This 3,000-Year-Old Stone Slab Found in Spain Is Upending Ideas About Ancient Gender Roles

The newly discovered stela depicts a figure with a headdress, a necklace, swords and male genitalia

The stela
A stela found at Las Capellanías, a necropolis in southern Spain, is changing conceptions around ancient gender roles.  Durham University

Archaeologists have uncovered an unusual stone slab during excavations at Las Capellanías, a 3,000-year-old funerary complex in southern Spain.

Found alongside cremated human remains, the slab—also known as a stela—depicts an individual wearing a headdress and necklace, two items researchers typically associate with women. The figure also has two swords, which are often associated with men, as well as male genitalia.

The newly discovered stela is challenging historians’ understanding of gender roles in Iberian society.

“Las Capellanías is demonstrating that many of our assumptions were wrong,” Marta Diaz-Guardamino, an archaeologist at England’s Durham University who is co-directing the fieldwork, tells El País’ Vicente G. Olaya. “These investigations mark a before and after in the scientific interpretation of these beautiful prehistoric sculptures, since they offer valuable empirical information facilitating the understanding of key aspects in the social organization of the communities that inhabited the southwest of the [Iberian Peninsula] during the second and first millennium B.C.E.”

Excavations at the site began after road workers found a stela during construction in 2018. That stela was thought to depict a woman, as the figure wore an ornamental headdress and was shown with items such as mirrors, combs, belts and brooches.

Several years later, in 2022, researchers discovered the necropolis where the stela had come from. One of the burial mounds featured a second stela, which depicted a warrior figure with objects interpreted as male, such as a sword, shield and spear.

Last month, researchers announced the discovery of the gender-bending stone, which is the third stela they’ve found at the site. The individual depicted on this object “combines traits of ‘headdress’ and ‘warrior’ types, showing that the social roles depicted by these standardized iconographies were more fluid than previously thought,” says the team in a statement.

The location of Las Capellanías is also significant. The site was built along a route that once linked important river basins, and researchers think the slabs may have also been used as territorial markers.

Excavation co-director Leonardo García Sanjuán, an archaeologist at the University of Seville, says these discoveries shed new light on the many similar stone slabs found in the region.

“Despite the important catalog of these pieces, as well as their beauty and scientific value, there was a serious lack of information about the context in which they were used,” García Sanjuán tells El País. “The existing theories about their location, function and social significance have been extremely deficient and were pending verification or demonstration.”

The newly discovered stela “corroborates once again and unequivocally the association of these stelae to funerary sites,” says García Sanjuán. It also “provides more clues that can overturn many earlier theories” about certain items’ association with a particular gender.

In other words, researchers’ previous interpretations of images on funerary slabs may need some rethinking. Per the team’s statement, the stela “shows that prior interpretations actually relate more to our modern binary conceptions of gender than to those of prehistoric societies.”

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