That Finnish “Non-Binary” Burial

Last week the newspapers were full of stories about a supposed “non-binary” burial discovered in Finland. I got a few inquiries regarding my thoughts. It has taken a while to find the time to do more than make a few scathing tweets about the poor quality of the journalism. Here’s something a little more in depth. (And if you want to check what I say against the original academic paper it is here.)

First up, the actual facts. The burial is located near Hattula in Finland, which is a town roughly half-way between Helsinki and Tampere. The grave has been dated to about 900 years ago, which means during the Viking era (at which point someone will yell at me for using the word “Viking”, but if Cat Jarman can use it I can too.). It was first excavated in 1968 and appeared to contain a single person, two swords, and clothing/jewellery that has been interpreted as female-coded. There has been much controversy over the findings, with some people claiming that this is a grave of a woman warrior, and others claiming that there must have been two bodies in the grave, one of whom was male. The current research has tried to solve that mystery by analysing the DNA of the skeleton, but has only resulted in an even bigger mystery.

I’ll pause here to note that I said “interpreted as female-coded” very deliberately. The gendering of grave goods is an imprecise art, of which I’ll have more to say later.

The result of the DNA analysis suggest that the person buried in the tomb exhibited what we now called Kleinfelter’s Syndrome, which means that they had an XXY chromosome pattern. I am going to assume that the DNA analysis is correct, because I don’t have the expetise to judge it. However, the paper produced by the archaeologists does say that the analysis was difficult, and I am entirely prepared for an expert in genetics to tell me that it was bunkum.

The DNA analysis has led both archaeologists an journalists to talk about the body buried in the grave being someone who is “intersex” and “non-binary”. What does this mean, and are these statements correct.

Let’s start with “intersex”. What this means is people who are, “born with sex characteristics that do not fit typical binary notions of male or female bodies”. XXY chromosomes very clearly do not fit the notion of a gender binary. You will see some people talk about strict definitions of “intersex”, which generaly refers to something to do with genitalia. These definitions tend to be produced by medical people. You may also see the term “DSD” used. It stands for “Disorders of Sexual Deveopment” and is deeply pathologising, partly by suggesting that all intersex people are “disordered”, and partly by suggesting that they can and should be “fixed” in some way. When talking about intersex people in training I try to be guided by the Organisation Internationale des Intersexués, and I defend the right of intersex people to be accepted as an ordinary part of human variability.

By the way, the “Gender Critical” movement tends to dismiss intersex people as being “very rare”. There are over 100 intersex traits known to modern medicine, and between 1% and 2% of the population will have one, though many will be unaware of this. The NHS web page on the subject says that around 1 in 600 men exhibit the Kleinfelter trait, which means over 50,000 people in the UK alone. Of course many will be unaware of this, because who has their chromosomes tested?

Note that the NHS said “men” there. People with XXY chromosomes will normally be assigned male at birth because they have penises. The effect of having XXY chromosomes on the body can vary significantly, but as far as gendered appearance goes the only common effect is enlarged breasts. Some XXY people also exhibit soemthing the medical people call hypospadias, which means there is an opening on the underside of penis. This can result in the person being assigned female at birth.

Back when I transitioned, being diagnosed as XXY was the gold standard for trans women, because doctors would see that extra X chromosome and decide that you were half way to being female already. This idea was strengthed when Caroline Cossey revealed that she had XXXY chromosomes, and we all wanted to look like her. But it seems that the majority of XXY people identify as men and are happy as such.

Now on to the question of non-binary identity. I’d like to start by saying that the idea that being intersex implies that you are non-binary is on a par with saying trans women are men, because it assumes that biological factors are the sole determinant of your gender. In all probability the majority of intersex people are happy being cisgender. Remember, many have no idea that they are intersex. Some intersex people, such as Caroline Cossey, will identify as trans women. There are also intersex traits that result in a baby being assigned female at birth but being more likely to identify as male. And there are some intersex people who identify as non-binary because of their biology, or because they would have been non-binary regardless of their biology.

So the idea that the person buried in the Hattula grave is non-binary because they happen to have XXY chromosomes is nonsense. What are the actual possibilities?

The archaeologists have tried to get this right. Their paper has references to work by the likes of Anne Fausto-Sterling and Judith Butler. However, they are hampered by a legacy of assumptions being made about the gender burials which tell us more about the people making the assumptions than about the person buried. The idea that anyone buried with a sword must be a man is taking a very long time to die.

In recognising that the subject is complex, the paper’s authors look around for possibilities and occasionally end up down the wrong rabbit hole. For example, they say, “An interesting aspect of the graves containing osteologically determined females and swords is that they often lack jewellery and other feminine accessories (Simniškytė, 2007; Price et al., 2019). This is seemingly in line with the idea that the Scandinavian gender system accepted masculinity as the only normative gender and allowed only some females to obtain masculine gender in certain circumstances (Clover, 1993).” However, this grave does contain jewellery and the person buried there would probably have been assigned male at birth.

The point this does make is that trans and non-binary identities are culturally contextual. You can only say that someone is non-binary if they behave outside the cultutally accepted norms of male and female for the society in which they live. Do we know what these norms were for early-mediaeval Finnish culture? Possibly not.

It seems likely that the person in the grave would have been assigned male at birth. Very few cultures assign anyone as neither male nor female at birth, and those that do (for example the Navajo) tend to require ambiguous genitalia for make such a pronouncement. If the person in the grave did exhibit hypospadias, then they may have been assigned non-binary at birth, or been assigned female, but we have no way of knowing.

The identification of the person buried as female is dependent on the grave goods. The items of interest are a small number of brooches, and the probable presence of expensive fur-trimmed clothing. As the authors of the paper note, this could mean that the person buried in the grave was a very wealthy and powerful man who liked using excessive bling to emphasise his status.

If the person buried exhibited hypospadias then they may have been assigned female at birth, but masculine biological characteristics would have asserted themselves at puberty and this could have led to the person acquiring a liminal identity. In our culture such people are normally deterined to have been the victims of a mistaken gender assignment, and are re-assigned as men. There are several well known cases in the UK from the 1930s. We appear to be better at gendering babies now. Early mediaeval Finnish culture may well have been more accepting of non-binary identities.

But probably the person buried was identified as male at birth. They may have developed pronounced breasts during puberty or, like Caroline Cossey, they may have had a strong female gender identity, or both. We don’t know how the local culture would have reacted to this. They may have seen the person as liminal in some way and required/allowed a non-binary identity. Or they may have allowed gender transition. Again, we can’t know.

So in conclusion, the person buried at Hattula may have been a cisgender man with a liking for bling, or someone assigned female at birth who “magically” acquired male characteristics in life, or someone assigned female at birth who “magically” acquired female characteristics later in life, or someone who was assigned female at birth who transitioned socially to live as a woman. All of these explanations could possibly have been seen as “non-binary” in some way by the local culture. One of them has the buried person strongly identifiying as a man, and one has them strongly identifying as female. How the person identified themself could be rather different from how the rest of their society viewed them.

Gendering burials is hard, folks. But the act of trying to do so can teach us a lot about the complexity of human biology and identity.

2 thoughts on “That Finnish “Non-Binary” Burial

  1. Oh yes it is hard! One of my archaeology lecturers pointed out that you only have a 99% chance of getting the biological sex right even if every bone in the skeleton is perfect and pristine, and it drops to 85% if you only have a skull. And I read a paper once (sorry can’t remember the title) which said if the pubic bones are gone or damaged and you are relying on the sciatic notch (=width of the pelvis), you’ll mess it up a lot. They estimated that about 10% of the people with the widest possible pelvises in the world were male and about 12% with the narrowest were female.

    Then there are papers like this one, which says: “People who die at a younger age tend to have wider, more feminine-appearing sciatic notches than people of greater longevity. There are also significant population differences. The 18th–19th century English sample from St. Bride’s Church has a more feminine morphology than Americans of European or African ancestry.” https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/ajpa.10422

    1. I am reminded of an early Saxon (pagan) burial that was featured on Digging for Britain. It had “female” grave goods, but Alice Roberts was convinced the skeleton was of a man. I contacted the archaeologist later and he told me they’d had DNA analysis done, and Alice was wrong. If she can get a skeleton wrong, anyone can.

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