Bones Found in Monastery Atop 'All-Male' Mountain May Belong to a Woman

Aerial view of the Pantokratoros Monastery on Nov. 07, 2017, in Mount Athos, Greece.
Aerial view of the Pantokratoros Monastery on Nov. 07, 2017, in Mount Athos, Greece. (Image credit: Athanasios Gioumpasis/Getty)

A so-called all-male "holy mountain" in northern Greece has hosted Christian monasteries for nearly 2,000 years, with women strictly prohibited. But one woman may have somehow found a home there — at least in death. 

During a recent restoration in the Pantokratoros Monastery on Mount Athos, archaeologists unearthed bones under the chapel floor that were smaller than most of the other remains found at the site. In fact, some experts are claiming that these diminutive bones once belonged to a female, according to the Greek Reporter.

"As far as I know, this is the first case that bones belonging to a woman have been discovered on Mt. Athos," architect and restorer Phaidon Hadjiantoniou, the project leader for the excavation, told the Greek Reporter. 

Related: The 25 Most Mysterious Archaeological Finds on Earth

Seven individuals — possibly more — were buried in the chapel; their bones appear to have been relocated there from other graves, The Guardian reported. The people must have been important for their bones to have been placed in a site of worship, anthropologist Laura Wynn-Antikas, who examined the remains, told the Guardian.

Many of the bones in the chapel site were obviously male. Some, however, were not. The size and shape of a sacrum, shinbone and forearm, for example, differed from the rest. 

"While the others were more robust and had clearly belonged to the frames of men, these had measurements that noticeably fell in the range of a female," Wynn-Antikas told The Guardian.

However, the size and shape of isolated bones don't necessarily prove that the person they came from was a woman. In fact, recent analysis of the bones of Revolutionary War hero Casimir Pulaski — a person who publicly identified as male — revealed some features that were female, suggesting that Pulaski may have been intersex.

Around 2,500 monks inhabit 20 monasteries on Mount Athos, where the prohibition against females extends to the inclusion of domesticated animals; cats are the lone exception, the Guardian reported. Women are not allowed within 0.3 miles (0.5 kilometers) of the Mount Athos coast; the ban, which has been in place since the 10th century, was enacted so that the Virgin Mary would represent the sole female presence on the mountain, the BBC reported in 2016.

Since the year A.D. 382, official records only note 12 times when women set foot on Mount Athos despite the ban. Some of these women were seeking refuge from political turmoil, while others sought information about the all-male enclaves, sneaking in by disguising themselves as men. Such was the tactic of the most recent rule breaker — Malvina Karali, a Greek journalist — who claimed to have visited the mountain in the 1990s while wearing men's clothing, the Reporter said.

Further tests will be required to determine if the bones from the chapel are truly female, and the remains are currently undergoing analysis at laboratories in Athens, according to the Greek Reporter.  

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Mindy Weisberger
Live Science Contributor

Mindy Weisberger is an editor at Scholastic and a former Live Science channel editor and senior writer. She has reported on general science, covering climate change, paleontology, biology and space. Mindy studied film at Columbia University; prior to Live Science she produced, wrote and directed media for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Her videos about dinosaurs, astrophysics, biodiversity and evolution appear in museums and science centers worldwide, earning awards such as the CINE Golden Eagle and the Communicator Award of Excellence. Her writing has also appeared in Scientific American, The Washington Post and How It Works Magazine.  Her book "Rise of the Zombie Bugs: The Surprising Science of Parasitic Mind Control" will be published in spring 2025 by Johns Hopkins University Press.