The Center for the Study of the Eurasian Nomads (CSEN)

Statues of Sauromatian and Sarmatian Women

by Jeannine Davis-Kimball

This article explains the methodology used to determine the status of ancient Eurasian nomadic Early Iron Age women and also contains additional research on the subject.

l"We are riders; our business is with the bow and the spear, and we know nothing of women's work."
-- Herodotus IV, 114

Hellenistic freize from Thessaloniki

(Click on the photos for enlargements)

Warrior Women: an Archaeologist's Search for History's Hidden Heroines

Introduction

Numerous myths and legends grew up around women or tribes of women in ancient times, who either fought alongside or alone against men. The Greeks and Romans called some of these Amazons. The Scythian word for these women is Oiorpata, meaning "to kill man."Not until the 20th century did the archaeological evidence actually prove the existence of thse fearsome women and, thus, historians and scholars have largely dismissed the ancient accounts as being purely mythological.However, new excavations at Pokrovka on the Kazakh steppes along the Kazakhstan and Russian border have yielded evidence to the contrary -- that women among the Sauromatian and Early Sarmatian (Early Nomad) tribes were warriors. Their kurgans (burial mounds) are found in the southern Ural steppes.Offering included in their burials that the nomads needed for their journey to the next world included ordinary household objects, religious and cultic items, horse trappings, and weaponry for both men and women alike.The populations in this region were Indo-Europoids and spoke an Indo-Iranian language. A skull of one such women was reconstructed. At this early date there is no Mongoloid admixture among the Sauromantians and Sarmatians at Pokrovka.

Reconstructionny Dr. Leonid Yablonsky, Instiute of Archaeology, Moscow, of the skull an Early Nomadic woman

Mortuary Offerings and Statuses

Artifacts from the Pokrovka burials in the southern Ural steppes include ordinary household objects, religious and cultic items, horse trappings, and weaponry for both men and women alike. The cultic objects were found in female burials. Animal bones, along with an iron knife use for cutting the meat and eating, are the remains of food left for the journey to the next world.After we developed a methodology for studying the artifacts by placing them in categories according to their use, they were matched with the sex of the person in the burial to determine the status of these individuals.Male statuses were predominently warriors. In addiiton there were a few very poor individuals without grave goods, and a few other males that had a child buried with them.No female burials at Pokrovka had a child in the burial. About one-third of the burials were children and except for those in male burials, all were buried alone in their own burial pit.

Femininity and Hearth

StatusFemale statuses fell into several major categories that are not mutually exclusive. Women of the femininity and hearth status have many imported artifacts including gold-covered bronze earrings, imported jet and other semi-precious stone beads as well as faience and magical glass eyebeads.They also frequently contained spindlewhorls. The burials with spindlewhorls may present a special category as some spindlewhorls associated with Saka (a neighboring tribe of nomads) female burials had magical scrolls carved on the surface. Magical connotations have come down to us in such as tales of "spinning straw into gold."

Artifacts indicating femininity and hearth

Priestesses

The women's occupations during their lifetime run the gamut from housewife, to herder, to priestess, to warrior horsewoman. These are the remains of a society lost to history, where gender roles were not defined according to sex and women more often than not were tribal leaders with power and status.Two cemeteries, Pokrovka 10 and Pokrovka 2, had significant numbers of female burials with mortuary offerings indicating they were priestesses of various degrees of rank or importance. This priestess pictured here was of very high status.

Priestess in situ with animal syle plaques.
Gold artifacts including animals style plaques and temple pendants, fossilized sea shells, a beautiful bronze mirror, and a ceremonial altar were all part of her accoutrements.The priestesses' burials held stone-carved or clay sacrificial altars, fossilized sea shells, and animal-style amulets.,
Artifacts from a young priestess' burial: mirror, spindle whorl, bone spoon, beads, boar's tusk, iron knife and remnants of her bodice (left, large brown area and over mirror) in situ. The mirror had been placed under her back and the copper in the mirror preserved the textiles.The skeleton found in the burial with these artifacts was in her teens. She was buried in a very small catacomb off a small pit and was quite difficult to excavated. However, all the details of her burial were carefully preserved.

Warrior Women artifacts from a Pokrovka burial.

Bronze arrowheads, beads, amulets, spindlewhorl and loom weight, fragment of a bronze mirror.

Warrior Women artifacts from a Pokrovka burial.

An iron dagger, beads and a spiral gold-covered bronze earring.

Warrior-Priestesses

After careful analyses of the artifacts, it became apparent that warrior-priestesses were also interred at Pokrovka. In addition to weaponry and amulets of prowess. Accoutrements belonging to priestess were also included as mortuary offerings. In this warrior-priestess burial fossilized sea shells and a natural stone in the shape of a sea shell were excavated. The stone contained residue of a white substance (chalk?) that probably was used in a ritual.

The skeleton of a young Warrior-Priestess in situ.
Avery large boar's tusk amulet, a clay vessel and animal bones.
The mortuary offerings from the priestess' burial included 40 bronze arrowheads, an amulet round her neck made from a leather bag holding a bronze arrowhead; a short sword (akinakes), two oyster fossilized seashells, and an unworked stone (bottom left) that a white substance, probablyused to paint either her skin or textiles used for ceremonies.

Headdresses

Priestesses and warrior-priestesses were important members of their tribes, performing oracles and divinations. Although no headdresses were excavated from priestess burials, it is known from other sources that both priestesses and warrior-priestesses wore elaborate headdresses decorated with gold plaques.

Azov Priestess. Although little seems to be recorded in textual sources concerning the women performing cultic duties during the Medieval Period (ca. 12th century A.D.), this sculpture in the Tanais Museum, near the town of Azov north of the Black Sea. reveals the continuing tradition. the conical-crowned hat with a brim is similar to one excavated in the Tarim Basin made of felt and found in a Saka female's burial. It also is reminiscent of the "witches" hats in England and Salem.

Additional information concerning the "Warrior Women of the Eurasian Steppes" may be found in Archaeology, January-February, pp. 44-48; about the Issyk Warrior Priestess in Archaeology, September-October 1997.

(c) Jeannine Davis-Kimball. All photos by J. Davis-Kimball except Hellenistic freize and Issyk Warrior-Priestess.

To cite this article: http:/csen.org/Statuses of Women Warriors

Additional information concerning the "Warrior Women of the Eurasian Steppes" may be found in Archaeology, January-February, pp. 44-48; about the Issyk Warrior Priestess in Archaeology, September-October 1997.
To cite this article: http:/csen.org/Statuses of Women Warriors Developed April 8, 1998. Rev.1 March 2, 2001. Rev. 2 November 29, 2001.

 

(c) Jeannine Davis-Kimball. All photos by J. Davis-Kimball except Hellenistic freize and Issyk Warrior-Priestess