An Archaeological Discovery in Spain Could Turn Ideas About Ancient Gender Roles on Their Head

A funerary stone slab combines imagery previously thought to conform to contrasting male and female types.

Photo by Marta Díaz-Guardamino.

A team of archaeologists digging in southwest Spain recently made a discovery dating to the Bronze or Iron Age which may radically change our understanding of ancient gender roles in Iberian society. 

A stela, or funerary stone slab representing a significant individual, was discovered at the 3,000-year-old funerary complex in Las Capellanías, in Cañaveral de León, Spain. It was accompanied by cremated human bones. The object includes detailed facial features, hands and feet, sports a headdress and a necklace, and boasts two swords and male genitalia.

But this iconography conflicts with most previously uncovered examples and means we may have to reconsider ancient gender roles. While headdresses and necklaces are typically associated with female forms, the presence of weapons such as a sword would typically denote a male warrior.

“The stela 3 of Cañaveral de León changes all this,” researchers said in a statement quoted in the Independent. “It combines traits of ‘headdress’ and ‘warrior’ types, showing that the social roles depicted by these standardized iconographies were more fluid than previously thought.”

“Furthermore, as the new stela also includes male genitalia, it demonstrates that these social roles were not restricted to a specific gender, but could be associated with different genders,” they noted.

The team has previously found two stela in the same location, on a route that linked major river basins in Southern Spain, suggesting that the stela may have formed territorial markers in addition to their funerary function. 

The fieldwork is directed by assistant archaeology professor Marta Diaz-Guardamino, along with colleagues from the universities of Huelva and Saville. 


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