At Large  November 29, 2023  Rebecca Schiffman

What This Extraordinary Find Says About Gender in an Ancient Culture

Dr Marta Diaz-Guardamino, Durham University

Durham University Archaeology students have been part of an extraordinary archaeological discovery in Spain.

Archaeologists have discovered a funerary stone that could completely change how we understand gender roles in ancient Iberian society. The stela—an upright stone slab often serving as a gravestone—was found at the 3,000-year-old funerary complex in Las Capellanías, in Cañaveral de León, Spain. 

The find, which was made in September and was presented by the Cañaveral de León city council on October 6, is remarkable because it depicts a figure that has both female and male markers, showing that perhaps our standardized and binary iconographies could have been more fluid than we thought in ancient Iberian culture.

The stela in question, which archaeologists believe was created to commemorate important people in Iberian society, depicts a human figure with a headdress, necklace, and two swords. The figure also has a detailed face, hands, feet, as well as male genitalia. But while the headdress is usually interpreted as female, the sword is a feature that is normally interpreted as male. 

The archaeological team has found other stela in the area. A stela was first found in the area in 2018 during a road repair, and extensive excavations began in June 2022, unearthing a large funerary complex. Those stelae had either female traits or male traits. This stela, however, turns all of that prior research on its head. 

Dr Marta Diaz-Guardamino, Durham University

Students recording the area where the Cañaveral de León 3 stela was found.

In a statement by the field team, which was headed by Dr. Marta Diaz-Guardamino of Durham University in England, they said that this new stela “demonstrates that these social roles were not restricted to a specific gender, but could be associated with different genders.”

This is the third decorated stela found at this site and the second one found in its intended context in a funerary complex. The finding of another stela in this complex is especially important for researchers because, despite over 120 years of research, these findings are few and far between, oftentimes discovered by agricultural workers out of context. 

Finding this stela in the funerary complex, alongside the other two stelae found at the site further confirms that the late prehistoric Iberian people used stelae as funerary monuments within mortuary sites. This finding could also shed light on the process and funerary ritual of stelae-making in Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age Iberia. 

Las Capellanías is located between two main river basins, which also adds to the importance of these stelae. The Durham team calls these rivers “highways”, as during late prehistoric times, these pathways were key communication tracks for different groups of people. By situating a funerary complex in such an important area, this complex became a territorial marker and a funerary monument. 

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