Analysis of a medieval grave in Finland reveals flexible gender roles

Over the decades, archaeologists have interpreted the Suontaka grave as either a double burial of a male and a female, or as evidence of early medieval female leaders or warriors

Recent scientific analysis of an c. 11th century weapon grave unearthed in Finland has shed new light on gender roles in the Early Middle Ages, as it offers evidence that the burial belonged to a respected individual who may have identified as non-binary.

An international team of researchers from the University of Turku and the University of Helsinki in Finland, and the Max Planck Institute in Germany, have analysed material remains from a grave dated to around AD 1050-1300.

The grave was discovered in 1968, during construction work in the village of Suontaka Vesitorninmäki in Hattula, southern Finland.

It contained oval brooches and fragments of woollen clothing, indicating the individual was dressed in attire typical for women of this period. A hiltless sword had been placed upon their left hip, and another sword with a bronze handle was also included.

A reconstruction drawing of the Suontaka grave. Illustration: Veronika Paschenko.

According to the study, recently published in the European Journal of Archaeology, microscopic fibre analysis of soil samples from the grave revealed the individual had been laid upon a feather blanket, with valuable furs and other objects.

Over the decades, archaeologists have interpreted the Suontaka grave as either a double burial of a male and a female, or as evidence of female leaders or warriors in early medieval Finland.

However, ancient DNA analysis conducted as part of the study indiciated the grave held the remains of a single individual who possibly had Klinefelter syndrome, which causes a male to be born with an extra copy of the X chromosome (XXY).

A person with the condition is typically anatomically male; however, it may cause breast growth, diminished muscle mass, and infertility.

The team highlight that whilst the DNA results are reliable, they are based on a very small set of data.

Nonetheless, ‘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,’ said doctoral candidate Ulla Moilenan from the University of Turku.

‘The abundant collection of objects buried in the grave is proof that the person was not only accepted but also valued and respected.’

Analysis also revealed that the bronze-hilted sword had been deposited in the burial at a later point.

The sword with a bronze handle. Photo: The Finnish Heritage Agency (CC BY 4.0).

‘This also emphasises the importance of the person and their memory for their community,’ continued Moilenan.

These new findings highlight the issue with gendering burials according to grave goods, as the researchers stress that biological sex does not equate a binary gender, for ‘gendered norms and expectations have varied culturally, geographically, and temporally.’