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Mysterious 1,000-year-old remains may be of a nonbinary person, researchers say

A reconstruction drawing of the grave at Suontaka Vesitorninmaki, Hattula, Finland. (Veronika Paschenko)
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In the grave lay a bronze-hilted sword, another long blade missing its hilt, a sheathed knife, three brooches, a sickle and pieces of a skeleton, nearly decomposed.

The collection of items lying with the bones seemed to evade traditional Western notions of gender. The swords suggested that the person they were buried alongside might be a man, but the jewelry indicated that the body belonged to a woman. This person, dated to A.D.1050-1300, seemed important; they were buried wearing what may have been costly animal pelts and arranged on what once was bedding that contained feathers.

Much remains unknown about them. Researchers don’t know whether they were a leader or warrior, what their life looked like or how they would have identified.

But, according to a recent study from Finnish and German researchers, they were a male-bodied person of some wealth or importance buried in traditionally feminine dress. And that raises questions about the fluidity of gender in early medieval Finland. Researchers say it’s possible that this person was nonbinary — not strictly male or female.

Although much of archaeology and much of the world are still bound by binary ideas of gender, research has repeatedly shown that not everyone identifies with a rigid male-female classification.

“We’ve always been here,” author Dianna E. Anderson said. “Being nonbinary isn’t an invention of the 21st century. We may have only started using those words, but that’s just putting language to an existing gender that’s always been around.”

Genders and gender presentations outside the fixed idea of men and women have long been recognized and sometimes lauded. Egyptian pharaoh Hatshepsut was initially depicted as a woman, then later shown muscular and wearing a fake beard. The Public Universal Friend was a genderless prophet first documented in 1776.

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After the grave’s initial excavation at Suontaka Vesitorninmaki, Hattula, Finland, in 1968, researchers interpreted its contents as potential evidence of female warriors in early medieval Finland. The conflicting combination of artifacts so befuddled some that they turned to now-debunked theories, such as one that there may have been two people buried in the grave.

But the new study, published in the European Journal of Archaeology last month, may have found an explanation. The body’s chromosomes probably were XXY, indicating that the person was male-bodied and had Klinefelter syndrome, although one of the study’s authors said the DNA was badly preserved. Klinefelter syndrome causes a male to be born with an extra X chromosome, which can lead to low levels of testosterone, infertility and other outcomes.

Gender identity cannot be discerned from one’s chromosomes, but genetic differences can affect a person’s appearance and, in turn, how they are perceived. The mix of traditionally masculine and feminine items being buried with these remains called the person’s gender into question.

“This individual most likely looked like a male, but they were dressed in feminine clothes, and we don’t know how they felt about themselves or how they identified themselves,” said Ulla Moilanen, an archaeologist at Finland’s University of Turku and the study’s lead author.

She said the study’s authors avoided using the term “intersex” because it could refer to a person with ambiguous genitalia, which was not what researchers were trying to convey.

As far as calling the remains nonbinary: “I know that some people have gotten very angry about that term, but we think that this is quite a neutral term to describe this individual,” Moilanen said.

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The binary world of gender and expression Americans tend to think of is not a unilateral experience across cultures and time periods, said Michael Bronski, author of “A Queer History of the United States.” Male royalty once donned lavish finery and makeup. Clergymen were seen as nonmasculine, but in a sacred sense. Working-class women once handled tasks that would later be considered men’s work.

Bronski said applying the language of our time to other cultures and periods is not necessarily useful. In this case, he said, it may be more apt to refer to the person recovered from this grave as being an indeterminate sex or gender than nonbinary.

The grave is not the first archaeological discovery that has raised questions about the ways ancient societies conceptualized gender, Moilanen said, but it is the first of its kind unearthed in Finland.

Research conflicts on whether individuals who didn’t fit neatly into the gender binary were accepted or spurned in what the study called the “masculine and warlike society” of medieval Finland. Based on the elaborate burial of this person, they may have been prominent or esteemed.

Moilanen said this study should lead researchers to ask themselves how flexible gender norms in various societies were and how they may have been bent.

Other graves in Scandinavia hold combinations of feminine and masculine artifacts, Moilanen said, possibly indicating people with similar gender identities.

“Of course, we could also question the act of gendering artifacts,” Moilanen said. “Is it correct?”

Anderson said this finding is significant to nonbinary people, because it affirms that their identities are not a trend.

“We are natural human variation,” the author said. “This is a genuine, real experience of our gender, and we have evidence going back centuries that people like us have always existed.”

And, Anderson noted, for every documented person who may have been nonbinary, there probably are countless others history does not remember.

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