Featured image: Suontaka sword (centre) (Wikipedia | Velivieras | CC-BY-SA 4.0).
Labourers discover a bronze sword handle in Suontaka in 1968. The hilt is a beautiful piece of Urnes-style artwork. Hoping to find more, archaeologists dig away in the Finnish soil. And indeed, a few layers down from the sword, they find a grave. That in itself is not a surprising fact as the area has yielded much evidence of Viking Age activity. What sets this grave apart is that it is not conclusively male or female. The deceased is buried in a woman’s dress with a typical pair of oval brooches. A sword lies to the side.
This contrast brings the recent hype around the Birka warrior to mind. But that is where this comparison ends. The Suontaka grave is a different kettle of fish, as a recent DNA study shows.
The grave, the person, the goods
According to the first ideas this could only be a double grave. And that somehow only the woman was left after all this time. As evidence remained elusive, this idea was abandoned. More recently, a team of Finnish researchers embarked on a DNA study. The samples were small and poor, however. This meant they could only concentrate on determining the person’s sex. Their results turned out so remarkable, that they took care to explain in detail how they arrived at their conclusion.
The deceased probably had Klinefelter’s. People with this syndrome have an extra chromosome. Their pattern is XXY, whereas males have XY and females have XX chromosomes. Yet, chromosomal sex is not always the same as the person’s gender or how they identify. Regardless how the person in the grave identified, it seems they were accepted by society as they were as the combination of male and female grave goods imply.
To this end, the researchers compared the Suontaka grave with the Vivallen burial in Sweden. Here, the deceased was buried in female clothing and received male grave goods. This person, however, turned out as a biological male.
Other remarkable facts
Another misconception concerns the swords. Whilst there are two swords among the discovered objects, they do not both belong to the deceased. The hiltless one with silver inlay was inside the burial. The bronze-hilted sword from the layers above the grave was probably placed there long after the burial.
Other grave goods point toward the wealth of the deceased. There are furs, and feathers indicating there was a pillow or bedding. In short, the person in the Suontaka grave was part of the elite in their society and accepted regardless of it all, loved by those who took so much care with the burial.
Read the accessible article on the Smithsonian online magazine or the original academic study in the European Journal of Archaeology (Open Access): U. Moilanen, T. Kirkinen, N. Saari, et al., ‘A Woman with a Sword? – Weapon Grave at Suontaka Vesitorninmäki, Finland,’ in: European Journal of Archaeology, (published July 2021), pp. 1-19.