A team of researchers led by Universitat Rovira i Virgili (URV) and the Max Planck Institute has unearthed a surprising find in the cemetery of Zorita de los Canes castle in Guadalajara. After studying the remains of 25 individuals buried between the 12th and 15th centuries, they discovered that among them was a woman.

Zorita de los Canes castle, located on a hill next to the Tagus River, was built in the year 852 by Emir Muhammad I of Córdoba. Over the centuries, the fortress changed hands several times until it was conquered in 1124 by the Knights Templar. Fifty years later, Alfonso VIII of Castile handed the fortress over to the newly founded Order of Calatrava, a military and religious order with the objective of defending the Tagus frontier from Almohad incursions.

Carme Rissech, a researcher in the Department of Basic Medical Sciences at URV, was initially skeptical when informed that the remains she was to study belonged to the knights of Calatrava. However, carbon-14 and nitrogen-15 isotope analyses of the bones confirmed their authenticity. These analyses, conducted within the MONBONES project, allowed the determination of the diet, lifestyle, and causes of death of the 25 individuals.

Part of the site from which the remains were recovered
Part of the site from which the remains were recovered. Credit: Guillermo Carvajal / labrujulaverde.com

Of the 25 skeletons studied, 23 showed signs of violent deaths, with puncture and blunt force injuries to vulnerable parts of the body, such as the skull, legs, and pelvis. These evidences support the hypothesis that they were warriors. However, it was during the detailed study of the bone proportions that Rissech discovered one of the skeletons belonged to a woman.

The skeletons of men and women have specific characteristics that allow them to be differentiated. In this case, the morphology of the facial bones and the birth canal in the pelvis were decisive for the identification. The woman had injuries indicating her presence in battle and her death in combat, similar to those observed in the male knights.

However, the woman’s diet seemed to differ from that of some of the knights, with a lower protein intake, which could indicate a lower social status. Some researchers suggest that she might have been a member of the service who took up arms in a moment of need, but Rissech dismisses this hypothesis due to the absence of signs of heavy physical labor in her bones. On the contrary, her skeleton showed typical characteristics of training in sword use, suggesting that she could have been a warrior.

The woman's skull with injuries
The woman’s skull with injuries. Credit: Universitat Rovira i Virgili

She possibly died in a manner very similar to that of the male knights, and it is likely that she wore some type of armor or chain mail, Rissech notes, concluding that the woman, about forty years old and less than one and a half meters tall, was possibly a skilled warrior. However, more analysis is needed to confirm if this woman is contemporary to the other knights.

This study, which also involved researchers from the University of Barcelona and archaeologists in charge of the excavations, is part of the MONBONES project.

This multidisciplinary project aims to offer a new historical perspective on life, diet, health, economy, and society in monastic contexts between the 14th and 19th centuries through the use of zooarchaeology, anthropology, documentation, and molecular analyses.


Universitat Rovira i Virgili | Pérez-Ramallo, P., Rissech, C., Lloveras, L. et al. Unravelling social status in the first medieval military order of the Iberian Peninsula using isotope analysis. Sci Rep 14, 11074 (2024). doi.org/10.1038/s41598-024-61792-y

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