A 1,000-year-old grave unearthed in the late 1960s may upend long-held ideas around gender roles during the Iron Age, according to a new study by Finnish researchers.
The grave in Suontaka, southwest Finland, was discovered during building work in 1968. It contained the remains of an individual who had been buried with at least one sword, commonly thought of as a conventionally masculine accessory, but who was wearing feminine clothes and jewellery.
In the past, researchers argued that the Suontaka grave had been a double burial of a man and a woman, or that it had been the resting place of a female warrior - indicating that late Iron Age Finland had been home to strong female leaders.
But a new DNA analysis has challenged both those theories, finding evidence to suggest that the grave contained the remains of just one person who may have had an extra X chromosome, a genetic condition which can cause people to develop both 'typically' male and female physical attributes.
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"Our DNA analysis suggests that the individual may have had an aneuploid male karyotype XXY (Klinefelter syndrome). These new research results indicate that even in early medieval Finland, which is often considered a masculine and warlike society, there may have been individuals who did not fit into a binary gender model," the researchers wrote.
A 'highly respected' non-binary individual
Klinefelter syndrome affects around 1 in 660 males, although many will never be aware of their extra chromosome as the symptoms will be mild or unnoticeable.
"Although a person with XXY chromosomes is usually anatomically a male, the syndrome may also cause e.g. breast growth, diminished muscle mass, or infertility," the researchers said.
The researchers emphasised that while their conclusion was based on a small sample of damaged DNA, the high status burial and goods discovered in and near the grave backed up their case.
"The buried individual seems to have been a highly respected member of their community. They had been laid in the grave on a soft feather blanket with valuable furs and objects," said lead author Ulla Moilanen from the University of Turku.
According to Moilanen, the person buried in Suontaka may have had a non-binary gender identity, a finding that suggests a nuanced approach to gender identity in Iron Age Finnish society.
"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. The abundant collection of objects buried in the grave is proof that the person was not only accepted but also valued and respected." Moilanen said.
"However, biology does not directly dictate a person’s self-identity," she added.
While it's not possible to tell for certain, the researchers speculated that the Suontaka individual's traditionally feminine clothing could indicate some symptoms of Klinefelter syndrome were present. These can include infertility in males, which would have set them apart in a society where masculinity was often defined by fathering children, the researchers wrote.
"Pubertal changes—or the lack of them—could have led the individual being associated with a non-binary gender role," they wrote, while noting that "chromosomes do not define gender identities".
According to the researchers, the findings of the Suontaka burial could indicate that Iron Age societies did not always conform to rigid gender norms.
It's possible that the individual in the grave was accepted as non-binary due to some higher social status - perhaps coming from a wealthy family - that granted them "more freedom and possibilities in expressing individual gender identities," the researchers wrote.
A bronze-hilted sword, now in the collection of the National Museum of Finland, that was found at the gravesite was probably put there later, the researchers found, again showing that the individual may have been held in high esteem for years after their death.
"The later addition of a spectacular sword in the grave possibly highlights the importance of the individual in the memory of the succeeding generation," they wrote.