In ancient times, women were warriors too

A stela that challenges longstanding interpretations of how the carvings represent gender and social roles in prehistoric times. Credit: Durham University
A stela that challenges longstanding interpretations of how the carvings represent gender and social roles in prehistoric times. Credit: Durham University
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Researchers have long assigned gender roles to ancient people, primarily based on the practices of their own time. These assumptions are now slowly being challenged. We are learning that women were not just gatherers but also hunters, and they were warriors not just maidens.

Now, in the heart of southwest Spain, a team of archaeologists have made another extraordinary discovery that challenges these long-held beliefs about gender and social roles in prehistoric times. At the 3,000-year-old funerary complex of Las Capellanías, in Cañaveral de León, they unearthed a Bronze/Iron Age stela, a funerary stone slab intricately carved with the image of an important individual. The stela, however, defied conventional interpretations by depicting a figure adorned with both “male” and “female” characteristics, shattering the notion of rigid gender roles in ancient societies.

Prior to this discovery, archaeologists had associated certain features on stelae with specific genders. For instance, a headdress and necklace were typically interpreted as symbols of a female figure, while the presence of weaponry, such as swords, signified a male “warrior” stela. This latest find, however, blurred these lines, presenting a figure with both traditionally male and female attributes, prompting the archaeology team to reconsider their assumptions.

The discovery of this gender-bending stela suggests that the social roles depicted in these carvings were far more fluid than previously thought, transcending the confines of binary gender categories. It opens up new avenues for exploring the complexities of gender identity and expression in prehistoric societies. Archaeologists are now gaining fascinating new insights into the funerary rituals of this time period, especially since this is the third stela to be found by the team in the same location.

Beyond its implications for understanding gender roles, the Las Capellanías funerary complex itself holds significant historical value. The location of these stelae and the complex itself is situated on what was once a vital natural pathway connecting major river basins, essentially an ancient communication highway. The team believes that the placement of these decorated stelae along this route served as territorial markers, asserting control over the surrounding lands.

The excavation, co-directed by Dr. Marta Diaz-Guardamino from Durham University’s Department of Archaeology, was part of the broader Maritime Encounters project. The team included undergraduate students from Durham University working alongside undergraduate and postgraduate students from Seville University. This collaborative effort highlights the importance of international cooperation in archaeological research, bringing together diverse perspectives and expertise to unravel the mysteries of the past.

Source: Durham University

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