Iron Age ‘warrior woman’ identified on the Isles of Scilly

The recent re-analysis of an unusual Iron Age burial from the Isles of Scilly – which contained grave goods typical of both men and women from this period – has shown that its occupant was biologically female.

Discovered on the island of Bryher in 1999, the remains were found in a cist, a kind of stone-lined burial pit common in south-west England during the Iron Age. The individual was found with a large assortment of grave goods, including an iron sword in a copper-alloy scabbard, a bronze mirror with a sun-disc motif, the remains of a wooden shield with copper-alloy fittings, and a copper-alloy brooch, which may have been used to fasten a cloak.

From its discovery, the burial attracted interest as it is the only documented Iron Age grave from western Europe to contain both a sword and a mirror (below) – items which have conventionally been thought to have had opposite gender associations. The bones were in a very poor state, however, which precluded sex identification by morphological analysis, and early genomic testing on the remains also failed.

Image: Historic England Archive

Recent re-analysis of the burial, led by Simon Mays from Historic England, however, attempted to use more modern techniques to reveal clues about this individual. Unfortunately, the poor bone preservation continued to obfuscate results. While radiocarbon dating and carbon and nitrogen analysis were successful, dating the remains to c.100-50 BC and showing that this person had eaten a primarily terrestrial diet, both strontium isotope analysis (to determine mobility) and modern aDNA extraction failed.

The team next turned to proteomic methods to determine the sex of the individual. By identifying certain proteins present within the enamel of the teeth, associated exclusively with either X or Y chromosomes (see ‘Science Notes’ in CA 333), they found with 96% confidence that the individual was female. Re-examination of the dental wear observed on her teeth (see ‘Science Notes’, CA 394) then suggested that she had died between the ages of 20 and 25.

While science can tell us about the biological sex of the individual, it is now up for debate as to what this means in terms of Iron Age gender roles and participation in martial activities. The authors of a paper on the research (see below), however, provide a convincing argument – one of several that they put forward – that, situated in a strategic maritime passage, the Isles of Scilly may have been a prime target for raiders, and with a probably small population size, it might have been that women were just as important militarily as men under such circumstances.

The full results were recently published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports: