The burial of a woman who lived and died thousands of years ago could shift our perceptions of one of the most sophisticated European Bronze Age civilizations, the El Argar.

By Michelle Starr

It’s one of the most lavish burials of the European Bronze Age; and, although the woman was buried with a man, most of the expensive grave goods were hers, suggesting that she was of much higher social status.

By comparing her grave to that of other El Argar women, researchers led by archaeologist Vicente Lull of the Autonomous University of Barcelona in Spain have concluded that women in this culture could have played a more important political role than we previously knew.

The grave itself, a large ceramic jar named grave 38, was discovered in 2014, at the La Almoloya archaeological site on the Iberian Peninsula, Spain. It was found beneath the floor of what seems to be the governing hall filled with benches in a palace, an interpretation bolstered by the richness of the grave contents.

(Arqueoecologia Social Mediterrània Research Group, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona)

The jar contained the remains of two individuals – a man, who died between the ages of 35 and 40, and a woman, who died between the ages of 25 and 30. Genetic analyses confirmed that they were unrelated, but radiocarbon dating shows they died at the same time or very close together, around 1730 BCE. Remains found not far from the grave were related to both – their daughter.

The man’s bones showed signs of wear and tear consistent with long-term physical activity, perhaps horse-riding, and a healed traumatic injury to the front of his head.

The woman’s bones showed signs of congenital abnormalities, including a missing rib, only six cervical vertebrae, and fused sacral vertebrae. Markings on her ribs could have been produced by a lung infection when she died.

(Arqueoecologia Social Mediterrània Research Group, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona)

Nevertheless, she seemed to have been wealthy. The pair was buried with 29 items, most of which were made of silver, and most of which seemed to belong to the woman – necklaces, bracelets on her arms, an awl with a silver-coated handle, and silver-coated ceramic pots, the latter two of which would have required a great deal of skill in silversmithing.

Previous analyses had proposed that the women buried in such rich graves were either sovereigns, or the wives of sovereigns. It’s still impossible to tell, but the research team believes that the evidence points towards the former.

As women have wielded political power often throughout history, would that really be such a surprise?

The research has been published in Antiquity.

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