Unexpected discovery of 'warrior' woman buried with 24 men shocks researchers

The woman's body, which carries evidence of war injuries, was found buried with a group of warrior monks in an ancient castle.

A researcher holds a cracked skull.
Archeologists made an unexpected discovery amid the remains of 25 monks - a woman - with tests on a skull and pelvis confirming one of the bodies was female. Source: Universitat Rovira i Virgili

Wonder Woman, Xena, Joan of Arc: Take a bow! Archaeologists excavating a castle in Spain have discovered that militant feminists really have always been a thing.

It was the good old days of mediaeval Europe. Men were REAL men - tending herb gardens, reading scripture and singing in the choir. Women were REAL women - donning armour, hefting shields and wielding swords. And they did so side-by-side.

The scientists recently made an unexpected discovery of a woman's remains found buried among 24 monks.

But these monks weren’t just any monks.

They were warrior monks, committed to lives of poverty, chastity and obedience — while fighting to expel the Islamic Moors from the Iberian Peninsula.

And a study published in the journal Scientific Reports reveals the woman wasn’t just a serving wench.

“We should picture her as a warrior of about forty years of age, just under five feet tall - neither stocky nor slender - and skilful with a sword,” said study co-author Carme Rissech.

And all appear to be Christian soldiers linked to the Militant Order of Calatrava.

The woman’s remains were found during the excavation of a cemetery within the castle of Zorita des los Canes in the Spanish province of Guadalajara. It was turned into an Order of Calatrava stronghold after being captured from the Moors by the Knights Templar in 1124.

The burials dated between the 12th and 15th centuries - a period encompassing the Crusades of the Holy Land and the Iberian Peninsula. And 23 of the 25 bodies show evidence of a “significant number of penetrating stab wounds and blunt force injuries” to areas of the body not well protected by the era’s armour.

Cemetery within the castle of Zorita des los Canes.
The remains were found in a cemetery within the castle of Zorita des los Canes. Source: Universitat Rovira i Virgili

“We observed many lesions on the upper part of the skull, the cheeks and the inner part of the pelvis, which is consistent with the hypothesis that we are dealing with warriors,” Rissech explains.

This includes the female skeleton.

The woman’s gender was identified by her pelvis and skull. And the cut marks on her bones displayed no sign of healing, suggesting she died in the heat of battle.

“She may have died in a manner very similar to that of male knights, and it is likely that she was wearing some kind of armour or chain mail,” says Rissech.

To be a knight, one had to be noble. But “commoner” sergeants of the monastic orders were also well equipped, trained and housed.

And despite all taking vows of personal poverty, the researchers say an isotope study of the remains shows they were supplied with regular meals of fish and poultry, basic health care and shelter.

The woman’s bones, however, reveal she had consumed less protein than her compatriots. This, the authors suggest, indicates she may have come from a lower social strata.

However, the condition of her skeleton does not indicate she was merely a servant caught up in a fight.

“Her work as a servant would have left signs on her bones, indicators of certain types of physical activity that we could now identify,” explains Rissech

Instead, her remains showed similar muscular marks on the shoulders and arms as those attributed to sword training among the warrior monks.

Map shows location of castle where woman's remains were found.
The location of the castle where the woman's remains were found. Source: Scientific Reports

King Sancho III of Castile had been inspired by the creation of the Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple of Solomon (the Templars) and the Order of St John (the Hospitallers) in Jerusalem.

In 1157AD, he granted the fortress of Calatrava to a local Cistercian monastery - a monastic order responsible for creating the Rule that governed the daily lives of the Templars. But its Abbott wanted the warrior monks to be dedicated to the Reconquest of Andalusia, and not to be shipped off to fight in the Holy Land. So, he founded the Order of Calatrava.

These and other warrior monks were given the responsibility of defending and maintaining a series of frontier castles between Christian and Muslim territories.

The Militant Orders of the Templars and Hospitallers are known to have had affiliated convents of nuns. But these appear to have been given administrative and charitable tasks to support their warrior brethren fighting in the Holy Land.

The concept of warrior women does not appear to have been as unusual as we may believe.

A re-analysis of the remains of a famous Viking warrior burial in 2017 revealed that it was a woman in her 30s. For a century, the burial had been used as the archetypal Viking template because of its trove of weapons and military equipment.

It is now believed to be evidence that tales of fighting Valkyries and warrior women in the Viking Sagas were based on truth.

Spain also has legendary female knights.

Juana Garcia de Arintero disguised herself as a man to fight Portugal in 1474. Only in the final battle did a sword blow cut off her doublet, exposing her to be a woman.

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