A Thought from Women’s Day: Sex and Gender during the Bronze Age in the Iberian Peninsula

I had planned to write and publish this post for International Women’s Day, so apologies for the delay. I introduce this post by mentioning Women’s Day because its observation, and the celebrations associated to it, made me pause and think a bit more than usual on women, their lives and roles, in past worlds.

Detail of the Late Bronze Age stela of Cabeza de Buey 2 (Badajoz, Spain). Photograph reproduced with kind permission of the author, Vicente Novillo, to whom I am very grateful, from the catalogue of stelae of the Archaeological Museum of Badajoz (Dom√≠nguez de la Concha et al. 2005, “Cat√°logo de estelas decoradas del Museo Arqueol√≥gico Provincial de Badajoz (Siglos VIII-V a.C.)”, Badajoz, Spain).

As a scholar specialized in Later Prehistory who frequently works on aspects related to the Bronze Age I am used to read quite a lot of literature dedicated to the so-called “Bronze Age (male) warriors”. The historiography of this idea has a long-standing tradition that goes back practically to the beginning of Archaeology as a discipline in Europe. Metallic weapons¬†attributed¬†to this period, the Bronze Age (c. 2500/2200-800 BCE), are partly responsible for the shaping of this idea of the male warrior.¬†From tombs in Greece to burial graves in Scandinavian Europe, all have provided evidence for the existence of a¬†privileged¬†social group formed by young -and not so young- males who, after death, were buried with rich panoplies composed of weapons such as swords, spears and shields, as well as other objects of ‘prestige’. Even on the Iberian Peninsula, the region where I work, there is some evidence, in this case in the South East of the Peninsula, reiterating the association of swords and male individuals in graves.

While this physical evidence seems to be pretty straightforward I have always been skeptical about the extent to which this idea can be applied to every-other region of Europe. We should not forget that archaeological visions on Bronze Age Europe have been heavily influenced by the male centered perspectives of writers like Homer or archaeologists of our recent past.

My present topic of research provides an interesting arena to scrutinize these questions. These are Iberian Bronze Age decorated stelae and statue-menhirs, which are made of stone and display innumerable representations of people that are frequently accompanied by weapons, element of dress and other things, such as chariots or dogs. Interestingly, one of the most notable aspects put forward by these representations is the scarcity, if not an almost total absence, of sexed bodies. If we examine the sample of stelae and statue-menhirs that are well preserved, that is the ones that are complete or only slightly damaged (N=205), only 8% (n=16 cases) present breasts (11 cases, 5%) or masculine genitals (5 cases, 3%). There are only a handful of cases that would support the traditional view of a clear cut correspondence between weapons and masculinity, on the one hand, adornment and femininity on the other. On the other hand, some of these very few sexed bodies also seem to challenge this neatly dichotomous view, for there are cases of possible female bodies with the paraphernalia commonly associated to the idea of the male-warrior. One of these cases is the stela of Cabeza de Buey 2 (Badajoz, Spain), showed in the photograph of this blog entry.

I see this ambivalence as something to keep in mind, for it may be meaningful in terms of the sexual/gender ambiguity of the ‚Äėsocial role‚Äô that is being represented. Indeed, Iberian Bronze Age stelae and statue-menhirs represent people personifying specific social roles but the definition of these social roles may have not relied so much upon sex/gender. Here, other social criteria, such as the belonging¬†to a certain kin group and/or the proximity to a common ancestor, may have been more relevant. In Bronze Age Iberia, it could have been the case that in many occasions ‘men’ were the ‘warriors’, but the evidence provided by stelae and statue-menhirs also suggests the possibility that women could have been ‘warriors’ as well…..

You will find more on this topic in the interesting blog¬†“Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives”, by Prof. Rosemary A. Joyce (University of California, Berkeley). Among others, the entry¬†“Women Warriors and Terracotta Armies” might be of interest…