A burial site found in Spain – described by archaeologists as one of the most lavish bronze age graves discovered to date in Europe – has sparked speculation that women may have been among the rulers of a highly stratified society that flourished on the Iberian peninsula until 1550BC.
Since 2013, a team of more than a dozen researchers have been investigating the site of La Almoloya in the southern Spanish region of Murcia.
Home to the El Argar, a society that was among the first to utilise bronze, build complex urban centres and develop into a state organisation, the site is part of a vast territory that at its peak stretched across 35,000 sq km.
Research published on Thursday in the journal Antiquity has documented one of the site’s most tantalising finds: a man and a woman buried in a large ceramic jar, both of whom died close together in the mid-17th century BC.
Buried with them were 29 valuable objects, nearly all of them belonging to the female, believed to be between 25 and 30 years of age. “It’s like everything she touched had silver on it,” said Cristina Rihuete of the Autonomous University of Barcelona.
Among the exquisitely crafted items were bracelets, rings and a rare type of crown, known as a diadem. In total 230 grams of silver were found at the burial site – an amount that at the time would have been worth the equivalent of 938 daily wages.
The prominent role women may have played in the society is echoed in other finds at El Argar; similar diadems were found at four other female burial sites while gravesites of women were later used for the burials of elite warriors, suggesting these sites were viewed as places of high status.
What made this most recent find unique was its location beneath what could be the first bronze age palace unearthed in the region. As the building would have been used for political purposes, it could be that the woman’s power stemmed from politics, said Rihuete.
Men were probably the warriors of society, as suggested by the swords found at several male burial sites, said Roberto Risch of Autonomous University of Barcelona. “Clearly they control the means of violence and they are probably behind the expansion of El Argar.”
The society, which thrived from 2200BC onwards, was highly organised with a wealthy elite that was probably sustained by some sort of tax system. “In western Europe there was nothing of the like,” said Risch, pointing to the rest of Spain where people at the time were living in self-sufficient communities of 50 to 100 people.
By the 16th century BC, all of El Argar’s settlements were abandoned, believed to have been racked by internal uprisings. “Shortly after the woman dies, the whole settlement is burned down,” said Risch. “And not until the Greeks and Phoenicians arrive on the Iberian peninsula did we see anything similar, either in architecture or in political dimension.”