(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.)
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.
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?
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.