The real story of a person’s identity can remain untold if archaeologists are blinkered by binary thinking and only consider evidence written in bone.

Within a millennium-old grave laced with traces of luxurious materials for the Late Iron Age — a downy feather pillow, fur pelts and woollen textiles — two brooches and two swords were unearthed.

Since this discovery in 1968, the ‘Suontaka burial’ (dated to 1050-1300 CE) has been interpreted as evidence there were powerful women, even warriors and leaders, in early medieval Finland. However, some experts have refuted the possibility that a woman could be buried with weapons. Instead, it must have been a double grave, they explained, containing blades belonging to a man alongside the body of a woman in all her finery, signified by the brooches and attire.

This unresolved clash of brooches and swords has reverberated for more than 50 years. Now, the first modern analysis of the Suontaka burial has suggested a significant new interpretation of the grave — and the gender identity of the person laid to rest there. Finnish researchers Dr Ulla Moilanen, Dr Elina Salmela and team published a paper in July 2021 proposing that the burial “could be seen as evidence of non-binary gender identities being given a prominent value and visibility in early medieval northern European society”.

A plan of the Suontaka burial. Photo: Ulla Moilanen and Finnish Heritage Agency

Re-examination of the overall context of the grave, microremains in the soil and an ancient DNA analysis led the researchers to propose that the grave possibly belonged to an individual with Klinefelter Syndrome — a condition in which males are born with an extra X chromosome. People with this syndrome are biologically male, but may have smaller than normal testicles, lower testosterone levels, reduced muscle mass and body hair, and enlarged breast tissue.  

The research revealed that even in the macho and combative society of early medieval Finland, there may have been accepted and respected individuals who did not fit into a binary gender model. Significantly, their “gendered identities could be elaborately represented and remembered in the content of their burials”.

“The archaeological literature is full of men and women,” Moilanen and Salmela write in their paper. “For decades, buried individuals have been interpreted as male or female based on grave goods, and the development of osteology and genetics have brought in new methods to determine human remains as either female or male.”

This binary division is problematic, not just because there are wider variations in biological sex, but because it fails to take identity into account. While chromosomal abnormalities, as well as certain genetic and hormonal conditions, “widen the variation in biological sex”, Moilanen and Salmela argue that “biology itself offers little in terms of a person’s self-identification”.

ANU researchers Dr Laura Wilson (left) and Dr Stacey Ward. Photo: Jamie Kidston/ANU

Can you read a skeleton like a book? 

Closer to home, ANU bioarchaeologist Dr Stacey Ward and evolutionary biologist Dr Laura Wilson are also working to transition their disciplines beyond the binary.

Telling the life stories of people from the past using their bones is the status quo in bioarchaeology, the study of human remains from archaeological sites. However, Ward and Wilson are considering whether profiling individuals based on skeletal data raises pointy ethical questions — especially when it comes to gender. 

“Each person has a story to tell. The skeleton is dynamic and ever-changing in life, and through this process of renewal our stories are written in our bones. Bioarchaeologists can then read the skeleton like a book to share the forgotten story of that person with the world,” Ward says. 

“But this is always going to be our version of that person’s story. We use every scrap of information we have available to us to try to tell that story within the context of the society and environment that person would have lived in, and to try to represent who that person was as authentically as possible. But we’re still essentially taking the liberty of speaking for the dead when we don’t really know what they would have wanted. Do we really have the right to do that?” 

Bone-based biographies become more limited when considering ‘social’ aspects of identity such as gender. 

“Identity has traditionally been perceived in bioarchaeology as a group of biological traits, such as sex and ancestry, rather than ‘social’ attributes such as gender or ethnicity. Skeletons are determined to be male or female. Anything outside the binary is labelled ‘indeterminate’ by bioarchaeologists,” Ward says. 

“Bioarchaeologists don’t currently have the tools to grapple with or the ethical imperative to open our minds to gender beyond the binary of biological sex and the Western lens. Because of this, we’re potentially missing really important pieces of the puzzle. There could be so much more to discover, not just about the identity of individuals, but social attitudes and power, if we look closer at people labelled ‘indeterminate’ — or misgendered based on their bones — and consider a wider range of identities.”

We haven’t really been asking if it’s ethical for researchers to assume the gender identity of the dead.

Dr Laura Wilson

The reinterpretation of the Suontaka burial shows just how many rich insights about identity, social attitudes and power were being missed by a blinkered, binary approach to the past.

The problems with this approach are also pertinent in modern and historical Thailand, where Ward works on archaeological sites examining late prehistory — the period from 500 BCE to 500 CE.

“Many people would be familiar with transgender male identity in contemporary Thailand, identified as phet thi sam, ‘third sex’ or poo ying praphet song, ‘a second type of lady’,” Ward says. 

“Non-binary and fluid gender identities were also present in the early historic period, when female leaders embraced a degree of gender fluidity as a political tool to retain power. The Thai context hints at greater gender diversity in prehistory than has been previously recognised in archaeology and demonstrates why it is necessary to consider a wider range of identities to gain a better understanding of the past.”

Sharpening blunt tools

So why don’t bioarchaeologists and evolutionary biologists have the tools to discover and describe a wider range of gender identities lived out by people in the past?

“Just like history is told by those who win, the majority of the ‘winning’ or leading methods and perspectives in bioarchaeology have been informed by those who had the resources to do the digging,” Wilson says.

We’ve always focused so much on the biological because it’s the biological remains that we’re looking at. We try to approach gender by looking at what the person was buried with, but it’s something that’s been under-studied in our fields because we don’t really have the framework to do it yet.”

As demonstrated by the Suontaka burial, “inferred importance” can be given to the presence and placement of objects, as well as the positioning of the person, Wilson says.

“Information inferred from objects found in graves can be really relevant and useful in telling us about people, especially their status. But there are also traditional binary roles associated with objects.”

The Suontaka burial shows these objects and their inferred importance can be interpreted in a more open, creative, non-binary way. By not doing so, researchers were led astray for decades.

Decolonising the dead

The recognition of non-binary gender identities in the archaeological record is part of dismantling the field’s colonial legacy.

“Archaeology was first born out of quite colonial roots, and to decolonise the discipline it’s crucial to begin a dialogue about the ethics and perceptions of gendering ancestors,” Ward says.

In New Zealand, for example, repatriation of indigenous human skeletal remains (kōiwi or kōimi tangata) to their descendants has been a long-standing way of restoring autonomy, sovereignty and pride to groups that were decimated and disparaged through European colonisation.

“Many of these tīpuna, or ancestors, have been looted from their resting places and their identities lost,” Ward says. “Age and sex estimation are sometimes viewed as a way to return their identities and therefore their mana, their power or spiritual life force, righting some of the wrongs that have been perpetrated against these people.”

Where Māori and Morori tribes (iwi/imi) are interested in bioarchaeological analyses, they are given total control over what type of study is done.

“We are aware and ashamed that some of these ancestors were stolen in the name of science. Out of respect, now we only study these remains at the request of indigenous groups and with their complete permission. Collaboration is key so that they are the ones telling the story of their people, and not just more scientists,” Ward says.

“Individual groups choose the scale of analysis that they are most comfortable with — from none, to basic macroscopic analysis of the bone to determine age and sex, to destructive analysis of ancient DNA.

“However, the focus on biological sex rather than gender identity, and the imposition of Western binary views on gender, may inhibit this restorative process and perpetuate colonial influences on the dead.”

Ward and Wilson are looking at how they can overturn colonial influences, including gender stereotyping, on the dead.

To start, they are challenging their students — the next generation of bioarchaeologists and biologists — to answer questions such as ‘is it possible to assign gender to human remains?’

Stacey Ward looks closely at a model of a human skull she is holding in her hands.

“It is increasingly recognised that bioarchaeologists and biologists need to have a better understanding of gender to improve their research, and there is discussion about the practicalities of how researchers could do this,” Wilson says.

“But there has been little discussion of whether we should do this. We haven’t really been asking if it’s ethical for researchers to assume the gender identity of the dead, and this issue is becoming more pressing with greater social awareness around gender diversity and equity.”

That’s why they’ve developed a cross-disciplinary survey also asking students questions such as ‘is it appropriate for scientists to assign gender to skeletal remains?’ and ‘should the dead be given the same rights and respect as the living with respect to gender?’

“By surveying our diverse students, who will be the next generation of bioarchaeologists and biologists, we hope to start exploring these ethical dilemmas,” Wilson says. “The project will provide some data to begin to fill this void in our field and maybe even develop a best practice framework for determining identity in skeletal human remains.”

While not explicitly focusing on Indigenous people, Ward and Wilson hope this work will provide a starting point for future collaboration with First Nations peoples on issues of identity and gender in repatriation.

They want to challenge people to consider whether it’s ‘right’ to tell the rich and varied stories of people long passed based on their bones. They want to show there are fresh questions we can ask and new tools we can forge to uncover more complete accounts of the lives and identities of our ancestors.

By looking beyond binaries there are troves of insight about people, power and respect awaiting rediscovery — people like the Suontaka individual, with both their brooches and swords.

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