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Prehistoric discoveries on our doorstep

We are standing in a field a couple of minutes’ drive from our house on the border between Extremadura and Andalucía. The landscape here is identical for miles around—sweeping mountain ridges dotted with olive trees, evergreen oaks and the odd whitewashed farm building.

But this field is different. A couple of crush barriers and a traffic arrow encourage walkers and the few motorists who venture along the rocky lane to steer clear. There is no one else around. We hop over a low dry stone wall to take a closer look. 

In the field, there are signs that the earth has recently been disturbed, and next to the wall are half a dozen heavy duty sheets, held in place with piles of large, flat stones. We are standing in a graveyard. To be more precise, it is a necropolis—a prehistoric burial ground dating from the late Bronze or early Iron Age. It is some 3,000 years old. 

It was discovered by chance five years ago when a council worker from the nearby village of Cañaveral de León unearthed a stela, a standing funerary stone, while carrying out maintenance work on a rural track known as Camino de las Capellanías. The metre-high, 250kg stone, now known as Stela 1, is engraved with a simple human figure wearing a headdress, or diadem, flanked by objects that might be a brooch and a comb. It was the first Bronze Age stela ever found in Huelva province and rightly provoked excitement and pride in the village before it was shipped off to the provincial museum for further examination.

Then the finds kept on coming. In 2022 a second stela was discovered and in September this year a third. The latest depicts another figure in a headdress, but because the design also features two swords and a penis, its discovery has overturned previous assumptions about gender roles in early Iberian society. Iron Age warriors, it seems, wore diadems too.

Since the science of archaeology began in earnest in the 19th century, some 300 stelae have been discovered across the Iberian peninsula. But almost all of them have been one-offs, turned up by agricultural activity. 

“It’s the first time in more than a hundred years of research that three stelae have been found in context,” said Marta Díaz-Guardamino, professor of archaeology at Durham University, who co-directed the project. “It is very special, and even better—it was the students who discovered it.”

Archaeology students from Seville and Durham universities worked together on the dig that eventually revealed a site containing seven tombs dating from the 8th to the 5th century B.C. Besides the stelae, they have found beads, brooches, an iron knife and an Iron Age toilet set. But no human remains—those would have been cremated back then.

The Capellanías excavation sheds new light on the life and culture of the southern Iberian peninsula in the late prehistoric period. The stelae were created to pay tribute to prominent individuals and may have served as early road signs indicating the burial ground that lay on the thoroughfare linking the basins of the Guadiana and Guadalquivir rivers. The same pathways still exist today.  

But, as we discovered, the dig is over for now and the site has been filled in. “We concluded with the Junta that this is the best way to preserve the site until a proper longer-term project, with more funding, can be conducted,” said Marta. “Our project was small-scale, only intended to contextualise the first stela, but we found so much by surprise.”

What will these extraordinary discoveries mean for Cañaveral de León? This mountain village with a population of just 400 hasn’t had the best of fortune recently. Its central attraction is its historic laguna, a huge irrigation pond next to the town hall that transforms into a glorious communal swimming pool during July and August. But first the Covid pandemic and then a prolonged drought have meant it has lain empty and unused for the past three summers. The village’s bars and restaurants have struggled as visitors have stayed away.

Sadly, Cañaveral’s prehistoric treasures won’t stay in the village either. A permanent exhibit dedicated to the find is due to open at the provincial museum in Huelva two hours’ drive away. But replicas of all three stelae are being created and there are plans for a visitor centre to celebrate the village’s unique heritage.

Marta, originally from Bilbao in the north, admits she has fallen in love with the landscape, villages and people of this part of Spain. “In time,” she says, “I hope Cañaveral will reap the rewards of its amazing discovery.” 

Excavation photos: Marta Díaz-Guardamino

Stela 1 photo: Ayuntamiento de Cañaveral de León



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