Weapon Grave at Suontaka Vesitorninmäki, Finland

In 1968, a weapon grave with brooches was found at Suontaka Vesitorninmäki, Hattula, Finland. Since then, the grave has been interpreted as evidence of powerful women, even female warriors and leaders in early medieval Finland. Others have denied the possibility of a woman buried with a sword and tried to explain it as a double burial. We present the first modern analysis of the grave, including an examination of its context, a soil sample analysis for microremains, and an aDNA analysis. Based on these analyses, we suggest a new interpretation: the Suontaka grave possibly belonged to an individual with sex-chromosomal aneuploidy XXY. The overall context of the grave indicates that it was a respected person whose gender identity may well have been non-binary.

There is an enduring fascination with women buried with weapons, but the topic continues to be debated. A specific Finnish find, an early medieval inhumation grave dated to (ad 1050–1300) found at Suontaka Vesitorninmäki in the municipality of Hattula (formerly Tyrväntö) (see above), has often been interpreted as a woman buried with two swords. The interpretation is based on dress accessories and jewellery, which suggest that the individual was dressed in feminine clothes. For decades, the grave has been a popular example of powerful women in Late Iron Age and early medieval societies. At the National Museum of Finland’s permanent exhibition between 1995 and 2016, the grave was used as evidence of female leaders in the past. In popular discussions and contexts, for example history forums on the internet, international sword replica shops, and even in the controversial ‘Meet the Viking’ exhibition at the National Museum of Denmark, the decorated bronze-hilted sword allegedly found in the Suontaka burial is presented as a female warrior’s weapon.

In this article, we present the first detailed study of the Suontaka grave. We undertook a careful analysis of the original field documentation to determine whether the grave had initially been a double burial, and to provide clarification on its context. To investigate the grave’s original context in detail, we conducted a study of microscopic animal hair and fibre remains from the soil retrieved from the grave. Lastly, we studied ancient DNA (aDNA) from the skeletal remains to infer the chromosomal sex of the individual. We conclude the article by drawing the results of these analyses together and discuss their possible meaning in the framework of gender archaeology.

As bone material from the Suontaka grave consists of only two highly degraded femur fragments, an osteological analysis could not be carried out. Ancient DNA (aDNA) analyses, on the other hand, may be used to infer the chromosomal sex of an individual even from low quantities of skeletal material. We extracted and sequenced aDNA from one of the femur fragments in the archaeogenetics laboratory of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany. Unfortunately, the sample gave a very low yield of endogenous human DNA: even after a capture procedure to enrich for human DNA, the data contained only 106,781 sequence reads mapping to the human genome (of a total of 18,250,176 overall reads), 8329 of which had a mapping quality above 30. Of these, 2534 also showed post-mortem damage (PMD) scores above 0 from PMDtools (Skoglund et al. This paucity of data seriously limited the range of aDNA analyses that could be conducted, including those for data authentication. Therefore, we did not extend our genetic analyses beyond sex determination, as that is among the analysis types that need the least amount of data.

A: plan of the Suontaka burial. ‘Täckdike’ marks the water pipe trench which led to the discovery of the grave. B: artist’s reconstruction of the burial, showing the position of the objects on the body. A reproduced by permission of Finnish Heritage Agency. B: drawing by Veronika Paschenko.

Existing methods for chromosomal sex determination lack power for data as sparse as this, but their results suggested that the Suontaka individual’s X-chromosomal and Y-chromosomal read counts fit neither those expected for XX (female) nor for XY (male) individuals. We therefore developed a novel approach to estimate the chromosomal sex of the individual, where we down sampled sequencing reads from individuals of known genetic sex to the number of reads observed in the Suontaka individual (n = 8329) to model four possible scenarios that could have produced the observed data: XX, XY, a contaminated sample with a mix of reads from XX and XY individuals, and an aneuploidic karyotype XXY (male with Klinefelter syndrome).

Despite the extremely low sequencing coverage, we found overwhelming evidence that the genetic data of the Suontaka individual most closely resemble an XXY karyotype: our model classified the Suontaka individual as XXY at a 99.75 per cent probability, as contaminated with a 0.25 per cent probability, and as XX or XY with a very low probability (less than 10-6 in either case). In a subset of data that was enriched for plausibly ancient-looking reads (n = 2534), the corresponding probabilities were 99.96 per cent for XXY, 0.04 per cent for contamination, and again negligible for XX and XY; it therefore seems that the XXY signal in the data is not driven by potential modern contaminating DNA. Even when we take into account the low population frequency of the XXY karyotype, the XX and XY scenarios remain extremely unlikely, and—unless we assume a considerably high prior probability of contamination—the Suontaka individual’s karyotype is still most likely to be XXY.

The condition in which males are born with one or more extra X chromosomes is known as Klinefelter syndrome. With its prevalence of 1 in 576 male births, XXY is the most common sex-chromosomal aneuploidy in humans. The clinical signs of karyotype XXY vary from very subtle and unnoticeable to apparent differences in physical features. The anatomical appearance of XXY individuals is male, and some of them never even notice that they have the condition. In some cases, the clinical signs are stronger: XXY males can be infertile and have hypospadias (the opening of the urethra is on the underside of the penis), small phallus and testicles, and gynecomastia (breast growth). Testosterone deficiency may cause delayed or incomplete pubertal development. Sometimes effects on physical and cognitive development are reported and, according to some studies, modern XXY males may consider themselves more sensitive and unassertive than others . Interviews also suggest gender-related insecurities stemming from the XXY males feeling physically more feminine than other mal. Because the modern XXY males may compare their experiences to modern expectations of sex and gender, it is difficult to say how the physical and possibly psychological aspects would have been understood and displayed in eleventh–twelfth-century Finland.

Continue reading……