Researchers: This Ancient Warrior Was No Man

Grave of female on UK island of Bryher suggests women had leading roles in warfare 2K years ago
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Jul 27, 2023 10:35 AM CDT
She May Have Carved Path for an Ancient Warrior Queen
A sword and mirror found in the Iron Age grave of a warrior woman buried on the island of Bryher, in the Isles of Scilly.   (Historic England)

When archaeologists came across a a 2,000-year-old grave on an island off the coast of Britain in 1999, they were confused. Inside lay a sword and shield, typically buried with men, and a brooch and mirror, typically buried with women, reports the Guardian. DNA testing failed to tell archaeologists what they were looking at; the body was too decomposed. In fact, just 150 grams of bone and tooth fragments were recovered, according to Historic England. But a quarter century after the discovery, experts say they're confident in saying this was the grave of a high-status female warrior, thanks to advances in biomolecular analysis techniques at the University of California-Davis.

Archaeologists extracted traces of proteins from tooth enamel, which showed with a 96% probability that the person was female, according to a study published Thursday in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports. Glendon Parker, a professor of environmental toxicology at UC Davis, explains tooth enamel is "the hardest and most durable substance in the human body" and "contains a protein with links to either the X or Y chromosome, which means it can be used to determine sex," per NBC News. "This protein survives well compared to DNA," Parker adds in a release. The finding suggests women took an active role in warfare on Bryher, part of the Isles of Scilly, from 100BC to 50BC, the time period to which the grave has been dated.

It's possible female involvement in warfare was "more common in Iron Age society than we've previously thought," says Sarah Stark, a skeletal biologist at Historic England, which funded the study. It may have even laid the foundation for Iceni warrior queen Boudicca's uprising against the Roman colonization of Britain in AD60, Stark says. She notes the items in the grave suggest the woman buried "may have played a commanding role in local warfare, organizing or leading raids on rival groups." The release notes mirrors could have been used for signaling during raids and "as a tool to communicate with the supernatural world to ensure the success of a raid or 'cleanse' warriors on their return." (Graves of ancient warrior women have also been found in Russia and Sweden.)

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