Once Were Warriors

"There is a Scythian race dwelling around Lake Maeotis which differs from other races. Their name is Sauromatae. Their women ride, shoot and throw javel ins while mounted. They remain virgins until they have killed three of their enemies and only then may they marry, once they have performed the traditional sacred rites." --Hippocrates, fifth century B.C.We've all heard stories of the Amazons, fierce women warriors who hitched up their armor, galloped into battle and held their own against the men of their day. But until recently the myth remained simply that--a Greek legend with about as much historical foundation as the tales of Hercules or Jason and the Argonauts. Then Berkeley archaeologist Jeannine Davis-Kimball went digging in the arid plains of Central Asia. Sifting through grave sites that date from the early Iron Age, Davis-Kimball uncovered convincing evidence that some nomadic tribeswomen of that epoch did indeed ride and fight, just as the Greeks said. During four summers of excavations in the southern Ural steppes, Davis-Kimball unearthed a number of female skeletons buried with swords, daggers and arrowheads. The archaeologist envisions a time thousands of years ago when these women filled a role much the same as the men of their tribes--raising families, hunting antelope and other game, fighting, killing and dying to defend their territory. Davis-Kimball is the director of the Berkeley-based Center for the Study of Eurasian Nomads, an archaeological research organization established in 1992 that operates in affiliation with the Kazakh/American Research Project. A working archaeologist since the late 1980s and a research associate at UC Berkeley's Archaeological Research Facility, Davis-Kimball is now, after years spent as a nurse, firmly entrenched in her second career. She runs the Center for the Study of Eurasian Nomads from an elegant old north Berkeley apartment house that she and her husband renovated. Working out of a sunny first-floor office, she analyzes data, plans research expeditions and digs and consults with Cal professors. Her commute is a flight of stairs from her upstairs home. Based in this serene setting, Davis-Kimball has been making waves recently in the archaeological community, and she is now cheerfully--if somewhat wearily--putting up with her own 15 minutes of fame. Sitting for interviews with the New York Times, NBC and Japanese television, among others, has temporarily superseded her research. In the January-February issue of Archaeology--the journal of the Archaeological Institute of America--Davis-Kimball outlined her findings from her excavations of ancient burial mounds in a remote region of Russia near the northern border of Kazakhstan. Out of the more than 100 graves that she and a team of Russian archaeologists and anthropologists uncovered, seven contained female skeletons buried with early Iron Age weapons--arrowheads, quivers, daggers and swords. These artifacts led Davis-Kimball to the conclusion that the women were warriors, and held positions of power and prestige within their nomadic tribes. Buried with other female skeletons she found mortuary offerings such as clay and stone altars, bronze mirrors, spoons and seashells, indications these women were priestesses who "presided over the spiritual affairs of the family," she says. Judging by the "grave goods" and other evidence in the burial mounds, Davis-Kimball says the skeletons appear to be Sarmatians, a race of nomadic, herding tribespeople who lived from the fourth to the second centuries B.C. Graves dug by their ancestors, the Sauromatians--who lived from approximately the sixth to fourth centuries B.C.--were also found at the site. Altogether Davis-Kimball's group excavated about 144 graves at the location, dubbed Pokrovka, after an adjacent collective farm. She says the site was chosen for its accessibility and the number of burial mounds there. "This is the first time scientific excavations have indicated that women were warriors," she says. "That they would actually have the bronze arrowheads and daggers in their burials is a pretty clear indication that they themselves fought." The Sarmatians, whose fore-bears may have come from as far as Mongolia, traveled westward over the centuries, occasionally attacking Greek cities as they went. In 450 B.C. the Greek scholar Herodotus recounted tales of Greek soldiers finding themselves in combat against women. There is evidence that by the fourth century A.D. Sarmatians occupied outposts of the Roman Empire in the Balkans, and that Sarmatian warriors were later recruited by the Romans to help defend Hadrian's Wall against the Britons. Davis-Kimball says it's almost certain that the weapons her team found with the skeletons were used by the women in their daily lives and not merely ceremonial because of the nature of their nomadic existence--they didn't own a lot of "superfluous stuff." "These were nomadic people with a very minimal amount of grave goods," she says. "All of these things are functional and probably would have been used. Since they believed they needed these things for the trip to the next world, to be used in the next world, it's assumed the things in there were used in their daily life." For more evidence that these women indeed did battle, Davis-Kimball points to one skeleton she unearthed--that of a 13- or 14-year-old girl--buried with bowed legs, attesting to a life spent on horseback. The girl was found with an array of arms, including a dagger and dozens of arrowheads in a quiver made of wood and leather; around the skeleton's neck was an amulet, a bronze arrowhead in a leather pouch."I always tell people I must have been a nomad in a previous life," Davis-Kimball says. "I've always been interested in nomadic peoples, not empires and hierarchies and city-states. When you get into an empire hierarchy then you get into a male-dominated society and that's the reason it never really interested me. I wasn't really opposed to it, I just wasn't very interested." Dappled afternoon sunlight streams through her office's picture windows and Davis-Kimball sits patiently in her ergonomic chair, answering questions; her large blond-wood desk holds a computer and a scatter of papers; nearby, her fax machine produces a scrolled communication. A petite woman with an intense gaze, she speaks passionately about her research. But Davis-Kimball has a strong sense of irony and pauses every so often to savor the difficulty of what she does for a career, reconstructing the lives of nomadic tribespeople who existed thousands of years ago. She spends months at a time on exhausting archaeological digs with colleagues from former Soviet Bloc countries. The painstaking and necessarily dirty work of in-the-trenches archaeology is not for dilettantes. But she's obviously accustomed to the nitty-gritty rigors of digging up graves. Her commitment to her scholarship is quietly evident as she opens a Russian archaeology text and reads the Cyrillic photo captions. She's studying statistics in her spare time to help with her analyses. "Their women go hunting with or without men. They go to war and wear the same dress as men. In regard to marriage, it is the custom that no virgin weds till she has slain a man of the enemy." --Herodotus, fifth century B.C.Traveling in Scythian territory north of the Black Sea around 450 B.C., Herodotus heard tales of armed women, fierce "killers of men" who rode horseback on the Eastern steppes. Herodotus guessed they were descended from the legendary coupling of the Scythians and "Amazon" warriors. (Some historians say the name Amazon is derived from a Greek word meaning "without one breast," since stories reported that the women removed one breast to better carry their arrow-laden quivers while hunting. It was not until centuries later that Spanish explorers named the South American river after the mythic tribe, believing the area was once the homeland of these women warriors.) Modern excavations--including those by Russian archaeologists in the '50s and '60s--have revealed evidence of Sarmatian settlements stretching from the lower Don River along the Volga and Ural rivers east to the southern steppes of the Ural Mountains. Since the women warriors reported by Herodotus lived farther west, Davis-Kimball concludes that he was not describing the people she unearthed at the Pokrovka site. However, Davis-Kimball's Sarmatians were likely just one of many nomadic tribes inhabiting the Eurasian steppes at the time. "My feeling is that there were women who were fighting in some method and there were women who were queens," Davis-Kimball says, explaining the Greek legends of women warriors. "Somehow this got pushed into the realm of 'fighting Amazons' and the Greek heroes had to battle with the Amazons and this increased the Greek heroes' prowess in the eyes of the Greeks. "If we go back to Homer [eighth century B.C.], he talks about an Amazon queen at the battle of Troy. So there's something going on with Amazons, or with women who were fighting, women who had power at the time of the Trojan War, and maybe even earlier. In the classical period Greek orators used the Amazons as the antithesis of what Greek women should be. 'Greek women should stay home and take care of the kids,' they said. 'Amazons are bad girls, they're out there fighting. Don't be an Amazon!' "Alexander the Great was supposed to have had some great liaison with an Amazon queen. So there are all these mythological situations. Some of them may well be true. It's very possible that Alexander did have some encounter with, not an Amazon queen, but one of these Sarmatian queens." Alexander came to power in 336 B.C. and would have been a contemporary of the Sarmatians. John Smith, a UC Berkeley history professor emeritus who specializes in another well-known group of nomads, the Mongols who dominated Asia in the 13th and 14th centuries A.D., says Davis-Kimball's work at the Pokrovka site lends credence to mythical accounts of women fighting in battle. "There have been lots of reports about warrior women over the centuries--this is one of the great ideas that has caught the popular fancy," Smith says. "This is yet another archaeological confirmation of material in Herodotus that some people had thought was merely legendary. The discovery of women who were buried with weapons coincides quite nicely with ancient sources of Herodotus' information about that part of the world."On the steppes surrounding Pokrovka, hundreds of huge kurgan burial mounds--some more than 30 or 40 meters across and a meter high--dot the grassy landscape. Built mainly of dirt, the kurgans covered both traditional pit burials and more complex shaft and catacomb interments. They were used repeatedly over a span of about 800 years. The weapons in the women's graves were found in various positions, while other artifacts were located more specifically--clay pots and animal bones were usually placed at the head or the feet. "It does vary a great deal," Davis-Kimball says. "There were different kinds of arrowheads, with different styles found in quivers resting by the right calf of one of the skeletons, and iron swords. Arrowheads can be found just about anyplace. Once we found a woman with an arrowhead in the cavity of her body. The tip was bent, indicating that she had probably been killed by it. They can also be found as if they were thrown in on top and scattered across the body, or they can be in a pile--there's really no rhyme or reason."Davis-Kimball says taking part in the grave excavations and reconstructing the skeletons' histories--bone diseases such as osteomyelitis can be detected even after the passage of millennia--holds special interest for her because of her background in medicine. A professional nurse for many years and the mother of six, she went back to school in the mid-'70s to earn an undergraduate degree in art history and a Ph.D.--from UC Berkeley--in art history and archaeology in 1989. She worked at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in its ancient pottery department before undertaking her doctorate. Her excavations have revealed that many "Early Iron Age Pokrovka females" held powerful positions in society, controlling much of the wealth and performing rituals for their families and clan. Davis-Kimball says it can be inferred from the weapons found in their graves that the women at least hunted saiga and other small game and likely defended their territory and clans when under attack. In addition to the seven women buried with iron swords, daggers, bronze arrowheads and whetstones to sharpen their weapons, the team excavated many male burials. Forty of these are thought to hold male warriors because of the bronze and iron arrowheads, swords and daggers found in the graves. Four of the men, in graves that contained minimal grave goods--sometimes just a clay pot--were buried each with a small child in their arms. Davis-Kimball says she can only speculate whether this signifies some type of role reversal. The team also identified two other categories of women found in the kurgans, most of them buried with a wider variety of artifacts than the men. About 28 women were interred with spindle whorls, mirrors and stone and glass beads, artifacts Davis-Kimball says are typically associated with femininity and domesticity. Five female graves contained offerings like clay or stone altars, bone spoons, bronze mirrors and seashells--these women she concludes must have been some type of priestess. Davis-Kimball says the team sometimes found graves bored haphazardly into the mounds themselves. As laborious as her work is, she says excavation is also riveting, because it always holds out the unexpected. Repeatedly running a mechanical scraper over a kurgan, the team dispersed the dirt to reach the graves below; then meticulous by-hand excavating commenced. A central cross-section of earth was always left in place so the team could read the profile of the soil as they went. "As we excavate, as we go down, and we come across a skeleton, we carefully clean that skeleton and leave all of the artifacts in situ, right where they're found, then we photograph and draw them," Davis-Kimball says. "We begin removing artifacts, noting where everything was found. After we take the skeleton out, the anthropologist and the physical anthropologist sex the skeleton, using the skull and pelvis, and then we try to estimate the age at the time of death. It is often very dirty and muddy work." Apart from indicating that some of the tribeswomen were warriors, Davis-Kimball says the work done by her team at the Pokrovka site is important for what it reveals about the daily life of the nomads. She says her team was able to conclude that the groups began grazing sheep, horses and occasionally camels on the steppes around Pokrovka about 600 B.C. They arrived each spring and stayed until autumn, then packed up their tents, escaping the harsh winter of the steppes to the milder climates of modern-day southern Kazakhstan or northern Uzbekistan, she says. "When we think of nomads, what we've learned in Western history taught in the Western world, what do we think of? We think of Genghis Khan thundering across the steppes killing and annihilating and raping and hauling off the women. We don't really think of family units, we don't think of raising children, milking animals and producing food for the cold months of the year--those things are not even considered. But that's the way these people lived. These were small units that lived together for the most part. The confederacies like Genghis Khan, over the centuries, were not the norm. They did occur and it's recorded because it impacted other societies. But the everyday kind of people who lived out there didn't really impact anybody except their own neighbors. So we didn't hear anything about it. For the first time we're beginning to record what these people were really like." Colleagues have hailed Davis-Kimball's findings. Nicola DiCosmo, a Harvard University historian of Central Asia, told the New York Times that Davis-Kimball's Pokrovka data, in conjunction with other digs in Russia and Mongolia, seem to indicate that she "is onto something. Women in early nomadic societies could have had a higher profile in their cultures than women in sedentary societies at the same time." Elizabeth J.W. Barber, an archaeologist at Los Angeles' Occidental College, told the New York Times that Davis-Kimball's research signified a fundamental change in archaeological interpretations. "Most people assumed that if a grave had weapons the skeleton was a man. Now they can't be so sure." The Sarmatians ultimately evolved into the early Medieval tribes known as the Alans, Davis-Kimball says. A group migrated into Spain and became one of the primary tribal entities there. "They had a vast impact on Western society as a whole--in Italy and England and Spain, and in interaction with Germanic tribes." From her excavations, Davis-Kimball says the conclusion may also be drawn that a societal transition took place over time, as women apparently lost their dominant positions and instead came to be dominated themselves. "Generally, the society that men are controlling is later, because the weaponry is more iron than bronze," she says. "We have a group of people that are physically different, with a different type of skeletal material [they were smaller] and there's more iron in the burials, including iron arrowheads." Archaeologists can only speculate as to how new traditions were imposed on the Sarmatians by virtue of their commingling with other nomadic groups. "It's a whole different population coming in, maybe even from a different region--and the males there had the weapons. The females don't have any weapons--they have wealth, they have beads and earrings, gold earrings and other things, but they don't have the weapons."Although the team hopes to do further research on the Pokrovka site--including excavations, radiocarbon dating and DNA analysis--increasing red tape dealing with Russian bureaucracy and skyrocketing Russian inflation have made Davis-Kimball put further study of the site on hold. A slightly more accessible and immediate challenge is what she refers to as "this Moldova situation," an excavating and research trip in conjunction with archaeologists from the Moldova Academy of Sciences' Institute of Archaeology. The project, set for this July and August, will take place at La Santuri, 200 kilometers north of the Moldovan capital of Chisinau. The site is known to be an archaeologically rich area containing artifacts and remains dating from the Neolithic through the Medieval periods. A range of cultures, including the Tripolye, Sarmatian, Germanic, Celtic and late-Scythian peoples are believed to have occupied the area over the millennia. The archaeologists intend to excavate two main sites: a Tripolye settlement from the mid-fourth century B.C. thought to contain elaborately decorated burnished pottery, flint, bone and stone tools, weaponry and three-dimensional human and animal sculptures; and a fortified citadel from the early Roman period, first century A.D., believed to be a cultic and administrative center that perhaps was founded by a minor Sarmatian prince and occupied by a late-Sarmatian king. While there, she says, she would also like to delve into museum collections in southern Russia to cross-reference and incorporate recorded data on Sarmatian burial sites with her own research. The excavations, done in the '50s and '60s but not published for consumption outside of Russia, are known to have included female skeletons and been rich in artifacts. "We've excavated an awful lot of material from Pokrovka," Davis-Kimball says. "We have a lot of data from the Eastern side of the Sarmatian area in the early period. It would be good to take a look at the Western side in a later period for comparison." She catches herself and smiles. "We can't excavate everything under the sun, that's for sure." Alexandra Matisoff is associate editor of The East Bay Monthly.Contact Phyllis Christopher for photo information: 415-641-7841.

Understand the importance of honest news ?

So do we.

The past year has been the most arduous of our lives. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be catastrophic not only to our health - mental and physical - but also to the stability of millions of people. For all of us independent news organizations, it’s no exception.

We’ve covered everything thrown at us this past year and will continue to do so with your support. We’ve always understood the importance of calling out corruption, regardless of political affiliation.

We need your support in this difficult time. Every reader contribution, no matter the amount, makes a difference in allowing our newsroom to bring you the stories that matter, at a time when being informed is more important than ever. Invest with us.

Make a one-time contribution to Alternet All Access, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.

Click to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card
Donate by Paypal

Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.