Of the grassy mists and terraced steppes of southern Russia they rode. Buff, one-breasted woman warriors riding high on muscled stallions and wielding heavy iron shields and swords.
Or at least something like that.
What Herodotus called "Amazons" and most modern historians have dismissed as myth came to life last week in the January-February issue of Archaeology magazine, which published the findings of a team of archaeologists led by Jeannine Davis-Kimball at the University of California, Berkeley. Burial mounds on the Russia-Kazakhstan border excavated by Davis-Kimball's team revealed the skeletal remains of women laid with legs in horseback-riding position and buried with daggers, swords and amulets of war. Nearby were the remains of men, buried with children at their side.
They may have been members of a nomadic group of tribes called Sarmatians who roamed the Russia-Kazakhstan region from the sixth to the second centuries B.C. While "Amazons" may be an exaggeration, Davis-Kimball says her findings suggest that female-dominant cultures were more widespread than previously thought.
Salon spoke with Davis-Kimball at her office at the Center for the Study of Eurasian Nomads at UC-Berkeley.
The media have had a field day describing "amazing tales of ancient Amazon tribes," and so forth. What exactly did you find?
Basically we found three categories of women based on their artifacts. One group were warriors. They had bronze arrowheads and a quiver and amulets which indicated prowess -- like a boar's tusk or a bronze arrowhead worn in a leather bag around her neck. Iron daggers or an iron sword were also indicative of the warriors. Then there were priestesses, who had seashells that were fossilized in the burial areas and certain animal-style ornaments, among other things. The third category were women who had a lot of beads and a lot of wealth but weren't necessarily warriors or priestesses. But a lot of them were overlapping. We found artifacts that clearly belonged to a priestess in a warrior burial.
Can you make any guesses about what their lives were really like?
The tribes would have been taking care of their animals mostly. Their primary purpose wasn't to run out and start slashing and burning. The only time I think there would have been any fighting would be over territory, where some group of nomads decide to move in and take over some other tribe's pasture land. I don't think these women were trying to create a war. I think what they were doing was protecting their territory.
Did you find other examples of gender role-reversals?
It's hard to say, but we did find several male burials with children right by the guy's arm or near his leg. We never found any females buried with children like that. I can't explain this. It's not the norm. Maybe there was something in this segment of society where a child was buried with the male for some particular reason.
So, are these the Amazon women Herodotus wrote of in his histories?
No, I should make that clear. I don't think these are the Amazons at all. Herodotus was talking about women north of the Black Sea who then married with Scythians and went on a three days' march northeast, putting them possibly in the Don River area. What we do have is a phenomenon of tribes where the female is dominant covering a much larger geographic area than we expected. And history has never spoken of them. It's as if they didn't exist.
Except in myth.
The Greeks mythologized the Amazons as the antithesis of the Greek woman, who was supposed to stay home and take care of the kids and the household. Orators would even say that the Amazon got what was coming to her when she got killed in battle. Hercules fought the Amazons, raped the Amazon queen, and this gave him power. If you beat a woman up, it gave you special power? It's a little hard for me to understand but it caught the imagination. Cervantes writes in "Don Quixote" about the Amazons coming to the aid of the Turks fighting at Constantinople. Then it's passed on to the conquistadors who come over to the New World, who supposedly see matriarchal societies along the river they then name the Amazon. California is named after an Amazon queen, Califa.
And they've always been portrayed as pretty fearsome?
The Amazon women were portrayed as sorceresses, as fury and wrath. They terrified men.
Does post-feminist, late-20th century society have anything to learn from what you've found?
There's a lot of comment about how women don't do what they used to do: They don't stay home with the kids necessarily anymore. I think we can extrapolate from what we found that it's not always the norm for women to stay home and take care of the children. They held strong positions in society. They controlled wealth, going back a long time. We're talking 2,500 years ago.
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