Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'Amazons' Roamed Russia, Scientist Says

The strong Russian woman who manfully shoulders her double burden of labor within and outside the home apparently has roots in ancient history.


The inspiration for legends of the Amazons -- fierce female warriors described by the ancient Greeks -- probably were women of nomadic tribes who roamed the southern Russian steppe between the Black Sea and the Urals in the fifth century B.C., says an American archaeologist.


Russian archaeologists and historians have long believed that reports of Amazons recorded by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus were based on accounts of the Sauromatian tribes who wandered the southern Russian steppe in that period.


Excavations of graves have revealed that some women of these nomadic tribes, and the closely related Sarmatians, were buried not only with the usual feminine accoutrements of mirrors, jewelry and perfume vials, but also with such weaponry as bronze arrowheads, swords, daggers and spears. Some were buried with horse bridles.


American archaeologist Jeannine Davis-Kimball, who took part in the excavations and is a specialist in Eurasian nomads, says the evidence indicates that these women were indeed warriors.


She told the British-based magazine New Scientist this month that it was unlikely that the weapons, which were found in women's graves excavated at Pokrovka, near Orenburg in the southern Urals region, were only ceremonial, since they were all full-sized and showed signs of use.


Furthermore, the hand grips of some swords and daggers were smaller than those of men's weapons. "They were probably made specifically for these women," Davis-Kimball said.


The Sauromatians and Sarmatians were most likely herders, keeping their own sheep, horses and camels, rather than hunters, so it is also unlikely the women used the weapons for hunting animals, Davis-Kimball added.


But Russian archaeologists disagree on whether the Sauromatian and Sarmatian women really were sword-wielding Amazons.


Leonid Yablonsky, head of Sarmatian and Scythian research at the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Archeology, headed the Pokrovka excavations which Davis-Kimball sponsored between 1992 and 1995.


"We only know they have weapons in their tombs, but we don't know if they really fought," he said. "It's possible. If we believe Herodotus, they really fought, but from an archaeological point of view, we have no strong data."


Since these tribes were nomadic, there is little trace of their daily life or settlements. "We have evidence of their funeral rites, but funeral rites are not the same as real life," Yablonsky said.


He cautions that among all the nomadic cultures of this region, a certain proportion of women's graves -- perhaps 10 to 20 percent -- contain weapons, but this is the exception rather than the rule.


In his view, a more likely explanation is that some women of these nomadic tribes fought alongside their menfolk to defend their herds against enemy tribes. Men and women in nomadic societies have less specialized roles, he says, since everyone must work together for the group's survival.


Too much talk of Amazons, he says, is sensationalist.


At Pokrovka, 150 graves have been excavated, the vast majority Sarmatian. One theory is that it was unmarried women who took up arms alongside their menfolk, especially in the earlier years of the Sauromatian and Sarmatian cultures. Once married, it is less likely they would be called on to fight.


In one grave at Pokrovka, a 14-year-old girl was buried with a sword and iron arrowheads. Two bronze arrowheads in a skin box were worn at her breast like an amulet. A mildly narcotic plant was also found in the grave.


The Sauromatians, who spoke an Iranian language, migrated into the Urals region between the 6th and 4th centuries B.C., probably from the steppes of Kazakhstan or southern Siberia.