Archaeology’s sexual revolution

In the early summer of 2009, a team of archaeologists arrived at a construction site in a residential neighbourhood of Modena, Italy. Digging had started for a new building and in the process workers unearthed a cemetery, dating back 1,500 years. There were 11 graves, but it quickly became clear that one of them was not like the others. Instead of a single skeleton, Tomb 16 contained two and they were holding hands.

“Here’s the demonstration of how love between a man and a woman can really be eternal,” wrote Gazzetta di Modena of the pair, instantly dubbed “the Lovers”. However, according to the original anthropological report, the sex of the Lovers was not obvious from the bones alone. At some point, someone tried to analyse their DNA, but “the data were so bad”, says Federico Lugli at the University of Bologna, that it looked like “just random noise”.

For a decade, the assumption about the Lovers’ sex remained unchallenged. Then, in 2019, Lugli and his colleagues decided to try a newly available technique for determining the sex of human remains using proteins in tooth enamel. To their surprise, the Lovers were both male. The pair suddenly became potential evidence of a fifth-century same-sex relationship.

The skeletal remains of the Lovers of Modena. Researchers have determined both figures are male
The skeletal remains of the Lovers of Modena. Researchers have determined both figures are male Photograph: University Of Bologna Handout/EPA

The story of the Lovers is part of an ongoing sexual revolution in archaeology. For decades, archaeologists have had to rely on grave goods and the shape of bones to tell them whether a skeleton belonged to a man or a woman, but over the past five years, the use of new, sophisticated methods has resulted in a string of skeletons having their presumed sex overturned. The ensuing challenges to our ideas about sex, gender and love in past societies have not been without controversy.

The wider debate on sex in archaeology took off in earnest with the now-famous 2017 paper about a Viking warrior, found in a grave full of weapons in Birka, Sweden. The grave had been known since the late 19th century and had been presumed to contain a man, but it wasn’t until Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson from Uppsala University, Sweden and her team tested a DNA sample that anyone could be sure.

Traditionally with DNA analysis, you look for a gene linked to a sex chromosome, such as the AMELX gene on the X chromosome and its counterpart AMELY on the Y chromosome. As females usually have XX chromosomes and males usually XY, the logic goes that if there is significant AMELY present in the sample, it belongs to a male. Nowadays, the analysis takes into consideration much more of the genome, but the principle largely remains the same. And the DNA from the Birka Viking was clearly female.

But the notion of a female warrior did not fit with the existing ideas about the Vikings. According to convention, weaponry, in particular, swords, belonged with men and jewellery belonged with women. If this skeleton was a woman, some argued, the weapons and the warrior status should be re-evaluated. Hedenstierna-Jonson found this baffling, because everyone was fine with the warrior interpretation when the skeleton was thought to be a man, she says. “That cannot change just because we find out it’s a woman.”

Leszek Gardeła, an archaeologist at the National Museum of Denmark and author of the book Women and Weapons in the Viking World, does not want to take a stance either way. “I think she could have been a warrior,” he says, but underlines that 90% of graves with weapons contain biologically male individuals. Weaponry in women’s graves is also no guarantee that they were warriors; an axe, for example, could be used for many things, including various Norse magic rituals often associated with women. “There was space in the mental universe of the Vikings for women warriors,” he says, “[but] I don’t think it was the norm.”

In any case, most agree that old ideas about “male” and “female” grave goods produce interpretations that are at best conventional and at worst biased. This is especially apparent when both feature in the same grave, such as the Viking grave discovered in 1867 at Santon Downham in Norfolk. “Most of the literature says it’s a double grave,” says Gareth Williams, a curator at the British Museum, “but there is no evidence to actually support that.” Only one skeleton, since lost, was originally reported. Rather than a double grave, the more obvious explanation could be a single grave of a person who did not strictly conform to gender norms. Williams thinks the grave probably contained a sword-wielding woman because “there were strict taboos against wearing anything that could be seen as effeminate” for Viking men.

A facial reconstruction of a Viking-Age woman buried with weapons at Nordre Kjølen, Solør, Norway.
A facial reconstruction of a Viking-Age woman buried with weapons at Nordre Kjølen, Solør, Norway. Photograph: National Geographic

Without the missing skeleton, the truth will stay unknown, but others are tackling similar cases with the new methods. Last August, Ulla Moilanen from the University of Turku, Finland, led the reassessment of a proposed “double” burial from early medieval Finland, which contained a single skeleton in female dress with swords. DNA analysis revealed that the grave belonged to a person with XXY chromosomes, or Klinefelter syndrome, who probably looked no different from an XY male. That is what makes this grave so interesting, argues Moilanen, “because a male-looking individual was dressed in clothes and equipped with jewellery usually associated with females”.

The obvious question to ask is: which long-standing analysis will be next to fall? After the Lovers of Modena paper, Lugli says, the team thought about testing other “lovers” buried across Italy. Contenders included the Lovers of Valdaro, housed at the National Archaeological Museum of Mantua, just an hour’s drive from Modena. The 6,000-year-old couple were buried nose to nose and with their arms pressed between their chests.

When they were first found, the Lovers were sexed by osteology, a visual examination of the bones that is still the most common way to identify sex remains. However, the technique is far from perfect. Some bones differ between males and females, but these changes are hormone-driven, says Rebecca Gowland, a bioarchaeologist at Durham University. Skeletons “have to have gone through puberty”, she says, so teens can be ambiguous. Additionally, skeletons are rarely complete and without key bones, such as the pelvis, osteology becomes a lot less reliable, even for adults.

The Lovers of Valdaro were teenagers when they died, one possibly as young as 16, so the osteological examination that declared them “female” and “probably male” could use some modern back-up – and it’s on its way. In the new year, a DNA project based at Tor Vergata University of Rome is set to reveal its results on the Lovers’ sex and potential familial relationships.

Beyond Lover couples, of which there are only a handful worldwide, two other groups will probably see more “sex reveals” in the future. One is hominids, the group of living and extinct apes that humans belong to. “[With] hominids, you’ve got poorly preserved skeletons of a species where you don’t know what the range of sexual dimorphism is, because you might just have bits of one or two of them,” explains Gowland. One very famous hominid known as Lucy, for example, was sexed by half a pelvis. “What if Lucy was Larry?”

While DNA analysis of hominids is possible, it can be tricky as the DNA can degrade to the point where there is little left to analyse. This is where tooth enamel comes into its own. “Compared to DNA, [enamel] survives really well,” says Gowland, who was part of the team that developed the technique.

A sketch of the grave of the Viking warrior in Birka, Sweden, by Hjalmar Stolpe, c1889.
A sketch of the grave of the Viking warrior in Birka, Sweden, by Hjalmar Stolpe, c1889. Photograph: wikipedia

Tooth enamel analysis exploits the same genetic difference as the traditional DNA approach. The AMELX and AMELY genes produce a protein called amelogenin, a component of tooth enamel. Parts of the protein, known as peptides, can be lifted from the tooth using a gentle acid and their chemical make-up, which is also sex-dependent, detected. “It’s revolutionising bioanthropology,” says Lugli, “because we now have an instrument for rapidly and inexpensively determining the sex of humans.”

The other group likely to see an increase in sex determinations is children, because they are otherwise so hard to sex reliably. Last December, a team led by researchers from the University of Colorado Denver established the sex of a 10,000-year-old infant girl from her tooth enamel. She had been found in a rich grave full of shell beads and stone pendants, showing not only that babies were dearly valued in the Mesolithic age, but specifically that girls were too.

So, are the Lovers of Modena evidence of a same-sex relationship 1,500 years ago? Similar to how the Birka Viking’s warrior credentials became the subject of controversy when her sex was published, the love of the Lovers is now being called into question. They could be brothers, which, because of the failed DNA analysis, cannot be ruled out. The authors of the 2019 study themselves propose that they might have been comrades-in-arms. However, previous work by Lugli’s colleagues rejected the idea that they were buried in a military cemetery. The dead didn’t show signs of repeated combat, there were both men and women, and a six-year-old child. So why revive the soldier hypothesis?

Lugli says that certain things changed: there was an in-depth analysis of the injuries and a skeleton that they thought was a young woman was actually a man. But, he says, “our interpretation was mostly from a historical perspective”. He thinks it’s unlikely that their parents would put the pair hand in hand to show their love, at that time. “But anything’s possible.”

In other words, the dead don’t bury themselves. But clearly they don’t excavate themselves either. “There’s a real lack of creativity about how other people lived their lives,” says Pamela L Geller, a bioarchaeologist specialising in queer and feminist studies at the University of Miami, “because we are so wedded to the categories that we have in place now.”

At the same time, although scientific methods can take away some of the guesswork, “there’s just some stuff we’re not going to know about the past”, Geller says. Who loved whom is one of those things, as is people’s sense of identity. Archaeologists can only try, as best they can, to reconstruct the lives of past people based on the available data. Gardeła says it is a matter of respect for the people of the past. “Every grave tells a different story,” he says, “because they were all real humans. They had their own unique lives.”

This article was amended on 16 January 2022. An image captioned as showing a facial reconstruction of a Viking-Age woman buried at Nordre Kjølen, Norway, was earlier miscaptioned as showing a resconstruction of the Viking woman found at Birka, Sweden.


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