Mysterious Iron Age Burial May Hold Remains of Elite Nonbinary Person

The Finnish grave’s occupant likely had Klinefelter syndrome, meaning they were born with an extra copy of the X chromosome

Suontaka grave
The study's authors argue that the individual may have been highly regarded due to their nonbinary status or “because they already had a distinctive or secured position in the community for other reasons; for example, by belonging to a relatively wealthy and well-connected family.” Drawing by Veronika Paschenko

For decades, archaeologists have debated the significance of a 900-year-old grave containing the remains of a person dressed in women’s clothing and buried alongside a hiltless sword. After its discovery in 1968 at Suontaka Vesitorninmäki, Hattula, Finland, some researchers suggested the tomb belonged to a female warrior, while others argued that it originally contained both a man and a woman.

A new DNA analysis published in the European Journal of Archaeology reveals that the grave belonged to a person who was probably intersex. Born with atypical chromosomes, they may have been nonbinary, meaning their gender identity was not exclusively male or female.

As NPR’s Xcaret Nuñez reports, the individual likely had a genetic condition called Klinefelter syndrome. While girls are typically born with two X chromosomes and boys with one X and one Y chromosome, people with Klinefleter syndrome have two X chromosomes and one Y. Generally, those affected have mostly male physical characteristics, but they may also experience low testosterone levels, undescended testes and enlarged breasts. Most are infertile. (“We are affirming of all gender identities within our community, though the majority of men with KS do not identify as gender neutral or nonbinary,” says the nonprofit organization Living With XXY in a statement to Smithsonian magazine. “They are born genetically male, which is how they identify.”)

“If the characteristics of the Klinefelter syndrome [had] been evident on the person, they might not have been considered strictly a female or a male in the early Middle Ages community,” says lead author Ulla Moilanen, an archaeologist at the University of Turku in Finland, in a statement.

The findings couldn’t confirm that the person had Klinefelter syndrome, as only a small sample of genetic sequences could be read. But the study’s authors say it’s very likely. Other scholars contacted by Owen Jarus of Live Science agree.

“The team had a minuscule amount of data to work with but convincingly show that the individual likely had an XXY karyotype,” Pete Heintzman, a DNA researcher at the Arctic University of Norway, tells Live Science.

Per the study, early medieval Scandinavia is often viewed as an “ultra-masculine” society that considered men occupying female roles or dressing in feminine clothes shameful. But some evidence suggests that people living outside of a strict gender binary, including “ritual specialists” or shamans, maintained their own social niche.

Mysterious Iron Age Burial May Hold Remains of Elite Nonbinary Person
The individual was buried in women's clothing with a sword laid at their left side. A second sword was likely added to the grave after the initial burial. The Finnish Heritage Agency under CC BY 4.0

Medieval Scandinavians viewed magical practices as somewhat feminine even when performed by men, writes independent scholar Eirik Storesund for Brute Norse. In the medieval Icelandic poem Lokasenna, for instance, the god of mischief, Loki, reveals that fellow god Odin has taken on a female role to perform sorcery. Storesund notes that the old Norse word skratti, meaning “sorcerer” or “warlock,” is related to scritta, meaning “hermaphrodite.”

According to Jon Henley of the Guardian, the expensive swords and jewelry buried in the Finnish grave suggest its occupant wasn’t an outcast.

“The buried individual seems to have been a highly respected member of their community,” says Moilanen in the statement. “They had been laid in the grave on a soft feather blanket with valuable furs and objects.”

One sword was buried on the person’s left side, while another was probably hidden in the grave at a later date. The researchers write that the high-quality grave goods could reflect respect afforded to the person because of social contributions related to their “physical and psychological differences from the other members of that community.”

The authors add, “But it is also possible that the individual was accepted as a nonbinary person because they already had a distinctive or secured position in the community for other reasons; for example, by belonging to a relatively wealthy and well-connected family.”

Leszek Gardeła, a researcher at the National Museum of Denmark who was not involved in the study, tells Live Science that the placement of the buried sword may be significant. While most swords in medieval Scandinavian burials are found on a person’s right side, several instances of women buried with a sword at their left side have been recorded. This placement may imply “some kind of ‘difference’ of the deceased.”

Gardela says that the new findings contribute to scholars’ understanding of gender in different historical cultures.

“I think it is a well researched study of an interesting burial, which demonstrates that early medieval societies had very nuanced approaches to and understandings of gender identities,” he adds.

Editor's Note, August 20, 2021: This story has been updated to include a quote from the nonprofit organization Living With XXY.