Bronze age burial site in Spain suggests women were among rulers

Researchers in Murcia find exquisite objects at women’s graves later used as sites for elite warrior burials

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.

The remains of a man and a woman in a large ceramic jar have been found at La Almoloya/
The remains of a man and a woman in a large ceramic jar have been found at La Almoloya. Photograph: Cambridge University Press

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.

A bronze age ear plug and spiral found at La Almoloya in Murcia.
A bronze age ear plug and spiral found at La Almoloya in Murcia. Photograph: Cambridge University Press

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.”


Ashifa Kassam in Madrid

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Spanish dig closes in on burial site of Irish lord Red Hugh O'Donnell
Valladolid archaeologists find human skull in chapel where Christopher Columbus was also buried

Sam Jones in Madrid and Rory Carroll in Dublin

27, May, 2020 @2:14 PM

Article image
Missing 16th-century Spanish armada cannon recovered by police
Bronze cannon disappeared from seabed, where it had lain for 425 years, the day after it was discovered

Sam Jones in Madrid

05, May, 2021 @4:43 PM

Article image
Police seize 19,000 stolen artefacts in international art trafficking crackdown
101 suspects arrested and rare cultural treasures recovered in huge global investigation

Sam Jones in Madrid

07, May, 2020 @10:09 AM

Article image
Acropolis now: Greeks outraged at concreting of ancient site
Installation of new pathway and lift has been criticised by archaeologists and called ‘a scandal’

Helena Smith in Athens

10, Jun, 2021 @4:00 AM

Article image
Spain plans to turn Franco's former burial site into civil cemetery
Valley of the Fallen will only house remains of those who died as result of the civil war, according to a draft law

Sam Jones in Madrid

15, Sep, 2020 @5:47 PM

Article image
Workers discover ‘unprecedented’ Phoenician necropolis in southern Spain
Preliminary surveys in Osuna have turned up eight burial vaults as well as staircases

Sam Jones in Madrid

26, Apr, 2022 @2:58 PM

Article image
Spain and Mexico renew search for 17th-century treasure galleon
Project aims to locate Nuestra Señora del Juncal and train underwater archaeologists

Sam Jones in Madrid

10, Feb, 2020 @5:26 PM

Article image
Hand of Irulegi: ancient bronze artefact could help trace origins of Basque language
The Vascones, an iron age tribe from whose language modern Basque is thought to descend, previously viewed as largely illiterate

Sam Jones in Madrid

15, Nov, 2022 @4:40 PM

Article image
Spain logs hundreds of shipwrecks that tell story of maritime past
Weather rather than pirates caused majority of sinkings, says culture ministry team

Sam Jones in Madrid

01, Mar, 2019 @11:54 AM

Article image
Europe's heritage at risk from economic crisis

As budget cuts across Europe put heritage under pressure, some say it should be a spur towards better management

John Hooper

03, Dec, 2010 @7:07 PM