3,000-year-old diadem stele with unique iconography found in Spain

A late prehistoric carved funerary stele that upends the previous understanding of such figures has recently been discovered at the ancient necropolis of Las Capellanías, in Cañaveral de León, southwestern Spain. The stele is engraved with a human figure wearing a headdress and a necklace with two swords. The figure also has male genitalia.

The engraved slab is one of around 300 prehistoric stele discovered in Spain and Portugal since the first find in 1898. Believed to represent important, socially-prominent personages (elites, ancestors, legendary heroes and heroines), there are two iconographic types: the diademated and the warrior variety. Because the diadem figures are surrounded by objects relating to personal ornamentation, they have traditionally been interpreted as representing female figures. The warrior figures are surrounded by weapons (swords, shields, spears) and other indicators of high status like chariots and lyres. They’ve been traditionally interpreted as male. Only eight stelae actually had clear indicators of sex, however: four of the diadem variety had female sex characteristics, four of the warrior type had male genitals. The newly-discovered stele is a combination of both types.

The Cañaveral de León site is a monumental necropolis containing tumuli with cists (small stone ossuaries). It was discovered after a stele was unearthed there during road repairs in 2018. The first stele was a diadem type, engraved with a human upper body wearing a headdress and accompanied by a mirror, brooch, belt and comb. Analysis of the surface found traces of pigment indicating that the stele was coated in red before it was carved. The carving was done with pecking and abrasion.

After the discovery of the first stele, the site was intensively excavated. Archaeologists discovered it had originated in a large prehistoric necropolis at the site. The second stele was discovered in one of the tumuli in the summer 2022. It was a warrior stele from the Late Bronze Age (c. 1200-900 B.C.), the first one on the Iberian peninsula ever discovered in its original context, confirming that the stele were primarily used as funerary monuments in late prehistoric necropoli. Of the 150 or so known warrior stele in the Iberian peninsula, all of the rest were found by accident, usually during agricultural work or road building, with no archaeological follow-up after discovery.

The third stela found just several days ago features a diadem and was discovered along with cremated human bones. “This sensational find not only corroborates once again and unequivocally the association of these stelae to funerary sites but also provides more clues that can overturn many earlier theories in relation to this particular piece featuring the diadem,” says García Sanjuán. “It was assumed that they represented only females, but the one found now depicts a man, as his genitals show. On the other hand, it is also surrounded by a stash of weapons, just like the warrior stelae.”

The archaeologist Marta Díaz-Guardamino, a stela specialist, agrees that “the discovery therefore questions previous interpretations concerning the gender of the figures represented, and confirms the conceptual and semantic relationship between the different types of stelae.” In other words, they are monuments that tell complex stories, known to the people from that cultural context.

“Las Capellanías is demonstrating that many of our assumptions were wrong,” adds Díaz-Guardamino. “These investigations mark a before and after in the scientific interpretation of these beautiful prehistoric sculptures, since they offer valuable empirical information facilitating the understanding of key aspects in the social organization of the communities that inhabited the Southwest of the peninsular during the second and first millennium B.C.”

3D scan of the first stele:

3D scan of the second stele: