1,000-year-old skeleton may have been non-binary medieval warrior, say archaeologists

An illustration of a person in the grave

A 1,000-year-old skeleton that has baffled scientists for decades may have been a non-binary medieval warrior, according to new analysis.

In 1968, workers in Suontaka Vesitorninmäki, Finland, found a grave that would touch off endless speculation among scientists.

It contained a skeleton buried in “typical feminine costume of the era”. But scientists were confused by two swords present, including one laid at the skeleton’s hip which is usually associated with male Viking burials.

Ever since, archaeologists have been stumped by the identity of the person, who is thought to have died around 1050 to 1300.

It’s often been assumed that the grave may have been a double-burial of both a man and a woman, or that the remains were evidence of female warrior leaders.

But modern analysis of the grave, published in the European Journal of Archaeology, has potentially cracked the puzzle, suggesting they “may well have been” a well-heeled non-binary warrior of the Iron Age.

Skeleton challenges ‘ultramasculine’ assumptions, say scientists

“The overall context of the grave indicates that it was a respected person whose gender identity may well have been non-binary,” the study’s author, Ulla Moilanen, an archaeologist from the University of Turky, wrote in the abstract.

“They were laid in the grave on a soft feather blanket with valuable furs and objects.”

To more about the mystery skeleton, researchers sampled the soil for tiny traces of remains and ancient DNA.

They found that the person was likely to have had Klinefelter syndrome, which is where people assigned male at birth are born with XXY chromosomes.

Those with the condition tend to not even realise they have it. Klinefelter syndrome affects one in every 660 males, according to the NHS.

Researchers warned that the DNA results were based on a rather small sample, so the results were partly drawn from modelling.

And the warrior may not have even been a warrior, they mused, but a shaman. In the era, shamans were often men wearing typically-women’s clothing, the team said.

Nevertheless, the result challenges the longstanding notion that “in the ultramasculine environment of early medieval Scandinavia, men with feminine social roles and men dressing in feminine clothes were disrespected and considered shameful”.

Researchers explained how archaeologists tend to determine gender by looking at how people are buried, such as the artefacts that surround them.

“This binary division is, however, problematic,” they stress, adding: “Biology itself offers little in terms of a person’s self-identification.”

“Graves may not tell us about the gender systems of the past per se,” they continued, “but rather about the assumptions of the modern people making the interpretations.”

The warrior was surrounded by opulent jewellery and oval brooches, as well as woollen clothing. Such garbs and accessories were typically worn by moneyed women at the time, they said.

Meanwhile, the hiltless sword buried with the warrior alongside a second weapon buried above the Suontaka grave are considered more masculine.

Experts told Live Science that the conclusion drawn by the team is “convincing” but urged the scientific community to express caution over the rather limited DNA results.

“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,” Leszek Gardeła, a researcher at the National Museum of Denmark, said.