The Japan Times, May 19, 1997
The Washington Post

Were ancient Amazons more than myth?

Tales of the Amazons, a tribe of fearsome warrior women armed with golden shields and silver axes weave through the myths of the ancient Greeks. These menacing maidens replenished their numbers by mating with men from other tribes, keeping the daughters and killing male infants.
Many cultures have developed this theme of "a distant land organized oppositely from one's own," one encyclopedia notes delicately, suggesting the notion of such women sprang from such an imaginative impulse in the male-dominated Greek society.
Now archaeologists working 1,609 km to the east, in a remote area of Russia near the Kazakhstan border, have found evidence that real warrior women, of a sort, existed at about the same time as the mythical ones.
Some scholars have long believed there was at least a kernel of truth in the Amazon legend. In early Germanic tribes, women followed their men to battle. The 12th-century Mongol armies of Genghis Khan were accompanied by their families. In the 1950s scientists working at 4th century B.C. burial sites in southern Ukraine noticed many graves of women contained swords, spears, daggers, arrowheads and armor.
The latest evidence came from archaeologist Jeannine Davis-Kimball and Russian colleagues, who spent five years excavating more than 150 burial mounds of 5th century B.C. nomads near Pokrovka, Russia. They found 14 percent of the graves were those of women buried with bronze daggers, arrowheads, swords, whetstones for sharpening and other suggestive artifacts of a warrior status.
"These finds suggest that Greek tales of Amazon warriors may have had some basis in fact," Davis-Kimball writes in the January/February issue of Archaeology magazine, where 50 of the burial sites are described. Director of the Center for the Study of Eurasian Nomads in Berkeley, Calif., Davis-Kimball outlines the findings in more detail in an upcoming issue of the Journal of IndoEuropean Studies. Though the Pokrovka nomads were not the Amazons of myth, she concludes, they could have inspired the legends.
The skeletons of several women (like those of male warriors ) were found with their legs angled into a bowlegged position as if astride a horse, Davis-Kimball said in an interview. "They may have been symbolically riding a horse to the next world." Because men were often positioned the same way, she added, the posture is unlikely to represent birthing or sexual activity.
One girl 13 or 14 years old was buried with 40 bronze arrowheads in a quiver at her left side, and an iron dagger at her right, along with amulets (objects worn for protection) including a bronze arrowhead in a leather pouch around her neck, and a great boar's tusk (probably once suspended from her belt) at her feet.
Another woman had a bent arrowhead lodged in her body cavity, "suggesting that she had been killed in battle," Davis-Kimball said.
The ancients first located the Amazon habitat on the southern shore of the Black Sea but shifted it to more remote precincts as their knowledge of surrounding lands expanded.
In the 5th century B.C., the historian Herodotus reported tales of warrior women who rode the steppes of southern Russia. In these accounts, the Greeks defeated the Amazons at the battle of Thermodon and took many captives. During the sea voyage home, the women killed their captors, seized the ship and got caught in a storm, which tossed them ashore only to face another army, the Scyths (who called the frightening women "killers of men" ). The Scyths eventually made peace with the Amazons and produced children. The result was a matriarchal society known as the Sauromatians, later supplanted by the Sarmatians.
"Our work has shown that these people [the Sauromatians ] first began grazing their sheep, horses, and even the occasional camel on the steppes around Pokrovka around 600 B.C.," writes Davis-Kimball. The nomads would summer there, then head south for the winters. The burial sites at Pokrovka range from the 6th to 4th centuries B.C. (Sauromatian) and from the 4th to 2nd centuries B.C. (Sarmatian).
The women generally were buried with a wider variety and a larger quantity of artifacts than men, indicating the influential role women played. In addition to the significant minority that held weapons, dozens of other female graves contained domestic items such as spindle whorls (for spinning), fragments of broken mirrors, and stone and glass beads. A handful included clay or stone altars, bone spoons and seashells, possibly denoting priestesses. One buried status symbol was a "remarkable flute carved from an animal bone."
In fact, said Davis-Kimball, some Early Iron Age Pokrovka women "seem to have controlled much of the wealth, performed rituals for their families and clan, ridden horseback and possibly hunted saiga, a steppe antelope, and other small game."
Some scholars have argued the burial of weapons with women served a purely ritual purpose. But Davis-Kimball said, "I believe these women actually used these weapons in real life. Why would [the tribe] take real, functional arrowheads from a male and put it in a woman's burial" for nothing but symbolic purposes?
She noted some burial artifacts are miniature replicas obviously intended only for symbolic purposes. "But with warriors, both male and female, we've found only functional arrowheads," she said.
These women were probably sheepherders who carried weapons to defend themselves against thieving marauders, she said. When threatened, they "took to their saddles, bows and arrows ready, to defend their animals, pastures and clan."