The world’s biggest boys’ club might just be a mountainous peninsula jutting 31 miles off the coast of northeastern Greece.
Women have been barred from Mount Athos, a sacred sanctuary that has long housed a large community of Eastern Orthodox monks, for more than 1,000 years. To the extent residents can control, even female animals are forbidden: Only male birds chirp in the aviaries; only bulls roam the peninsula’s pastures. (Exceptions include wild animals and, oddly, cats, probably brought in as a convenient way to sustain the monks’ population of mousers.)
The ban was a simple and surefire way to ensure the monks’ celibacy, Athos expert Graham Speake told BBC News in 2016. It also supposedly preserved the sanctity of the peninsula as the exclusive garden of the Virgin Mary—the only woman to ever walk its shores, according to Orthodox tradition.
“She alone represents her sex on Mount Athos,” said Speake at the time.
Though the European Union has declared the prohibition illegal, it remains in place to this day, reports Helena Smith for the Guardian. That’s why a team of researchers was shocked to discover what appear to be the skeletal remains of a woman beneath the stone floor of one of Mount Athos’ Byzantine chapels.
“If a woman is found among the bones it will be the first known incident of a female finding her final resting place on Mount Athos,” Phaidon Hadjiantoniou, the architect restorer who discovered the remains, tells Smith.
Neither the identity nor the biological sex of the individual has yet been confirmed, Smith reports. But Laura Wynn-Antikas, the anthropologist called in to examine the bones, notes that many of them simply don’t have the dimensions of a typical male.
Also unclear is why the bones, which have yet to be dated, ended up where they did. The soil beneath the chapel where they were discovered is clearly not where the individual died—or even where they were initially buried, based on Wynn-Antikas’ preliminary analysis.
The remains of this particular person also weren’t alone: Joining them were the bones of at least six other individuals, all lacking skulls.
As Wynn-Antikas tells Smith, the remains’ placement and preservation suggest that “these people were important enough to dig up a floor in an important church and place them there.”
The anthropologist adds, “That takes a lot of effort by the living.”
This past fall, the team shipped the remains to a research center in Athens where they’re now being analyzed to determine an approximate date of death. Eventually, the researchers hope to use DNA testing to confirm the individual’s sex and, ideally, piece together more about their identity and importance to the monks of Athos.
If the mysterious person was indeed female, her burial on the peninsula would be a first. Still, that doesn’t necessarily mean she inhabited Athos in life—and even if she did, she wouldn’t have been the only one to break the monks’ ban.
Over the years, a small handful of women have grudgingly been granted access to the peninsula, albeit under only the most extraordinary of circumstances. Most famous, perhaps, was Empress Jelena, wife of the 14th-century Serbian emperor Stefan Dušan, who made numerous donations to Mount Athos’ monasteries. According to legend, Jelena was permitted to visit Athos but barred from making contact with Athonite soil for fear of offending the clergy: Carpets were placed in all the rooms in which she tread, and where the ground was bare, she was carried.
Other women have snuck their way onto the sanctuary’s shores—occasionally by cross-dressing, according to BBC News. In 1953, a Greek newspaper reported that a 22-year-old woman named Maria Poimenidou had “breached” Mount Athos, adopting masculine attire to fulfill her “flaming desire to see in person what manner of life the monks led.” Poimenidou’s stay lasted only three days, but her scandalous sojourn quickly prompted Greece to pass a law instating a year-long imprisonment as punishment for any women who attempted to follow suit.