Long-held, biassed notions about gender and love are being overturned as new technologies to pin down the sex of old bones undermine long-held, biassed beliefs about gender and love. A team of archaeologists arrived at a building site in a residential neighbourhood of Modena, Italy, in the early summer of 2009. Digging for a new building had begun, and workers discovered a 1,500-year-old cemetery in the process. There were 11 burials, but it was evident right away that one of them was different from the rest. Tomb 16 had two skeletons instead of one, and they were holding hands.
“Here is a testament of how love between a man and a woman may truly be eternal,” said Gazzetta di Modena of the couple, dubbed “the Lovers” almost immediately. The sex of the Lovers, however, was not evident from the bones alone, according to the initial anthropological report. Someone attempted to analyse their DNA at some point, but “the data were so terrible,” according to Federico Lugli of the University of Bologna, that it appeared to be “simply random noise.” The idea regarding the Lovers’ sex remained unquestioned for a decade. Lugli and his colleagues then chose to test a newly accessible approach for detecting the sex of human remains using proteins in tooth enamel in 2019. The Lovers, to their amazement, were both men. The two became potential evidence of a same-sex relationship in the fifth century all of a sudden. The Lovers’ narrative is part of archaeology’s continuous sexual revolution. For decades, archaeologists had to rely on grave goods and the shape of bones to determine whether a skeleton belonged to a man or a woman, but new, advanced procedures have resulted in a spate of corpses having their presumed sex overturned in the last five years. The subsequent challenges to our conceptions about sex, gender, and love in previous societies have sparked debate.
With the now-famous 2017 publication about a Viking warrior discovered in a grave full of weapons in Birka, Sweden, the broader debate on sex in archaeology took off in earnest. The cemetery had been known since the late 1800s and was thought to contain a male, but no one knew for sure until Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson of Uppsala University in Sweden and her team examined a DNA sample. When it comes to DNA analysis, the AMELX gene on the X chromosome and its counterpart AMELY on the Y chromosome are examples of genes associated to sex chromosomes. Because females have XX chromosomes and males have XY, the rationale runs that if the sample contains considerable AMELY, it belongs to a man. Nowadays, the study considers a considerably larger portion of the genome, but the basic premise remains the same. And the Birka Viking’s DNA was unmistakably female.
However, the idea of a female warrior clashed with popular perceptions of the Vikings. Weaponry, particularly swords, was traditionally associated with men, whereas jewellery was associated with women. Some suggested that if this skeleton was a woman, the weaponry and warrior rank should be reconsidered. This perplexed Hedenstierna-Jonson, who claims that everyone was comfortable with the warrior interpretation when the skeleton was considered to be a male. “That isn’t going to alter simply because it’s a woman.” Leszek Gardea, an archaeologist at the National Museum of Denmark and author of Women and Weapons in the Viking World, refuses to take a side in either direction. “I believe she could have been a warrior,” he says, but adds that biologically male individuals make up 90% of graves containing weapons. Weapons found in women’s graves are no evidence that they were warriors; an axe, for example, might have been used for a variety of purposes, including certain Norse magic rituals traditionally connected with women. “Women soldiers had a place in the Vikings’ conceptual cosmos,” he says, “but I don’t think that was the norm.”
In any event, most people believe that traditional notions of “male” and “female” grave goods lead to interpretations that are at best conventional and at worst biassed. This is especially noticeable when both are found in the same grave, as in the Viking grave discovered in Santon Downham, Norfolk, in 1867. “The majority of the literature claims it’s a twin grave,” says Gareth Williams, a curator at the British Museum. “However, there is no evidence to back it up.” Originally, only one skeleton was recorded, which has since been lost. Rather than a twin cemetery, a single grave of a person who did not rigidly adhere to gender conventions could be the more obvious answer. Because “there were stringent taboos against wearing anything that could be considered as effeminate” for Viking men, Williams believes the grave probably contained a sword-wielding woman.
The truth will remain unclear without the missing skeleton, but other cases are being investigated using the new approaches. Ulla Moilanen of the University of Turku, Finland, supervised a reexamination of a supposed “double” burial from early mediaeval Finland, which included a single skeleton dressed in female clothing and wielding swords, last August. The tomb belonged to a person with XXY chromosomes, or Klinefelter syndrome, who looked no different than an XY male, according to DNA research. “Because a male-looking individual was dressed in garments and outfitted with jewellery traditionally associated with ladies,” Moilanen says, “this tomb is extremely interesting.” The obvious issue is: which long-standing analysis will be the next to be shattered? Following the Lovers of Modena article, the researchers considered testing other “lovers” buried throughout Italy, according to Lugli. The Lovers of Valdaro, displayed at the National Archaeological Museum of Mantua, roughly an hour’s drive from Modena, were among the contenders. The 6,000-year-old pair was buried with their arms squeezed between their chests, nose to nose. The Lovers were sexed by osteology, a visual examination of the bones that is still the most frequent approach to sex remains, when they were initially discovered. The technique, however, is far from ideal. According to Rebecca Gowland, a bioarchaeologist at Durham University, some bones differ between males and females, but these differences are hormone-driven. Teenagers can be unclear since skeletons “had to have gone through puberty,” she explains. Furthermore, skeletons are rarely complete, and osteology becomes much less trustworthy, even for adults, when critical bones, such as the pelvis, are missing.
Because the Lovers of Valdaro were teenagers when they died, one as young as 16, the osteological investigation that labelled them “female” and “probably male” might use some modern support — and it’s on the way. A DNA research based at Tor Vergata University in Rome is due to release its findings on the Lovers’ sex and possible familial links in the new year. Aside from Lover couples, of which there are just a few in the globe, two other groups are likely to witness more “sex disclosures” in the future. The first is hominids, a group of living and extinct apes that includes humans. “You have badly preserved skeletons of a species where you don’t know what the spectrum of sexual dimorphism is because you might only have fragments of one or two of them,” Gowland argues. Lucy, a well-known hominid, was sexed by half a pelvis, for example. “What if Lucy was Larry?” says the narrator. While it is feasible to analyse the DNA of hominids, it can be difficult because the DNA might degrade to the point where there is little left to analyse. This is where tooth enamel really shines. “Compared to DNA, [enamel] endures incredibly well,” adds Gowland, who worked on the technique’s development. Tooth enamel analysis exploits the same genetic difference as the traditional DNA approach. Amelogenin, a component of tooth enamel, is produced by the AMELX and AMELY genes. Peptides, which are parts of the protein, may be lifted off the teeth with a moderate acid and their chemical make-up determined, which is also sex-dependent. “It’s revolutionising bioanthropology,” Lugli says, “since we now have a device for determining the sex of humans quickly and affordably.”
Children, who are notoriously difficult to sex, are another category expected to see an increase in sex determinations. Last December, a team led by University of Colorado Denver researchers used dental enamel to determine the sex of a 10,000-year-old infant girl. She was discovered in a sumptuous tomb filled of shell beads and stone pendants, demonstrating that not only babies, but especially girls, were prized in the Mesolithic era.
So, are the Lovers of Modena proof of a 1,500-year-old same-sex relationship? The love of the Lovers is being questioned in the same way that the Birka Viking’s warrior credentials were questioned after her sex was made public. They could be brothers, which cannot be ruled out due to the failed DNA study. They could have been comrades-in-arms, according to the authors of the 2019 study. Previous research by Lugli’s colleagues, on the other hand, refuted the claim that they were buried in a military cemetery. There were men and women among the dead, as well as a six-year-old toddler, who showed no evidence of repeated combat. So, why bring up the soldier theory again?
Certain things changed, according to Lugli: an in-depth investigation of the injuries was performed, and a skeleton that they assumed was a young woman turned out to be a guy. “Our interpretation was largely from a historical perspective,” he says. He believes it is implausible that their parents would put them hand in hand at that time to demonstrate their affection. “However, everything is conceivable.” To put it another way, the deceased do not bury themselves. They don’t, however, appear to excavate themselves. “Because we are so married to the categories that we have in place now,” Pamela L Geller, a bioarchaeologist specialising in queer and feminist studies at the University of Miami, says, “there is a tremendous lack of inventiveness about how other people lived their lives.”
Despite the fact that scientific approaches can eliminate some of the guesswork, Geller asserts that “there’s just some stuff we’re not going to know about the past.” One of those factors is who loved whom, as well as people’s sense of self-identity. Archaeologists can only do the best they can with the information provided to reconstruct the lives of previous people. It is a matter of respect for the people of the past, according to Gardea. “Because they were all actual persons,” he argues, “every burial tells a distinct narrative.” “Each of them had a life of their own.”