2 March 2024 The Future is the Product of the Past

Isles of Scilly Iron Age warrior buried with a mirror and sword was probably a woman

Archaeologists conducted a DNA analysis of the tooth enamel of a person who died more than two millennia ago on Bryher, one of the islands Isles of Scilly, an archipelago off the southwest of England. It was buried with a beautiful bronze mirror and a costly sword.

Archaeologists have debated for years whether the burial chamber with stone walls that were found on Bryher in 1999 held the remains of a man or a woman.

Along with the sole person’s remains, excavations turned up a sword in a copper alloy scabbard and a shield, both of which are typically associated with men. But there were also a brooch and a bronze mirror that had what appeared to be a sun disc motif and was typically associated with women. Due to the presence of both a mirror and a sword, the grave is unique in iron age Western Europe.

It was previously thought that only Iron Age women were buried with mirrors and only warrior men with swords, but the body now identified as a woman owned both, in death and presumably in life.

The discovery could shed light on the role of women warriors at a time when violence between communities is considered a fact of life.

Dr. Sarah Stark, a human skeletal biologist from Historic England, said the findings could shed light on the role of women in Iron Age Britain.

The remains were discovered alongside a 2000-year-old sword and mirror. Photo: Historic England
The remains were discovered alongside a 2000-year-old sword and mirror. Photo: Historic England

 “Although we can never know completely about the symbolism of objects found in graves, the combination of a sword and a mirror suggests this woman had high status within her community and may have played a commanding role in local warfare, organizing or leading raids on rival groups,” Stark says.

She adds: “This could suggest that female involvement in raiding and other types of violence was more common in Iron Age society than we’ve previously thought, and it could have laid the foundations from which leaders like Boudicca would later emerge.”

A farmer on the island of Bryher accidentally discovered the grave, a neatly built stone-lined pit, in 1999. The majority of the crouching skeleton was reduced to a single soil stain, with only a few scattered pieces of bones and teeth remaining. The University of California at Davis scientists developed a method that extracts proteins from tooth enamel that can be linked to the X and Y chromosomes, which determine sex. Earlier attempts to extract DNA from bones failed because they were too decayed, but new evidence has come from this method.

Capstones at the Bryher burial site, which was discovered in 1999. Photo: Isles of Scilly Museum Association
Capstones at the Bryher burial site, which was discovered in 1999. Photo: Isles of Scilly Museum Association

Dr. Glendon Parker, an adjunct associate professor in the Department of environmental toxicology at the University of California, Davis, said: “Tooth enamel is the hardest and most durable substance in the human body. It contains a protein with links to either the X or Y chromosome, which means it can be used to determine sex. This is useful because this protein survives well compared to DNA.

“Our analysis involved extracting traces of proteins from tiny pieces of the surviving tooth enamel. This allowed us to calculate a 96% probability that the individual was female.”

The bronze mirror found in a 2,000-year-old Iron Age burial on Bryher, the Isles of Scilly, just off the coast of Cornwall. Photo: Historic England
The bronze mirror found in a 2,000-year-old Iron Age burial on Bryher, the Isles of Scilly, just off the coast of Cornwall. Photo: Historic England

The grave held the richest collection of grave goods from the southwest of England: as well as the crouched skeleton there were shield fittings, a ring for a sword belt, a copper brooch and ring, fibres from woven textiles, and what may have been a sheep or goat skin.

The mirror and weapons found in the grave are all associated with warfare. It is thought that mirrors may have be used in the iron age for signalling, communicating and coordinating attacks. They also had ritualistic functions, as a tool to communicate with the supernatural world to ensure the success of a raid or “cleanse” warriors on their return.

The research was published in the Journal of Archaeological Science Reports.

Cover Photo: Historic England

Historic England

Related Articles

Europe’s earliest cities had a predominantly vegetarian diet

27 December 2023

27 December 2023

The population of the Copper Age mega-sites in what is now Ukraine and Moldova had a predominantly vegetarian diet. In...

Ancient eggshell in the Northern Cape hiding 300,000 years of history

12 July 2021

12 July 2021

Evidence from an ancient eggshell has revealed important new information about the extreme climate change faced by human early ancestors....

Ancient Latin texts written on papyrus reveal new information about the Roman world

11 January 2023

11 January 2023

Researchers funded by the European Union have deciphered ancient Latin texts written on papyrus. This work could reveal a lot...

History, geography, and evolution are rewrites thanks to an incredible dinosaur trove discovered in Italy

2 December 2021

2 December 2021

A dinosaur trove in Italy rewrites the history, geography, and evolution of the ancient Mediterranean area. Italy is not exactly...

Excavations at Coleshill may rewrite English Civil War history

5 February 2023

5 February 2023

Archaeologists excavating the site of Coleshill Manor in Warwickshire have revealed evidence of what could be one of the first...

Ming-era two shipwrecks found in South China Sea

23 May 2023

23 May 2023

In the South China Sea, two ancient shipwrecks that date back to the middle of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) were...

Artifacts for sale offered at a Dutch auction house returned to Peru

9 July 2021

9 July 2021

The Dutch government announced in a press release today that the artifacts that were put up for sale at an...

Archaeologists Uncover lost Indigenous Settlement of Sarabay, Florida

9 June 2021

9 June 2021

The University of North Florida archaeological team is now quite sure that they have uncovered Sarabay, a lost Indigenous northeast...

Rare ivory plaques from First Temple Period were discovered in Jerusalem

8 September 2022

8 September 2022

An extraordinary find was made in Jerusalem: an assemblage of ivory plaques from the First Temple period, one of only...

Archaeological Finding Traces Chinese Tea Culture Back To 400 BC

7 February 2022

7 February 2022

An archaeological team from Shandong University, east China’s Shandong Province, has found the earliest known tea remains in the world...

Southeast Asia’s oldest stringed instrument may be a 2,000-year-old antler

21 February 2023

21 February 2023

Archaeologists unearth a 2,000-year-old stringed instrument made from deer antler in southern Vietnam. This unusual deer antler may be one...

350,000-Year-Old Human Settlement have been Discovered on the Arabian Peninsula

17 May 2021

17 May 2021

One of the world’s oldest Acheulean sites was found in the northern region of Hail in Saudi Arabia. Al Nasim...

1900-year-old Child’s Nightgown with intriguing knots found in the Cave of Letters in the Judean Desert

5 October 2023

5 October 2023

The Cave of Letters in Israel is one such site that has yielded a large number of papyrus letters and...

Luxurious Feather Beds of Iron Age Warriors

27 March 2021

27 March 2021

According to a new study, two warriors from the 7th century in Sweden were buried in graves where they were...

China’s construction of the first archaeological museum which will house the famous Terracotta Warriors has been completed

19 April 2022

19 April 2022

Construction of the first archaeological museum in China’s northwestern province of Shaanxi, which will house the famous Terracotta Warriors, was...