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Archaeologists discover 3000-year-old stone slab that is breaking ancient ideas of gender

Researchers dug up a 3000-year-old monument in southern Spain that challenges gender stereotypes.

Archaeologists discover 3000-year-old stone slab that is breaking ancient ideas of gender
Representative Cover Image Source: Pexels | Vlad Chețan

To discover our roots, we must dig deep. For centuries, archaeologists have explored the most remote places to unearth our history. Many believe that understanding our origins helps us navigate our future. That's why researchers went to southern Spain to dig. However, their findings have raised more questions than answers.

Representative Image Source: Pexels | Piotr Arnoldes
Representative Image Source: Pexels | Orthosved

In 1898, a scholar named Manuel Roso de Luna found a slab of stone engraved with a figure surrounded by carvings of a spear, a brooch, a sword, a chariot, and a mirror. That was the first time a tombstone from 2000 B.C. had been found on the Iberian Peninsula. Since this first discovery, 300 more have been found in Spain and Portugal. The most recent one on that list is a stela, a type of upright stone monument often inscribed with text or adorned with carvings, also spelled "stelae," that seems to upend all gender stereotypes.

The discovery of this large 3000-year-old necropolis with funerary monuments for ancient burial mounds, stone cists and cremation pits in Huelva, Spain, has allowed the universities of Durham, Seville, Huelva and Southampton to broaden their knowledge of stelae. According to El Pais, this stela "throws into question previous interpretations of the gender of the figures represented in the stone slabs, since those with motifs around the head of the figure had traditionally led to interpreting the figure as female, while thus one clearly shows male genitalia."


A statement released by Durham University says that the recently uncovered stela depicted "a human figure with a detailed face, hands and feet, a headdress, necklace, two swords and male genitals." They added, "Before this discovery, archaeologists had interpreted features such as a headdress and necklace on a stela as representing a female form, while the inclusion of weaponry such as swords would be interpreted as male ‘warrior’ stelae." This discovery, however, challenged these assumptions. It led the team to consider that "the social roles depicted by these carvings were more fluid than previously thought and not restricted to a specific gender."

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A professor of prehistory and archaeology at Seville University and co-director of the excavations at the Las Capellanías site known as Leonardo García Sanjuán, along with Marta Díaz-Guardamino, David W. Wheatley and Timoteo Rivera Jiménez, stated that the uncovered stelae “graphically express the fluidity and subtlety of gender concepts in the stories and narratives with which they were associated, probably related to mythical ancestors, heroes and legendary heroines.” He further states, "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. The existing theories about their location, function and social significance have been extremely deficient and were pending verification or demonstration.”

Representative Image Source: Pexels | Piotr Arnoldes
Representative Image Source: Pexels | Piotr Arnoldes

The team stated that the stela showed that the previous interpretations of the images on the funerary slabs needed some rethinking and that the prior interpretations of the same resonated more with our modern binary conceptions of gender than those of prehistoric societies. Archaeologist Marta Díaz-Guardamino, who is also a stela specialist, agrees that “the discovery, therefore, questions previous interpretations concerning the gender of the figures represented and confirms the conceptual and semantic relationship between the different types of stelae.” In layman's language, she says that these stelas are monuments that tell complex tales known to the people in that particular cultural context.


She added, "Las Capellanías is demonstrating that many of our assumptions were wrong. 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 peninsular during the second and first millennium B.C.”Ultimately, these discoveries have ignited fresh discussions and reevaluations concerning gender stereotypes. The hope is just that these discussions go in the morally and historically correct directions.

Editor's note: This article was originally published on December 15, 2023. It has since been updated.

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