As the many broken, battered bodies recovered from ancient burials can attest, the European Bronze Age was a tough time to be alive. Most historians and archaeologists have assumed these combative societies were led by men. But a new analysis of a richly adorned female ruler buried in a Bronze Age palace suggests women could also occupy the throne. There’s no way to know the true extent of her power, researchers note, but the find could lead others to reconsider their assumptions about the status of women throughout prehistory.
“The idea that Bronze Age women may have held status and power in their own right has been around for some time,” says archaeologist Samantha Scott Reiter at the National Museum of Denmark, who wasn’t involved in the study. “It is only recently—with articles such as this one—that the discipline seems to be giving female power more serious academic consideration.”
In a new paper, archaeologists report on a tomb uncovered in 2014 by Spanish researchers at a site known as La Almoloya. Here, ruins of a once-elaborate palacelike structure dominate a rocky hilltop overlooking the plains. The site was once part of the El Argar society, which thrived and controlled territories along the southeastern Iberian Peninsula from about 2200 to 1550 B.C.E. Archaeologists found weaving tools and materials at the site, and concluded it was a major textile producer and probably a wealthy regional center of power, says archaeologist and study co-author Roberto Risch of the Autonomous University of Barcelona.
The tomb lay beneath the floor of a large room that lacked common items such as tools or drinking vessels, as well as ceremonial items that might have pointed to a religious function. Instead, the spartan room contained only stone benches along its walls, suggesting it may have been a place for deliberation and governance.
Buried beneath the floor was an earthen jar containing the skeletons of a man and woman. Radiocarbon dating put their deaths sometime around 1650 B.C.E., and they died at or around the same time. The man was about 35 to 40 years old when he died, the woman was about 25 to 30. Researchers can’t be sure how they perished, as their skeletons show no obviously fatal injuries. Genetic analysis reveals the two weren’t related, but they had a daughter who died in infancy and was buried nearby.
Archaeologists found the couple’s burial jar brimming with treasure. The man wore a copper bracelet and had golden earlobe plugs, but the woman was truly blinged out. She sported several silver bracelets and rings, a beaded necklace, and a spectacular silver diadem adorning her skull. This crownlike object is nearly identical to four others found on women buried at another El Argar site some 90 kilometers away, the researchers report today in the journal Antiquity.
The couple’s valuable grave goods clearly indicate they were among La Almoloya’s elite, the authors note. And the woman’s ornaments suggest she was the more powerful of the duo, perhaps a regional ruler in El Argar society.
Richly ornamented women have been found at other Bronze Age sites across Europe, such as Denmark’s Egtved Girl and Skrydstrup Woman. In the past, many archaeologists chalked those up to wives being buried with their powerful warrior husbands. Given these and the La Almoloya woman’s prominence, however, “Why not imagine that these women were economic and political leaders?” Risch asks.
It’s impossible to know how the buried individuals were viewed by their community, says Mark Haughton, an archaeologist at the University of Cambridge. But he’s pleased to see that researchers didn’t write off the woman’s jewels as a symbol of male power. “If we accept that grave goods are the possessions of the deceased, then we need to include women in our narratives of Bronze Age power,” he says.
Archaeologist Joanna Brück at University College Dublin agrees, noting it’s time for archaeologists to rethink their assumptions about similar burials of elite women from the era. “If we accept that patriarchy is not inevitable, perhaps we can imagine a better future for ourselves.”