Ancient woman may have been powerful European leader, 4,000-year-old treasure suggests

The lavish discoveries could undermine the idea that state power is almost exclusively a product of male-dominated societies, researchers say.

By Tom Metcalfe
Published 12 Mar 2021, 09:24 GMT
The silver Argaric diadem from La Almoloya
Photograph by J.A. Soldevilla, Courtesy of the Arqueoecologia Social Mediterrània Research Group, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona

A trove of ornate jewelry, including a silver diadem, suggest a woman buried nearly 4,000 years ago in what is modern-day Spain was a ruler of surrounding lands who may have commanded the might of a state, according to a study published today in the journal Antiquity. The discoveries raise new questions about the role of women in early Bronze Age Europe, and challenge the idea that state power is almost exclusively a product of male-dominated societies, say the researchers.

The remains of the woman, alongside those of a man who may have been her consort, were originally unearthed in 2014 at La Almoloya, an archaeological site among forested hills about 35 miles northwest of Cartagena in southeastern Spain. Radiocarbon dating suggests the burial happened about 1700 B.C., and its richness suggests to the researchers that she, rather than he, may have been at the top of the local chain of command.

“We have two ways of interpreting this,” says archaeologist Roberto Risch of the Autonomous University of Barcelona, a co-author of the study. “Either you say, it's just the wife of the king; or you say, no, she’s a political personality by herself.”

Argarian grave goods show women were considered adults at much younger age than boys—girls as young as six were buried with knives and tools, but boys only in their teens. The graves of some El Argar women were re-opened generations later to inter other men and women, an unusual practice that likely conferred a great honour. And research published by Risch and his colleagues in 2020 showed that elite women in Argarian graves ate more meat than other women, which suggested they had real political power.

“What exactly their political power was, we don't know,” he says. “But this burial at La Amoloya questions the role of women in [Bronze Age] politics… it questions a lot of conventional wisdom.”

Ancient “princess” buried in style

Dubbed the “Princess of La Almoloya,” the woman belonged to the Argaric culture, which is named after the archaeological site of El Argar some 50 miles to the south. Argaric culture flourished in the southeastern Iberian Peninsula between 2200 and 1500 B.C. Its people used bronze long before neighboring tribes; many lived in large hilltop settlements, rather than on isolated small farms; and items found in their gravesites indicate they had stratified classes of wealth and social status—including a ruling class.

Risch says the man in the grave was a probably a warrior: Wear on his bones suggests he spent a lot of time on horseback, and his skull shows he had deep scars from a severe facial injury, possibly an old wound sustained in combat. He tied back his long hair with silver bands, and wore gold plugs through his earlobes that indicate he was someone of distinction.

View of the interior of the grave (credit: Arqueoecologia Social Mediterrània Research Group, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona)]
Photograph by Photograph, via Arqueoecologia Social Mediterrània Research Group, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona

But the woman in the same grave was buried a short time later with particular splendour, including bracelets, earlobe plugs, rings, spirals of silver wire, and the silver diadem, which still adorned her skull when the grave was unearthed. It matches six other diadems found on wealthy women in Argaric graves; all have a distinctive disc-shaped projection usually worn downwards to cover the brow and nose.

Using the price of silver quoted in Mesopotamian records from the time, the archaeologists estimate the grave goods of the La Almoloya woman were worth the equivalent today of many tens of thousands of pounds. Other burials of high-status El Argar women also indicate great wealth, but men were never buried with such riches. “That suggests that when [women] were alive they played a very important role in the political management of the community,” Risch says.

The location of the burial also indicate the woman had a political role. Many of the dead in El Argar communities were buried beneath the floors of buildings, and her grave was found beneath a room set with benches for up to 50 people, nicknamed the “parliament” by the researchers. The room itself was part of an elaborate building that may be the earliest-known palace in continental western European, Risch says—a place where rulers both lived and carried out their duties.

Women in Argaric culture

The idea that Argaric communities could have been ruled by women makes sense to archaeologist and historian Marina Lozano, a professor at the University of Rovira i Virgili in Tarragona and a researcher at the Catalan Institute of Human Palaeoecology and Social Evolution (IPHES), who was not involved in the latest study.

Aerial view of La Almoloya in 2015
Photograph by the Arqueoecologia Social Mediterrània Research Group, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona

She says it supports her 2020 study that determined many Argaric women were involved in the production of linen and wool textiles —a valuable sector of the economy, along with metallurgy. So it follows that women could have been rulers: “Women in El Argar were an active part of its economy… a ruler is only another example of the significance of women in this society,” she says.

Some other experts on Argarian culture are more cautious about the new interpretations. “The finds are spectacular… it’s first-rate archaeology,” says anthropologist Antonio Gilman, an emeritus professor at California State University Northridge.

But he questions whether the splendor of the burial should be regarded as the riches of a ruler, and if the building at La Almoloya should be considered a palace when it was much less sophisticated than Early Bronze Age buildings further east in Europe, such as the Minoan palace of Knossos on Crete. “But that doesn’t take away from the fact that these are very important finds,” he adds.


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