3,000-Year-Old Carving Challenges Bronze-Age Perceptions of Gender

A recently discovered Bronze Age funerary monument in Spain is shedding light on prehistoric notions of gender. The object — a carved commemoratory stone called a stela — depicts a figure with male genitalia wearing a headdress and necklace accompanied by two swords. Previous scholarship assumed that headdresses and necklaces signified female identity and swords noted male identity, but the presence of both adornments in the roughly 3,000-year-old carving suggests that Bronze Age societies may not have adhered to strict gender binaries.

Archaeologists from England and Spain found the object alongside cremated human remains in the Las Capellanías necropolis in the town of Cañaveral de León in September. The ongoing research project is led by Durham University professor Marta Díaz-Guardamino with help from the University of Southhampton’s David Wheatley and the University of Seville’s Leonardo García Sanjuán. Graduate and post-graduate students from Seville, Durham, and the University of Huelva contributed to the fieldwork.

“Las Capellanías is demonstrating that many of our assumptions were wrong,” Díaz-Guardamino told Spanish news outlet El País. “These investigations mark a before and after in the scientific interpretation of these beautiful prehistoric sculptures.” She added that the recent discovery “questions previous interpretations concerning the gender of the figures represented.”

In Iberia, stelae are thought to have communicated legends. According to the researchers, the stela’s mixture of male and female attributes could suggest that those myths conveyed fluid notions of gender in their portrayal of heroes and heroines.

The newly unearthed artifact is the third stela to be discovered in Cañaveral de León. Workers found the first in 2018 while conducting maintenance on a rural road. The find prompted a wider excavation in the immediate vicinity, and in 2022, archaeologists unearthed the nearby necropolis. That same year, they uncovered an additional stela. All three artifacts found at the site depict warriors, as signified with imagery including swords and shields.

While around 150 stelae have been found in the region of Iberia as a whole, only the two uncovered recently at Las Capellanías were discovered within their original funerary context. Often, farmers instead find the artifacts alone in their fields.

Though the recent discovery challenges scholars’ interpretations of Bronze Age gender norms, the ongoing excavation illuminates other aspects of the prehistoric community in Cañaveral de León as well. The necropolis was found near the pathway that linked Bronze Age settlements in the region, suggesting the object was used to mark territory in addition to commemorating the dead.

The Bronze Age society from which the stela originated likely mined copper and was connected to a vast trade network. The metal they unearthed has been found as far away as Scandinavia, but copper isn’t the only material researchers think these distant societies shared: Scandinavian rock art displays visual similarities to the warrior stelae of Iberia in its depictions of shields and chariots.

The distribution of stela discovered in Iberia (image courtesy Journal of Archaeological Sciences)
stela 2
Students at the site where the stela was uncovered (photo courtesy Durham University)

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