Four female warriors buried around 2,500 years ago with weapons and finery that grave robbers failed to filch have been discovered in western Russia.
Merely the latest in discoveries of armed women of antiquity, the find further supports the theory that ancient legends about Amazons had a grain of truth, and then some.
For the first time, archaeologists found a magnificent headdress in situ, still wrapped around the skull of its possessor, archaeologist Valerii Guliaev and colleagues explain this week in the journal of the Akson Russian Science Communication Association. Also a first, the researchers’ study suggests that although the “Amazons” were buried together, they belonged to three different generations.
The archaeologists also found dozens of iron arrowheads, as well as iron knives and animal bones.
Technically, the women were identified as Scythian nomads and were interred inside one of 19 barrows discovered during an archaeological survey by the village of Devitsa, in the Ostrogozhsky District of the Voronezh region a decade ago. During the last 10 years, their expedition has discovered about 11 burials of young armed women, Guliaev says.
But it was only in this particular mound that the women were of a wide range of ages – from early teens to old age, in the terms of the time.
The Amazons and the legend
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The timing of their lives and the nature of their burial in Devitsa provide further testimony that the legends of the so-called Amazon warriors, which go back to the Bronze Age, had a basis in reality. Some basis, at least. There seems to be no basis to the fables of their penchant for misandry or lesbianism. This may have arisen from misinterpretation of a Homeric reference to them as antianeirai – and like some words we know of from ancient Hebrew, nobody is sure what it meant. There is no particular reason to think it means they despised men.
The legends about the Amazons’ origin and heroics are incoherent, with modern distortions adding onto myths going back millennia. Even the origin of their ancient Greek soubriquet “the Amazons” is steeped in fantasy, according to scholars. But after centuries of debate about the veracity of the Amazon legend, archaeologists finally began finding solid evidence beyond ancient Greek paintings and bas-reliefs that some women in eastern Asia really did fight.
Multiple burials of what look like fighting females, associated with the Scythian nomadic culture that dominated central Eurasia from about 2,700 to 1,700 years ago, have been found in the steppes, a vast region stretching from Spain to China.
Whether these “Amazons” formed armies independent of men, fought with the men, or ferociously guarded the homestead and livestock while the men sparred in far-off wars has yet to be ascertained to anybody’s satisfaction. The unarguable fact is that the remains of some women from antiquity, in magnificent physical shape with skeletal signals of musculature appropriate for serious horse-riding and war, have been found pretty much where ancient Greek legend put them.
Just this November, Armenian researchers reported in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology on the remains of a woman found in 2017, who died in her 20s about 2,500 years ago and who had been, according to analysis of her skeleton, as muscular in the torso and glutes as a man. She had an arrowhead buried in her leg and other scars indicative of battle, and was buried with jewelry – all indicative of a high-status, horse-riding combatant. She was the second female warrior burial discovered in Armenia. So, though there is absolutely no evidence that they were lopping off one of their breasts to improve their aim or for any other reason, women of the nomadic Scythian tribes really did fight in antiquity.
Historically, one reason science failed to realize that many Scythian warrior burials were female is that it’s hard to sex an ancient skeleton – partly because the human is one of few mammals with no penis bone. Also, researchers tended to assume that if a skeleton is found with war injuries and weapons, it’s a man. The advent of DNA testing outed the true gender of some ancient skeletons with injuries more typical of mortal combat rather than a life at the loom, not only among the Scythians but among the Vikings too.
Generations of warrior women
A unique aspect of the newly reported burial mount found in Devitsa is the range of the women’s ages.
One was about 12 to 13 years old: Though a minor by today’s standards, in terms of antiquity she would likely have been considered to have reached maturity and to have been capable of marriage and perhaps fighting too. Perhaps she was in training when she died.
Two of the women in their prime, the archaeologists say – one 20 to 29, the other 25 to 35.
The final body was of a woman aged 45 to 50, which the archaeologists called a “respectable age” as women at the time tended to die between ages 30 to 35.
It was this woman who still wore a beautifully engraved ceremonial golden headdress called a calathos that featured engraved spiral motifs and flowers: its rims bore pendants in the shape of vases. Probably attesting to her status, the metal comprising the headdress was unusually pure by ancient Scythian standards: about 65 to 70 percent pure gold, compared with the normal alloy of about 30 percent, the archaeologists say.
Though dozens of similar headdresses had been found previously in the steppes of Scythia, this is the first time a Scythian headdress has been found in this area of Russia, the archaeologists say – and found in situ on the skull itself, no less.
This is noteworthy, Guliaev explains, because usually the first finders of an antique burial aren’t scientists but just about anybody else – from local farmers to construction workers to authorities, who tend to move the objects, not realizing the importance of archaeological context.
This elderly Scythian woman was also buried with an iron knife wrapped in textile and an unusual arrowhead with a split end.
The four had been buried at the same time, the archaeologists postulate in their paper. The way the wooden tomb had been structured would have prevented its reuse later on.
It didn’t stop robbers, though: precious little does, or ever did. The archaeologists deduce that thieves broke into the tomb only a century or two after its burial in clay. But they missed two of the bodies, robbing only the remains of the teenager and one of the young women. They also left behind pottery, including a lecythus – a rather squat type of vase typically used for oils or potions in antiquity. The style of the pottery is typical of the fourth century B.C.E.
The women had been laid to rest on wooden beds covered by grass bedding, the archaeologists reconstruct. More chillingly, one of the young women was buried with her legs akimbo, as though she were riding a horse. The tendons of her legs had to have been severed before her positioning, the team says. They report finding a mirror made of polished bronze beneath her left shoulder, as well as two spears and a bracelet of glass beads.
Guliaev believes the women were buried with the full burial rites usually followed for men.
The team further deduces that the women had been buried in November or thereabouts.
And how did they deduce that? Mainly based on the bones of a 6- to 8-month-old lamb found among their remains. Lambs are typically born in the late winter and early spring, say March and April. The team further deduced by telltale green stains on the bones that the deceased juvenile ovine had been cooked in a bronze pot. But the pot was missing. It had been stolen.