Archaeologists have finally unraveled the mystery surrounding a 2,000-year-old grave discovered on Bryher, one of the Isles of Scilly off the coast of Britain.
Initially believed to be a male burial due to the presence of a sword and shield, the recent study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports revealed that the individual buried was, in fact, a woman.
The grave’s unique combination of a sword and a bronze mirror, both typically associated with gender-specific burials, has intrigued researchers since its discovery in 1999.
The individual’s remains, found in a stone-walled chamber in a potato field, were in a highly decomposed state, rendering traditional DNA analysis inconclusive. Nevertheless, the groundbreaking study employed innovative biomolecular analysis techniques at the University of California to examine tooth enamel from the remains.
As Dr. Glendon Parker, an adjunct associate professor in the Department of Environmental Toxicology at the University of California, Davis, explained, tooth enamel contains proteins that provide insights into the individual’s sex. The analysis resulted in a 96% probability that the buried warrior was female.
The rich assortment of grave goods found alongside the individual included shield fittings, a ring for a sword belt, a copper brooch and ring, woven textile fibers, and what appeared to be a sheep or goat skin.
This collection of artifacts, combined with the presence of a sword and mirror, suggests that the woman was a person of significance, likely playing a leading role in warfare and raids on rival groups.
“Our findings provide evidence of a leading role for a woman in warfare on Iron Age Scilly,” said Sarah Stark, a human skeletal biologist at Historic England, which funded the study.
The discovery challenges traditional notions of gender roles during the Iron Age and sheds light on the potential involvement of women in acts of violence and warfare.
During the Iron Age in Britain, the predominant form of warfare involved surprise attacks on enemy settlements, making the presence of the mirror particularly intriguing. Mirrors served both practical and symbolic purposes, being used to signal allies, coordinate attacks, and communicate with the supernatural world. The unique combination of a mirror and a shield in the Bryher grave stands as the only one of its kind in Western Europe.
The identity of the buried warrior could potentially provide valuable insights into ancient British society. The findings imply that women may have taken active roles in military raids before the well-known warrior queen Boudicca led her uprising against Roman colonization in CE 60.