individual based on grave goods alone.
The recent article takes care to note that archaeological discoveries such as these ‘may not tell as much about the gender systems of the past as much as they tell about the assumptions of modern people making those interpretations’.
One grave, two warriors?
One of the theories that was put forward by Keskitalo is that the grave might have consisted of two different individuals. This offered some explanation as to why the individual was found with a part of a female dress/jewellery and a sword. He had unsuccessfully attempted to find evidence of another skeleton in the vicinity, thinking that it might have been a mass burial. The grave also seemed to have been made only for one individual and not more.
Another theory was, of course, that this was simply the grave of a female warrior, like a few others that have been found in Scandinavia. After all, at the time the Suontaka warrior lived, the area of Hame was quite a violent one, also evidenced by a large number of hillforts in the area.
Even if one considers the bronze sword a later addition to the burial, the presence of a knife and another sword that were found in direct contact with the body leaves no doubt that they were placed directly with the body. The knife and the sword can, therefore, ‘be interpreted as a strong symbol of identity’. Moreover, the grave contains evidence of elaborate bedding made from fox-skin, sheep fur and rabbit fur.
A recent chromosomal analysis has shed light on a possibility hitherto unthought-of possibilty: that the individual in question was a transgender.
Humans are diploid organisms with 23 pairs of chromosomes i.e. each pair contains two homologous chromosomes (homologous means that both the chromosomes in the pair will consist of the same sequence of genes). Of these 23, one pair – either XX or XY – determines the biological sex of the person while the other 22 are autosomal or non-sex chromosomes.
The karyotype of the Suontaka individual closely resembles the XXY karyotype than either the standard female (XX) or the standard male (XY). Scientists observed that the possibility of an exogenous (external contamination) was extremely low.
The XXY karyotype, also known as the Klinefelter Syndrome, is actually the most common aneuploidy (abnormality in the number of chromosomes) with almost one case in 576 male births. Some individuals with the syndrome suffer from no abnormalities at all and are completely unaware of the condition while others might experience infertility and delayed puberty.
In a study, cited in the paper, people with Klinefelter Syndrome have reported a lack of assertiveness and confidence, but this might stem from modern constructs of gender identities.
Archaeological recoveries of individuals with the Klinefelter Syndrome are not rare. They have been previously reported from Viking Age Iceland and Scotland, and Neolithic Germany. Another grave in Vivallen, Sweden, consists of a biological male dressed in female clothes and accompanied with typical masculine items.
Fluid gender identities
Graves like that of Suontaka and Vivallen indicate that gender identities might have been fluid in early medieval European societies, with non-binary gender identities probably not only being tolerated but also being accorded a prominent position.
The authors of the paper do not discount the possibility of feminine social roles being looked down upon in male-dominated early medieval Scandinavia. But, given the opulence of the warrior’s burial (silver inlaid swords, fine fur clothes, feather bedding), they think that ‘the individual was accepted as a non-binary person’ and had ‘more freedom in expressing individual gender identities’ because he belonged to a relatively prosperous and well-connected household.
– The author is a freelance science communicator. (mail[at]ritvikc[dot]com)