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The mystery of Spain's 'Great Golden Lady'

The 'great lady' lay in the middle of a circular tomb. Alone. Her body was covered with 15 small gold plates and her neck surrounded by 48 ivory beads. She also kept the three "V" shaped buttons that fastened her missing clothes. The woman is just one of the 160 bodies found in the excavations of Humanejos, in Parla (Madrid), and unearthed by experts in the last ten years in what is considered the largest Bell Beaker cemetery, dating between the second and third millennium BC, on the Iberian Peninsula.

The mystery of Spain's 'Great Golden Lady'
Skull of the 'great lady', female skeleton found in Humanejos, Parla
[Credit: Sara Genicio/El Pais]
The remains are currently being tested for carbon 14 at the University of Groningen (Netherlands) to determine their exact date, while genetic analyses are being carried out in the DNA laboratories of Harvard University (United States) and Mainz (Germany). In addition to the Community of Madrid, which bears the costs, researchers from the Autonomous and Complutense Universities of Madrid and private companies are also involved in the project.

The site is colossal in size and exceptional in findings, ranging from the Chalcolithic to the Modern Age. Initially thought to cover an area of around 2.5 hectares, the site now exceeds 20 hectares, extending through the municipalities of Parla and Torrejón de la Calzada.

It was discovered at the end of the 19th century by French travellers who included an engraving of the remains of a Mudejar church - then in the middle of nowhere - in their travel book. In the 1980s, the now defunct Provincial Council of Madrid carried out some preliminary excavations, but it was not until the A-42 motorway and the development of the PAU-5 industrial estate were built in 2008 that the site left archaeologists speechless.

The mystery of Spain's 'Great Golden Lady'
Remains of the lady found in Humanejos, Parla [Credit: Sara Genicio/El Pais]
Raúl Flores, co-director of the excavations, describes the site as being of "global significance". The findings speak for themselves: 100 tombs, 160 individuals, 2,000 domestic structures and numerous grave goods, including hundreds of prehistoric artefacts, ranging from ceramics, and to axes and daggers.

The Humanejos necropolis - without counting the finds of later historical times - comprises two periods of the late phase of the local Chalcolithic - a pre-Bell Beaker phase (3300 to 2500 BC) and a Bell Beaker phase (2500 to 2000 BC) - as well as the Middle and Late Bronze Ages (2000 to 1300 BC).

The grave goods from the pre-Bell Beaker phase include beads of variscite necklaces (from Zamora), as well as axes, copper daggers and tools, as well as 110 ceramic vases.

The mystery of Spain's 'Great Golden Lady'
Bell shaped vessel found in Humanejos, Parla [Credit: Sara Genicio/El Pais]
The Bell Beaker grave goods include 56 ceramic vases, both decorated and plain, copper weapons, more than 50 ivory beads, daggers, spear tips, awls and axes. This stage also includes 19 gold plates, 15 of which were found in the tomb of the 'great lady', the main female character.

The remains of this woman were discovered inside a circular tomb 2.8 metres in diametre and 1.2 metres high. Rafael Garrido, co-director of the project and professor at the Autonomous University of Madrid, believes that "the body corresponds to a remarkable woman of the time".

This is demonstrated by the fact that her body was buried alone whereas the other tombs contain at least two burials, as well as the large trousseau that accompanied her. It is known that the woman was clothed, although no remains of her clothing have been detected, save for the three aforementioned buttons.

The mystery of Spain's 'Great Golden Lady'
One of the daggers unearthed in the necropolis
[Credit: Sara Genicio/El Pais]
It is not known exactly what the individuals belonging to this period wore, although in the Swiss site of Petit Chasseur several funerary stelae were found that presented characters wearing vestments with decorations identical to those exhibited in the bell-shaped beakers.

The "bell-shaped beaker enigma" spread from Morocco to Denmark, and from Spain to the Czech Republic. DNA tests show that the various peoples of the so-called Bell-Beaker culture did not form a single racial unit but belonged instead to a wider commercial network across much of Western Europe.

Source: El Pais [September 17, 2018]


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