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Spain’s entombed ‘Ivory Lady’ Reveals Leadership Role of Women in Antiquity

Originally Published by Will Dunham for REUTERS

When archaeologists discovered a megalithic tomb in Spain dating back nearly 5,000 years and bearing sumptuous items such as a dagger made of rock crystal, ostrich eggshell and an African elephant’s tusk, they knew the person buried inside was a powerful figure. What they did not realize was that this was a woman.

Researchers said on Thursday an analysis of tooth enamel showed that the body entombed at the site near Seville was not a man as previously thought, a finding that indicates the leadership role women played in this ancient society that predated the pyramids of Egypt – and perhaps elsewhere.

She has been dubbed the “Ivory Lady” because of the finely crafted ivory grave objects surrounding her and the fact that a full elephant tusk was laid above her head during burial, as if protecting her, in a tomb dating to between 2800 and 2900 BC. The tomb, excavated in 2008, was more impressive than any other known from the Iberian peninsula from the time.

“She stands out as the most prominent person ever to have lived in that period” in this region, said University of Seville professor of prehistory Leonardo García Sanjuán, one of the authors of the research published in the journal Nature.

While the researchers do not know precisely who she was or what societal role she played, they suspect she combined political and religious power and may have been viewed as the founder of an important clan.

No male of similarly high status has been found at the site. Located nearby was a similarly lavish tomb containing the bodies of at least 15 women – thought to have been built by people claiming descent from the “Ivory Lady.”

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