Thoughts, Ideas, Observations

Achilles and PenthesileaAmazons

John Bedell

The ancient Greeks loved to tell stories about the Amazons, a tribe of warrior women who lived somewhere north of the Black Sea.  When they weren't battling with Greek heroes, these unnatural creatures lorded it outrageously over their own men. According to Diodorus Siculus, they actually maimed their boy children, "incapacitating them in this way for the demands of war." Every so often they had to be put back in their places by male Greeks -- at least that was the Greek version. Some of them, of course, liked being put in their places; the vase to the right depicts the Amazon Queen Penthesilea, who is supposed to have fallen in love with Achilles the moment his spear entered her. Then she died.

In his History Herodotus passed on other stories about the Amazons, whom he placed on the steppes north of the Black Sea among the Scythians and Sarmatians. The Scythians, he says, call them "man killers," and they claim that the Sarmatians were descended from the mating of Scythian men and Amazons. Those Amazons were happy enough to have Scythians for their husbands, but refused to live with the Scythians and ride in the wagons with the Scythian women: "We shoot with bows and hurl javelins and ride horses," they said, "but the works of women we never learnt" (Herodotus IV:114). So the mixed pairs of Scythians and Amazons went off by themselves, forming a new tribe, and
from thenceforward the women of the Sauromatai practise their ancient way of living, going out regularly on horseback to the chase both in company with the men and apart from them, and going regularly to war, and wearing the same dress as the men.
One of the Hippocratic writers tells us more:
And in Europe there is a Scythian race, dwelling round Lake Maeotis, which differs from the other races. Their name is Sauromatae. Their women, so long as they are virgins, ride, shoot, throw the javelin while mounted, and fight with their enemies. They do not lay aside their virginity until they have killed three of their enemies, and they do not marry before they have performed the traditional sacred rites. A woman who takes to herself a husband no longer rides, unless she is compelled to do so by a general expedition. They have no right breast; for while they are yet babies their mothers make red-hot a bronze instrument constructed for this very purpose and apply it to the right breast and cauterise it, so that its growth is arrested, and all its strength and bulk are diverted to the right shoulder and right arm.
Amazon dressed as a scythian horsemanSkeptics, of course, have always thought the Amazons were just products of the Greek imagination. The element of erotic fantasy is obvious, and Greek artists loved to depict Greeks battling against enemies whose existence was a negation of Greek values. But the stories of the Amazons were located in a particular place, the Ukranian steppes, and Amazons were sometimes depicted in the garb of Scythian warriors (right). Believers therefore wondered if there might be something behind the notion of warrior women on the Eurasian steppes. And in the 19th century, as Russian archaeologists began excavating the great burial mounds and cemeteries of Ukraine, they reported finding female skeletons buried with warrior regalia. Western archaeologists were not impressed with the Russians' methods, though, and most did not accept their findings.

Over the course of the twentieth century, though, the evidence for female warriors on the steppes continued to mount. German archaeologist Renate Rolle has been particularly active in bringing the findings of Russian and Ukrainian archaeologists to western readers. Lynne Webster Wilde interviewed Rolle in the 1990s, and she reported that as a student in the 1960s Rolle excavated graves that contained both feminine objects like spindles and mirrors and weapons, especially arrows. When she asked her Russian friends about this, she discovered that she had stumbled into an old and still raging controversy. So she started to research the question of male and female grave goods on the steppes:
Burial excavated by Bobrisky in 1884She started back in the past, re-examining a grave found by Bobrinsky in the late nineteenth century. It was excavated in 1884 at Cholodni Yar on the left band of the river Tiasmin (right). In this grave there were two skeletons: the main burial was of a woman but at her feet lay the body of a young man of about eighteen years old. It was a fairly rich grave and the main goods were grouped around the female. On her ears had been large silver earrings, round her neck a chain made from bones and glass beads, on her arm a bronze bracelet. Next to her lay a bronze mirror, a clay loom-weight and iron plates upon which food gifts had once been placed. To her left at the head end lay two iron spear points, underneath them a smooth square plate which had been used as a whetstone; further down they found the remains of a brightly painted quiver made of leather and wood and forty-seven bronze three-flighted arrowheads, and two iron knives. Next to the head were two so-called 'sling-stones' although no-one can be sure they were used as weapons. The young man's skeleton on the other hand, had only two small bronze bells near it, plus an iron arm-ring and some little bits of jewellery. What we seem to have here is the grave of a woman warrior of some social standing whose young male servant was killed to accompany her on her death journey. The woman had many of the classic female accoutrements - weaving and spinning tools are almost never found in male graves - but also possessed a bow, knives and spears. . . . In another grave from the sixth century BC Renate told of an 'Amazon' buried with a gold-studded cap who had both a servant and a horse buried with her, both probably ritually killed to accompany her. She seemed to have died from a blow, the trace of which remained over her right brow.
In a cemetery on the lower Dnieper Rolle found other interesting female graves. One woman buried with weapons showed clear signs of excess wear on the two fingers of her right hand that she used to draw a bow. Another woman was buried with both weapons and a small child. One of the armed women was only 10 to 12 years old, In the early eighties Renate was digging at Certomylik, in the lower reaches of the Dnieper, a very rich source of Scythian graves, many of them unmolested by robbers. In all six of the fifty-three graves contained women with weapons.

Pokrovka Hearth Tender AssemblageEven better evidence was found farther east in the Urals. There in the 1990s a joint team of Russian and American archaeologists excavated 150 burials from the cemetery of Pokrovka. This was a top-notch, highly scientific dig, well-funded and backed by top labs. All but a few of the graves contained elaborate grave goods, so this was an elite cemetery. Most of the men were buried with weapons. The 80 women fell into three groups:
  1. "Hearth Tenders," 75% of the total, buried with kitchen utensils, mirrors, and jewelry;
  2. Priestesses, 7%, buried with stone censers, idols, mirrors, and animal bones;
  3. Warriors, 15% (that is, 12), buried with weapons. Most were armed with arrows and daggers, one with a long sword.
I suppose they hit on "Hearth Tenders" after a long discussion about an inoffensive way to say "regular women;" a Hearth Tender assemblage is shown at right. The biggest object is a bronze mirror.
Pokrovka Female Warrior Assemblage
And here are the weapons of a female warrior: a dagger blade and arrowheads, with shells that seem to have been warn as  amulets. Two of the priestess burials contained weapons as well as religious paraphenalia, so overall 14 of the 80 women in this cemetery were armed. Just recently the excavators have reported the results of DNA tests on five of the female warriors; two tested as definitely female, and the other three were ambiguous.

At Pokrovka, only three burials included an adult and a child, and in all of them them adult was male. These men were buried without other grave goods. There has been speculation that these are the "feminized" men noted by the Greeks as companions of the Amazons, but the evidence is not very convincing.

How to explain these gender reversals? There are still in the wilds of Europe (Albania, the Carpathians) places where women sometimes take on the male role in society. These women live legally and socially as men, all the time; they cannot have children so they live as perpetual virgins. The explanation sometimes given is that feuding is so violent in these places that all the men of an extended family may be killed. In a society with rigid, legally restricted sex roles, a family must have a man. So a woman steps into the role.

This model has been applied to the steppes, but the evidence of the burials presents a different picture. For one thing the percentage of women involved in warfare seems quite large for the Albanian arrangement. Also, some women in the burials Rolle studied were entombed with feminine items like mirros as well as weapons, and at Pokrovka two of the priestess burials included weapons. Some women seem to have become warriors without giving up their female status. Perhaps some young women chose to live as warriors for a time when they were young, then became mothers or priestesses as they entered maturity. The diversity of the burials actually suggests that several different arrangements were used on the steppes at different times and in different tribes. The mode of warfare used on the steppes, horse archery, was certainly better suited for women to thrive as warriors than
standing in the battle line with a big ax.

Whatever social arrangments lay behind them, these amazon burials open up another little window into the unending wonder that is the human past.

June 25, 2011

From the 
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