Mystery Of The 2,000-Year-Old Grave On The Isles Of Scilly Solved!

A 2,000-year-old tomb on the Isles of Scilly has puzzled scientists ever since it was discovered in 1999. Inside the grave was a skeleton, but did it belong to a woman or a man? When archaeologists excavated the grave on Bryher, they found a sword in a copper alloy scabbard and a shield which would suggest this was the resting place of man, but a new study shows things are not always as they seem.

The Bryher burial, with capstones in place.

Inside the grave, the research team also found a brooch and a bronze mirror adorned with what appears to be a sun disc motif. These kinds of ancient objects were usually associated with women. The 2,000-year-old Bryher grave is unique because it contains both a mirror and a sword.

Tooth Enamel Solved An Iron Age Mystery
Attempts to establish the gender of the deceased by traditional methods, such as DNA analysis, failed due to the disintegration of the bones.

However, after all those years, a scientific study led by Historic England finally solved the long-standing mystery and gained a new understanding of warfare in Iron Age Britain.

Detail on the sword found in a 2,000-year-old Iron Age burial on Bryher, the Isles of Scilly, just off the coast of Cornwall.

An international team of scientists has re-analyzed the prehistoric burial, and the results of the study published in The Journal of Archaeological Science Reports reveal the individual placed in the Bryhe grave was a female.

“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. Given the degraded state of the bones, it’s remarkable to get such a strong result. It makes you wonder what could be discovered by re-visiting other badly degraded burials,” Glendon Parker, Professor of Environmental ToxicologyUniversity of California at Davis, explains.

Women’s Role In Iron Age Warfare
Communities in Iron Age Britain were often in conflict with each other, and violence was common, but what role did women play in battles?

According to Historic England, “the main form of warfare 2,000 years ago is likely to have been raids (surprise attacks) carried out by a war party on enemy settlements.

The mirror and weapons found in the grave are all associated with warfare.”

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.

During the Iron Age, mirrors had a range of practical and symbolic uses. They could be used for signaling, 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.

“Our findings offer an exciting opportunity to re-interpret this important burial. They provide evidence of a leading role for a woman in warfare on Iron Age Scilly.

The Iron Age sword and mirror found in a 2,000 year-old burial on the island of Bryher, the Isles of Scilly.

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, organising or leading raids on rival groups.

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,” Dr. Sarah Stark, Human Skeletal Biologist at Historic England, said.

“It would be interesting to re-analyze other degraded burials to see if there are more ‘hidden’ female warriors out there,” Dr. Stark added.

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