Mystery of 2,000-year-old warrior found in Isles of Scilly finally solved

The remains found on the Isles of Scilly are unique as it is highly unusual for an Iron Age warrior to be buried with both a sword and a mirror. Credit: Historic England

A long-running mystery surrounding the remains of an Iron Age warrior discovered on the Isles of Scilly may finally have been solved.

A new scientific study has been trying to answer whether the 2,000-year-old warrior found on the island of Bryher in 1999 was male or female.

The question has puzzled experts for more than two decades, since the remains are unique in being buried alongside both a sword, which is associated with Iron Age men and with a mirror, associated with women.

But now thanks to new techniques, an international team of scientists have been able to conclude that the warrior was almost certainly female.

The discovery sheds new light on the role of women in Iron Age warrior societies.

The woman's remains were found in this grave in the Isles of Scilly in 1999. Credit: Isles of Scilly Museum Association

How do scientists know the warrior was a woman?

Archeologists were confounded when they discovered the grave in 1999 due to the unique collection of objects, along with the remains of just one person.

It is highly unusual for both a mirror and a sword to be found in the same grave, due to these usually denominating the sex of the warrior.

This led to attempts to establish sex through DNA analysis, but this failed due to the disintegration of the bones.

But scientists at the University of California at Davis have now been able to use a new technique to reveal that the remains are mostly likely those of a woman.

Glendon Parker, Professor of Environmental Toxicology at the university, said: “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.”

The remarkable discovery has shed light on the role of women in Iron Age Britain, a period dominated by violence between communities.

2,000 years ago, raids where rival groups carried out surprise attacks on enemy settlements were common.

Both the mirror and the sword are associated with warfare, suggesting that the woman in the burial grave may have held a commanding role in warfare.

In the Iron Age, mirrors could be used to signal, to communicate and co-ordinate attacks, as well as more ritualistic functions such as communicating with the supernatural world to ensure the success of a raid or ‘cleanse’ warriors on their return.

Around 150 grams of bones and teeth were recovered from the grave, with the only sign of the body being a dark stain on the soil Credit: Historic England.

Dr Sarah Stark, a Human Skeletal Biologist for Historic England, said the burial suggests evidence of a leading role for a woman in warfare on Iron Age Scilly.

She added: “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.

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

Both objects are currently on display in the Isles of Scilly Museum and now the site has said it looks forward to reinterpreting the female warrior's story and the kind of life she led.