Friday, November 26, 2021

Poisoned Women and Beaded Dresses from Copper Age Spain

I wrote a few years ago about the amazing archaeology of Valencina de la ConcepciĆ³n in southern Spain, which was an important ritual site between about 3300 and 2200 BC. An astonishing find was made there in 2007, an unlooted tholos tomb dating to around 2850 BC known as the Montelirio Tholos.

(Actually, and it took me a long time to figure this out, they excavated two tombs at this site in 2007-2010, both from the same period: the Montelirio Tholos and this tomb. This second tomb goes by the splendid name of "Structure 10.042-10.049 of the PP4-Montelirio Sector." It is hard to imagine why you would make such an amazing find and then give it an absurdly bureaucratic name; I suppose Spanish archaeologists are sick of Germans looking down their noses at sloppy Iberian science and decided to show that they can be as technically precise as anybody. But I think the lack of a decent name for this feature confuses everyone, so that even normally reliable sources like the Metropolitan Museum can't keep straight which artifacts came from which tomb. The crystal dagger you see in every other article about the Montelirio Tholos actually came from this tomb.)

But to get back to the Montelirio Tholos. The tomb was very complex to excavate, because it was not filled all at once, and later on much of it was disturbed. Another source of confusion about these finds is that it took the excavators a long time to sort all of this out, and early news accounts are full of statements that I think are now rejected.

Here is a several times recopied plan of the main chamber; the gray is "disturbed," so you can see that quite a lot was lost. The vaguely linear thing running from top to bottom along the right side is a Roman period wall, which you can also see in the photo at the top.

A great many fabulous artifacts were recovered, with lots of exotic stuff like elephant ivory, ostrich egg shells, amber, and so on. Here are a bone comb and a set of stone "arrow heads" that are too finely made to have been any use.

Pigs and acorns appear together in the iconography more than once, and acorns carved from ivory were found, so it seems that the fall fattening of pigs in oak woods was of economic and ritual importance.

Near as can be told the chamber held the bodies of twenty women grouped around a stela roughly a meter tall. They were not put in all at once, since some were clearly moved to make room for later arrivals. On the other hand the bodies seem to have been moved before they completely fell to pieces, and the radiocarbon dates for all of them are essentially identical, so the process took years or decades rather than centuries. The contents of the small, adjacent chamber were thoroughly wrecked, and the bones smashed to small fragments, so no clue yet who those people were.

The women buried in the main chamber were remarkable people. They wore dresses made of thousands of shell beads; the total count of beads in this room is in the millions. The darker objects clustered around the neck are large amber beads that were incorporated into the pattern. Each of these dresses probably weighed about 20 pounds (8 to 10 kilos).

Reconstruction of the garb of one of these women; notice the red face paint

Most of the women were middle aged for the time, a median estimate of 31. But though they were dressed in such expensive clothes, they were not in good health. They suffered from arthritis and had signs of overwork in their hands and also in their legs; the analysts can't decide if the leg deformations are the sort you get from spending a lot of time squatting or if they were perhaps causes by years of acrobatic dancing. These women are back in the news this week because analysis has showed that they suffered from mercury poisoning.

This is not exactly surprising. Notice that in this reconstruction the walls of the tomb are red; in fact the whole tholos seems to have been painted red from the entrance on in. The paint used was cinnabar, mercury sulfide, which is highly toxic. Alas for them the Copper Age people of Iberia loved to paint everything red with cinnabar, and this is not the first time high levels of mercury have been noted in human bones of this period. The concentrations are so high that Spanish archaeologists think they must also have been painting their bodies with cinnabar, as the excavators chose to show in the reconstruction I reproduced above. 

According to the authors of the new study, the levels of mercury in these women's bones "would cause serious motor and cognitive dysfunctions." Which raises all sorts of interesting questions. Who were these women? The Spanish press has dubbed them "priestesses," which is as good a guess as any. (That drawing of the priestess originates with the excavation team but I found it in a news article called "Mother Goddess Temple of the Poisoned Priestesses." So somebody in Spain knows how to name things.) 

Whoever they were, they must have spent too much time around cinnabar, grinding it, making it into paint, putting the paint on themselves and anything else within reach. Did people notice that priestesses all eventually went mad? When they started to tremble and lose motor control, did people think they were in the grip of a divine disease? Did they think it was caused by too much contact with the spirit realm, or with the dead, or with objects others were forbidden to touch? Were these women surrounded by strange taboos?

And how did twenty of these women end up buried in one tomb? I have been imagining that this one school of priestesses got so crazy and made such terrifying prophesies that the people eventually walled them up in a special house and kept them all there until they died, at which point they were all deposited in the tomb, their line ending when the last red-painted corpse was carried in and the passage blocked with stone.

But of course I have no idea, and maybe the same ritual painting with cinnabar went on for centuries, sickening hundreds or thousands more people. This is what I love about archaeology, they way it inspires imagination about the past rather than filling in the whole story.

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