Aerial image of the Isles of Scilly.
The Isles of Scilly, with St Martin’s in the centre left, Tresco in the background and the island of Bryher further behind. © Historic England Archive.
The Isles of Scilly, with St Martin’s in the centre left, Tresco in the background and the island of Bryher further behind. © Historic England Archive.

New Scientific Study Solves Mystery of 2,000-year-old Grave

A new scientific study led by Historic England solves the long-running mystery of a 2,000-year-old burial on the Isles of Scilly: was this a man or a woman?

An international team of scientists has re-analysed the prehistoric burial, which has puzzled archaeologists since it was discovered on the island of Bryher in 1999.

The grave is unique in Iron Age western Europe for containing both a mirror and a sword.

This is highly unusual because swords are usually found with males and mirrors with females in other burials of the same period. Yet, this single grave contained both objects and the remains of just one person.

Attempts to establish sex by traditional methods, such as DNA analysis, failed due to the disintegration of the bones. Debate continued for years until recent scientific advances, particularly the development of a sophisticated technique by scientists at the University of California at Davis.

The research findings are published today in 'The Journal of Archaeological Science Reports' and show the individual was 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 Toxicology University of California at Davis

Women’s role in Iron Age warfare

As well as telling archaeologists more about this individual, the research led by Historic England could shed light on the role of women in Iron Age Britain, a time when violence between communities was a fact of life.

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.

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

Dr Sarah Stark, Human Skeletal Biologist at Historic England, said:

“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.

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."

She added: “It would be interesting to re-analyse other degraded burials to see if there are more ‘hidden’ female warriors out there.”