he legends of the Amazons and their battles with the Greeks were popular subjects of ancient Greek art. Images of lone Amazons, of combat between an Amazon and a Greek hero, of general battle scenes,2 and occasionally of more amicable meetings appear in vase painting, sculpture, and other forms of art. The earliest representation known was made about 700 BCE [Schefold 1966, pp. 24-25, plate 7b]. The subjects appeared frequently in the fifth century BCE, eventually rivaling the popularity of depictions of centaurs [Encyclopedia Britannica (1957)].
Did Amazons really exist? Many modern writers deem them to be mythical beings as are the satyrs and centaurs. Others believe them to be symbols of the
Fig. 1. Map of the steppe region, showing the location of Pokrovka.
Extant ancient written records, surviving in full, in fragments, or in reference by others, also relate tales of the Amazons. Homer, the eighth century BCE Greek poet [Taplin 1986; duBois 1982, p. 33], tells in the Iliad of the arrival of the Amazons to aid in the defense of Troy besieged by the Greeks. Other ancient writers mention Queen Penthesilea, who led her band of female warriors to aid King Priam of Troy.3 After her companions have been slain, she fights on valiantly, dispatching many Greeks until Achilles with a single mighty thrust of his sword kills her and her horse. In the fifth century BCE, Herodotus, the Greek historian born in Halicarnassus, wrote of the Sauromatae.4 These nomadic people lived east of the Don river before, during, and after his lifetime. One practice occurring in his time that seemed to impress Herodotus was the participation of the women in battle alongside the men. To give credence to this warrior image, he relates the myth of the beginnings of the Sauromatians. It so happened that the Amazons, imprisoned in three Greek ships on the Black Sea, overpowered and dispatched the crews. But lacking any knowledge of sailing, they eventually drifted ashore in the Scythian lands. In the aftermath of an ensuing skirmish, the Scythians found from the corpses left on the battlefield that the intruders plundering their land were women. The warriors, in awe of their opponents’ abilities, conceived a plan to enhance their own stock. They withdrew all but the youngest warriors, who were instructed to camp near the Amazons and to avoid battle. Eventually, after one chance meeting of a couple, they soon were all paired and joined camps. In time, saying “of womanly employments we know nothing” and not abiding the life of Scythian women, the Amazons chose not to join the elder Scythians and persuaded their mates to move northeastward beyond the Don river. So began the Sarmatians. All the wives continued their nomadic customs, and, wearing the same style of clothes that the men did, rode and fought alongside them.
Was Herodotus accurate in his accounts of these nomadic people? Did they give rise to the legends of the Amazons? Herodotus gathered his information about 450 BCE during his stay on the northern coast of the Black Sea at Olbia, the hub of the gold trade route between Europe and Asia [Rolle 1989, pp. 13-14; Sulimirski and Taylor 1991, pp. 583]. Much of his information came from travelers who had passed through the territories of the nomads. In modern chronology, the interval of the sixth and fifth century BCE is termed the Sauromatian period. Some population movements and cultural change characterized the Early Sarmatian period of the next two centuries. The following five or six centuries are split into the Middle and Late Sarmatian periods. Throughout these periods, there was continuity in the main customs of these ancient nomads of the Eurasian steppes, which extend
Fig. 2. A large kurgan (44 m. diameter) in a wheat field (Pokrovka necropolis 3, kurgan 4).
Is the archaeological record in accord with the ancient descriptions of these people? Since they were nomads, only their kurgans (burial mounds) can attest to their lives. In the summers of 1992 and 1993, I participated in the excavation of kurgans at Pokrovka, in the middle of the area inhabited by the Sarmatians during Herodotus’ time. The findings from the area under investigation by this project should add GREEKS, AMAZONS, AND ARCHAEOLOGY James F. Vedder1 Los Altos Hills, California 17 substantially to the knowledge of these nomadic people. What follows here are some of the results which correlate with the ancient depictions of the Amazons.
The area of the excavations is in a tongue of Russian land protruding some 55 km. southward into Kazakhstan and situated about 160 km. south of Orenburg
Fig. 3. A kurgan excavation
showing balks along the
west to east and north to south diameters.
The Pokrovka excavations had begun in the summer of 1991, focusing on 14 Sarmatian necropoleis surveyed in 1990 by Dr. Leonid T. Yablonsky of the Institute of Archaeology, Russian Academy of Sciences. One necropolis of these nomadic people contained dozens of burial mounds, or kurgans; another contained only one. The excavations in 1992 and 1993 were the result of the joint efforts of the Russian/American Department of the Kazakh/American Research Project whose director was Dr. Jeannine Davis-Kimball, Dr. Yablonsky of the Institute of Archaeology of the Russian Academy of Sciences and his crew, and a group of students from the Pedagogical Institute of Orenburg led by Dr. Nina L. Morgunova. The author participated as the field representative for Dr. Davis-Kimball.5 In addition, there were other Americans present, two in 1992 and four in 1993.
Figure 2 shows a large kurgan in Pokrovka necropolis 3 in a wheat field as an example of the appearance of a burial mound before excavation. For training the students from the Pedagogical Institute of Orenburg, the second kurgan of Pokrovka necropolis 8 was excavated by the classical method of leaving balks along the north-south and east-west diameters (Fig. 3). The soil above the original surface as well as the ancient humus layer was removed by shovels. On most of the other kurgans because of limited time and manpower, and the large volume of soil involved, a bulldozer and a grader were utilized to remove the soil above the level of the original soil surface except for one or more balks left in the north to south direction. The dark colored humus layer was then removed
Fig. 4. Tomb of a 40- to 45-year-old, Early Sarmatian
(necropolis 8, kurgan 1, burial 6, 1992).
The excavation of a pit began on one side of a line dividing the surface level of the pit in half. The resulting central wall provides a record of the stratigraphy of the soils within the pit. Usually the soil is loosened in 10- to 20- centimeter-thick layers by careful use of a nearly flat spade with a Fig. 1. Map of the steppe region, showing the location of Pokrovka. Fig. 2. A large kurgan (44 m. diameter) in a wheat field (Pokrovka necropolis 3, kurgan 4). Fig. 3. A kurgan excavation showing balks along the west to east and north to south diameters. 18 pointed end. The loosened soil from each layer is removed from the pit with a shovel. After something of interest is found, the excavation proceeds with the large kitchen knife customary for the Russians or the small mason’s trowel customary for the Americans. Brushes are used to sweep the loosened soil aside for subsequent removal from the pit by shoveling. Once human bone is encountered, the excavator determines the orientation and extent of the skeleton with a minimum of exposure of bone, completes the exposure of the original sides of the pit in the excavated half, and neatly shaves the central wall to reveal the soil profile. If there is any stratigraphy of interest, the profile is recorded with photography and drafting by the archaeologist and student architect, respectively. Then the excavator carefully removes the soil from the other half of the pit to the level of the skeleton. Since the skeleton and any associated artifacts must be uncovered, cleaned, photographed, drawn in situ, and then removed in one day, this final work is often postponed to the following day. It takes from two to six hours to accomplish these final tasks.
One of the most interesting burials relative to the Amazons was uncovered in tomb 6 of kurgan 1, necropolis 8. This 30 m. diameter kurgan constructed in the Bronze Age in the 11th c. BCE contained two Bronze Age, three Medieval, and eleven Early Sarmatian burials. Tomb 6 had not been disturbed. The supine skeleton lay with the skull to the south, legs extended, and the arms at the sides (Fig. 4). Southwest of the skull was a ceramic vessel with diagonal indentations across the rim; southeast of the skull was a small vase-shaped ceramic vessel, orange in color, with remnants of red pigment. Northwest of the feet were a ceramic jug with a handle and a ceramic vessel adjacent to bones of a large animal. In addition, near the right forearm
Fig. 5. Detail of the woman’s tomb
showing the iron dagger and iron
arrowheads (the latter not easily
There were two very interesting tombs in necropolis 2 which stretches northward along the crest of high ground toward the bluff overlooking the Khobda river and the project’s campsite. The first tomb was number two of the two found in kurgan 3, a 30 m. diameter mound. The pit had a wooden cover in place and was undisturbed by robbers. The neighboring pit, in contrast, had been looted and badly disturbed. In the grave of interest, the skeleton was in the supine position with the skull to the west at a level about two meters below the ancient soil surface (Fig. 6). This was the burial of a woman of importance from the sixth century BCE. There were unarticulated camel and horse bones on the floor of the pit along the south wall. To the southwest of her skull and at the western end of the animal bones was a ceramic vessel. Near her feet were sheep bones. Near her right hand was a small ceramic vessel with red pigmentation on Fig. 4. Tomb of a 40- to 45-year-old, Early Sarmatian female (necropolis 8, kurgan 1, burial 6, 1992). Fig. 5. Detail of the woman’s tomb showing the iron dagger and iron arrowheads (the latter not easily distinguishable). Fig. 6. Tomb of a mid-sixth century BCE Sauromatian “priestess” with gold ornaments, a carved stone altar and other artifacts (necropolis 2, kurgan 3, burial 2, 1993). 19 its exterior. By the pit wall and northwest of the skull were an oval bronze mirror and a carved stone vessel, or altar. One corner of the rim of this altar was missing, but it was found under her left knee during the final procedures of excavation. The altar might have been broken as part of the burial rites. The bronze mirror was complete except for a missing handle. There was a band of granulation on the back near the perimeter except for a gap where the handle had been attached. The central area had some design or image obscured by corrosion. There were numerous small pale blue-green glass beads scattered about the skeleton, possibly evidence of decorations on a garment.
Fig. 6. Tomb of a mid-sixth century
BCE Sauromatian “priestess” with
gold ornaments, a carved stone
altar and other artifacts (necropolis
2, kurgan 3, burial 2, 1993).
The other tomb of special interest was in a shaft with a narrow ledge near the top for supporting a wooden cover. The supine skeleton with the skull to the southwest is that of a tall, strong man about 50 years of age from the third or second century BCE (Fig. 9). An iron dagger lay by his right hand. Nearby were residues of a scabbard and gold foil decoration. There was a gold Fig. 7. The gold panthers and conical gold pendants in situ around the neck of the “priestess.” Fig. 8. A display of the small artifacts from the tomb of the “priestess.” The two ceramic vessels are not shown. On the left is the stone vessel with a chipped corner glued in place. The oval bronze mirror at the top center has granulation around the perimeter and a central design. Below the mirror are the gold pendants, small gold beads, gold panthers, glass and stone beads, and a carved bone. At the right are a piece of ore and fossil shells of marine mollusks. Fig. 9. Tomb of a warrior about 50 years old from the second or third century BCE (necropolis 2, kurgan 17, burial 2, 1993). 20 band that probably was part of the dagger or scabbard. The gold band looks like finely woven cloth (Fig. 10). On his left side, about 20 iron arrowheads, remnants of a quiver, and a bronze plate with traces of gilt were uncovered. This plate had been modified with two pairs of holes for attachment to the quiver with leather thongs looped through the holes. The leather is still preserved by copper salts from the corrosion of the bronze. Originally the plate was probably a belt buckle as indicated by the two holes at one end and the slot at the other. The design on this plate is the typical animal style of the nomads depicting carnivores attacking other animals, in this case a horse. There was a gold band around the right arm near the wrist. Each terminal is incised with eyes, nose, mouth, and scales to represent snake heads. Near the northeast corner of the pit, there was an orange colored ceramic jug with a handle. It was made on a potter’s wheel in some workshop in middle Asia. An unusual feature of this burial is the position of the lower legs. Both had been neatly severed from the body at the knees. The reason is unknown. Perhaps this old warrior, renowned in battle over his many years of life, was felled by his enemy who severed his legs to ensure that he would never fight again in this world or the next and left him in the battlefield to die. His comrades recovered his
Fig. 7. The gold panthers and
conical gold pendants in situ
around the neck of the “priestess.”
How might we interpret the archaeological evidence? At this site near Pokrovka and elsewhere in the lands of the Sarmatians, skeletons of women buried with weapons have been uncovered. We discovered bronze and iron arrowheads in several tombs and a dagger and iron arrowheads in another. Others have found these weapons as well as spears, swords, and armor [Rolle 1989, p. 88]. In the region inhabited by the Sarmatians, about 20% of burials associated with weapons and horse harnesses were of females [Rolle 1989, p. 89]. Were these weapons actually evidence of women involved in combat; or were they possibly heirlooms, means of self-defense, or equipment for hunting on the journey to an afterlife? The dagger could be an heirloom or a weapon for self-defense but not an instrument for hunting. If it were an heirloom, it could not be very old since its style and shape are consistent with the dating of the other artifacts in the particular burial. Changes in styles and shapes generally occur in less than a century, which would mean that any relatively old items in a tomb would give conflicting ages for the burial. Arrows would not be considered for self-defense but useful for hunting in the afterlife. Perhaps they believed that they would participate in battles in the afterlife and would need their weapons of combat. The quantity of weapons in some burials indicates such a belief. In Sarmatian burials in other areas, the discovery of women with broken and pierced skulls and arrowheads embedded in bone strongly supports the view that these women did participate in battles [Rolle 1989, p. 88]. Herodotus stated that the women rode alongside the men or alone in hunting or battle [Herodotus 1956, IV, p. 239].
Did these women described by Herodotus in the fifth century BCE and found by archaeological investigations give rise to the Greek legends of the Amazons? There are some chronological difficulties. The archaeological evidence for the Sarmatians of Herodotus’ time indicates that these nomads first appeared in the area in the sixth century BCE [Jettmar 1967, p. 60]. But Homer in the Iliad wrote of the band of Amazons that came to the aid of King Priam of Troy besieged by the Greeks [Taplin 1986]. Homer probably lived within the period from 750 to
Fig. 8. A display of the small artifacts from the tomb
of the “priestess.” The two ceramic vessels are not
shown. On the left is the stone vessel with a chipped
corner glued in place. The oval bronze mirror at the
top center has granulation around the perimeter and
a central design. Below the mirror are the gold
pendants, small gold beads, gold panthers, glass and
stone beads, and a carved bone. At the right are a
piece of ore and fossil shells of marine mollusks.
What do the images of Amazons in Greek art show us? The first known one, on a clay shield from Tiryns dated to about 700 BCE, depicts Herakles fighting Amazons [Schefold 1966, pp. 24-25, plate 7b].6Through much of the Classical period, they are portrayed in sculpture as buxom, sensuous females wearing clothing and bearing weapons similar to those of the Greek warriors. I would expect a woman well trained and skilled in combat to have a trim, lean figure and to dress in her native costume [See also Rolle 1989, p. 90]. Herodotus said of the women of the Sauromatae that they “dress like the men” [Herodotus 1956, IV, p. 239]. Shapiro notes that the Greek artists of the Archaic period portrayed all their adversaries in battle with the same style of dress and weaponry as worn by the Greeks [Shapiro 1983, pp. 105-114]. It is only later portrayals which show, in succession, the Amazons in dress similar to Thracian, Scythian, and Persian apparel. Thus, Greek art is of no help, especially when produced long after whatever historical events stimulated the imagery. In their art, the Greeks were interested in portraying beauty. For males, they tended to use athletes as models. For Amazons, they
Fig. 9. Tomb of a warrior about 50 years old from the
second or third century BCE (necropolis 2, kurgan 17,
burial 2, 1993).
There were changes in the style and subject of Greek art paralleling social and political changes. Shapiro traces the evidence of Amazons in Greek art and literature and shows the changes from Thracian to Scythian and then Persian influences in depictions of Amazons [Ibid.]. Greek literature originated some time after the first art, elaborated on the stories portrayed and may have relied on the art as the primary source of information about the Amazons. Shapiro maintains that the earliest images on vase paintings associating Amazons with Thrace and Scythia are closer to the truth than the later art and literature. The early works show the encounters of the popular mythical heroes with Amazons, first Heracles, then Achilles, and finally Theseus.
Does the origin of the word Amazon tell us anything? The Britannica dictionary states that the Greek root means “without breast.”7 More correctly, it means not to suckle.8According to ancient literature, the Amazons cauterized or mutilated the right breast of young girls to destroy its function and development because it would interfere with the drawing of the bow and throwing of the spear and would take strength from the right arm and shoulder [Serwint 1993, p. 403-422; Rolle 1989, p. 91]. Serwint states that there are no known cases in Greek art of Amazons depicted without a right breast [Serwint 1993]. She believes that this follows from the artists’ striving for beauty and perfection and their abhorring any display of physical shortcomings of their subjects. She suggests that the exposure of the right breast in images in Amazons is a symbol of the missing anatomy. Alternatively, it might be to show the Greeks that they are being attacked by women.
The mythical tribes and nations of Amazons probably did not exist in reality, but there may have been bands of women which went to war for various causes. In her compilation on Amazons throughout history
Fig. 10. Artifacts from the tomb of the
The orange ceramic jug is not shown.
Each of us carries a mental image of the Amazon of the ancient world. In the words of Jessica A. Salmonson:
James F. Vedder
earned a PhD in Experimental Nuclear Physics at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1958. He retired in 1992 after a distinguished career as a research scientist for Lockheed and NASA. Since 1984 he has been involved in archaeological excavations world wide. He has published articles on experimental archaeology demonstrating how the Greeks painted precise sets of concentric circles on pots 3000 years ago and how the artisans of Çatalhöyük, Turkey, made mirrors of obsidian. He is a member of the American Physical Society, the American Geophysical Union, Sigma Xi, and the American Institute of Archaeology.
Fig. 11. Detail of Halicarnasus frieze
showing bare-breasted Amazon.
Fig. 12. Detail of Halicarnasus frieze with two
Amazons and a Greek warrior.
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