By Anna Liesowska / The Siberian Times
The 'stunning' discovery appears further confirmation of ancient Greek claims about female fighters known as Amazons among the Scythians of central Asia.
In 1988 Dr Marina Kilunovskaya and Dr Vladimir Semyonov came across the partially mummified young warrior’s grave Saryg-Bulun in Siberia’s modern-day Tuva republic during an emergency excavation.
The archaeologists found the adolescent warrior’s remains so well preserved that a ‘wart’ was visible on the face, and yet at the time there were no indications that this was a female.
This Scythian child was buried with a complete set of weapons: an axe, a one-meter bow made of birch and a quiver with ten arrows some 70 centimeters in length. (Image: Vladimir Semyonov)
‘It was so stunning when we just opened the lid and I saw the face there, with that wart, looking so impressive,’ said Dr. Kilunovskaya.
There was a rough seam on the skin in the abdomen area, implying an attempt at artificial mummification - but no traces were found of trepanation, which was usual among such burials.
The age was estimated at 12 to 13 years. At the time, all the clues suggested this was a male.
The adolescent Amazon had a choice of arrows - two were wooden, one had a bone tip, and the arrowheads of the rest were bronze. (Image: A.Yu. Makeeva)
The adolescent Amazon had a choice of arrows - two were wooden, one had a bone tip, and the arrowheads of the rest were bronze.
There were no beads, or mirrors, or other indications that this was the grave of a girl, and three decades ago the ancient remains were classified as a young male warrior.
Yet modern scientific advancements mean more detailed genetic tests are now available.
Amazon girl even had her battle axe. Picture: A.Yu. Makeeva
'We were recently offered the chance to undertake tests to determine the sex, age, and genetic affiliation of the buried warrior,’ said Dr Kilunovskaya. ‘We agreed with pleasure and got such a stunning result.’
The revealing palaeogenetic analysis was undertaken at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology at the Laboratory of Historical Genetics, Radiocarbon Analysis, and Applied Physics by Dr Kharis Mustafin, Dr Irina Alborova and postgraduate Alina Matsvai.
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There were no beads, or mirrors, or other indications that this was the grave of a girl. (Image: Vladimir Semyonov)
‘The burial of the child with weapons introduces a new touch to the social structure of early nomadic society,’ said Dr Kilunovskaya, from the St Petersburg Institute of Material History Culture.
‘This discrepancy in the norms of the funeral rite received an unexpected explanation: firstly, the young man turned out to be a girl, and this young ‘Amazon’ had not yet reached the age of 14 years.
‘The results of genome-wide sequencing, which showed that it was a girl buried in the wooden coffin, were unexpected. This opens up a new aspect in the study of the social history of Scythian society and involuntarily returns us to the myth of the Amazons that survived thanks to Herodotus.’
Scythian Amazon had a quiver, made of leather and horse skin, attached to the belt. (Images: A.Yu. Makeeva, V.S. Busova)
The girl warrior was buried in a below-the-knee double-breasted fur coat with long straight sleeves made from a rodent, a member of the jerboa family. It was sewn in a patchwork. She wore a shirt under the coat, but it has not survived, and light brown and beige trousers or perhaps a skirt.
She journeyed to the afterlife in a leather cap - the shape of which was carefully restored by prominent leather and fabric restorer Natalya Sinitsyna.
A spiral decoration spanned the entire surface with red pigment, unevenly descending to one of the edges of the cap.
She journeyed to the afterlife in a leather cap - the shape of which was thoroughly restored by prominent leather and fabric restorer Natalya Sinitsyna. Image: Vladimir Semyonov, V.S. Busova
The Amazon warrior is from the 7th to early 6th century BC, with the current best assessment that she died around 2,600 years ago.
The depth of her coffin, which was hollowed from a single piece of wood, was little over half a meter under the ground, oriented to the southwest.
Aside from Herodotus, Greek physician Hippocrates - who lived from approximately 460 BC to 370 BC - noted female warriors among the Sarmatians, a Scythian group famed for their mastery of mounted warfare.
Meter-long bowl was made of single piece of birch, and a choice of arrows. Makeeva)
'Their women, so long as they are virgins, ride, shoot, throw the javelin while mounted, and fight with their enemies,' he wrote.
'They do not lay aside their virginity until they have killed three of their enemies, and they do not marry before they have performed the traditional sacred rites.
'A woman who takes to herself a husband no longer rides, unless she is compelled to do so by a general expedition.
The myth says that they were the most powerful women ever. In the ancient times, they were said to be a tribe of independent, mighty women who had rebelled against the men-dominated society. They used to live in isolate places, exclude men from their society and make wars against them. Today, we can call them as the first extreme feminists.
Little is known about the legendary Amazons, most of which is taken from myths. Only a few historical facts have been discovered to prove the existence and developement of an Amazon culture. Some believe that they were just a fable told to comfort the oppresed women of the antiquity. Others say it is a fable that shows the superior of manhood, as in any battle between men and women, men seem to win. Another interesting point is that the legend of the Amazons appears in myths of many tribes. Whatever the case, the truth is that this ancient story has captivated many historians, writers, filmakers and has intriqued the mind of all people.
Amazons were long considered a myth - discoveries show warrior women were real
For a long time, modern scholars believed that the Amazons were little more than a figment of ancient imaginations.
These were the fierce warrior women of Ancient Greek lore who supposedly sparred with Hercules, lived in lesbian matriarchies and hacked off their breasts so they could fire their arrows better. Homer immortalised them in the Iliad. Eons later, they played a central role in the Wonder Woman comics.
Some historians argued they were probably a propaganda tool created to keep Athenian women in line. Another theory suggested that they may have been beardless men mistaken for women by the Greeks.
But a growing body of archaeological evidence shows that legends about the horseback-riding, bow-wielding female fighters were almost certainly rooted in reality.
Myths about the Amazons' homosexuality and self-mutilation are still dubious at best, but new research appears to confirm that there really were groups of nomadic women who trained, hunted and battled alongside their male counterparts in the Eurasian steppe.
In a landmark discovery revealed last month, archaeologists unearthed the remains of four female warriors buried with a cache of arrowheads, spears and horseback riding equipment in a tomb in Western Russia - right where Ancient Greek stories placed the Amazons.
The team from the Institute of Archaeology of the Russian Academy of Sciences identified the women as Scythian nomads who were interred at a burial site some 2500 years ago near the present-day community of Devitsa. The women ranged in age from early teens to late 40s, according to the archaeologists. And the eldest of the women was found wearing a golden ceremonial headdress, a calathus, engraved with floral ornaments - an indication of stature.
The discovery represents some of the most detailed evidence to date that female warriors weren't just the stuff of ancient fiction, according to Adrienne Mayor, author of The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World.
"For a while, people have assumed that myths about the Amazons that the Greeks told were just fantasy," said Mayor, who was not involved in the excavation. "Now we have proof that those women did exist and that the lives of those women warriors really did influence the Ancient Greek ideas and visions of what they said about the Amazons."
Earlier excavations have turned up similar evidence, though not always so well preserved. In 2017, Armenian researchers discovered the remains of a woman in her 20s they said resembled Amazon myths. They found she died from battle injuries. Their report in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology noted that she had an arrowhead buried in her leg and that her bone and muscle structure indicated she was a horse rider.
The new discovery in Russia marked the first time multiple generations of Scythian women were found buried together, according to the researchers. The youngest of the bodies may have belonged to a girl roughly 12 or 13 years old. Two others were women in their 20s, according to the researchers, and the fourth was between 45 and 50.
Mayor said the findings suggested that young girls were trained early on, just like boys, to ride horses and use bows and arrows.
"This was an egalitarian society," Mayor told The Washington Post on Tuesday. "The fact that you have a range of ages is important because people previously thought that mothers wouldn't be out fighting because they had children."
"In these small tribes on the harsh steppes, it makes sense that every single person has to have the same skills and competence to defend the tribe as necessary," she added. "It confirms that these women really were warriors throughout their lives."
The discovery also represents the first time that such a remarkably well-preserved headdress was found on a warrior woman's head. According to the researchers, the headdress was 65 to 70 per cent gold - a far higher portion than is often found in Scythian jewellery, which is typically about 30 per cent.
Valerii Guliaev, who led the expedition, called it a "unique find," and said it underscored how women and men received equal treatment in Scythian society.
"The Amazons are common Scythian phenomenon," Guliaev said in a statement. "All burial rites which were usually made for men were done for them."
Mayor said she expects future research to bolster the case about the existence of female warriors. Before the development of DNA testing and bioarcheology, researchers often assumed that any excavated tomb or grave that contained weapons and human remains belonged to a male. But new analysis has already showed that about one-third of armed Scythian skeletons unearthed in such digs were female, she said.
"Just because there are weapons doesn't mean it was a male burial," she said. "That assumption has gone out the window."
Warrior Burial Is Scythian Amazon Girl No Older Than 13 - History
Vladimir Semyonov/The Siberian Times The mummified remains of a young Amazon warrior discovered 32 years ago were confirmed to belong to a teenage girl.
In 1988, a team of scientists led by Marina Kilunovskaya and Vladimir Semyonov came across the partially mummified remains of a young warrior buried in what is now the modern-day Tuva Republic in Russia.
The mummified corpse — so well-preserved in its tomb that a wart was still visible on its face — was thought to be a teenage boy who was skilled in combat.
Now, 32 years later, with the help of new technology researchers discovered that the young warrior was female — and possibly one of the famed Amazon women warriors of Greek literature.
A.Yu. Makeeva/The Siberian Times A number of arrows were buried in the young Amazon’s tomb: one with a bone tip, two made of wood, and the rest made of bronze.
As The Siberian Times reports, Kilunovskaya and her team had estimated the adolescent fighter’s remains to date back to sometime in the early 6th century BCE, roughly 2,600 years ago. Inside the burial, researchers found a number of items typically reserved for honored warriors.
Among the burial items were a set of weapons which included a three-foot birch bow, an axe, and ten arrows that measured roughly 27 inches each. The arrows were made from a variety of materials one had a bone tip, two were wooden, and the rest were made of bronze.
In addition to the battle items, the warrior was also buried donning a shirt and light brown bottoms. The outfit was covered by a below-the-knee double-breasted fur coat made from a rodent of the jerboa family. A leather cap sat atop the well-preserved skull.
Vladimir Semyonov/The Siberian Times The teen fighter’s corpse was so well-preserved that there was a wart on its face that was still visible.
In the grave, there were no mirrors or beads, which were common items used for female burials. As such, the original team had classified the young warrior as a male.
But when an opportunity to re-examine the corpse through genetic testing arose, Kilunovskaya said her team jumped at the chance.
“We were recently offered the chance to undertake tests to determine the sex, age, and genetic affiliation of the buried warrior,” said Kilunovskaya, who is now a researcher at the St Petersburg Institute of Material History Culture. “We agreed with pleasure and got such a stunning result.”
A.Yu. Makeeva/The Siberian Times The quiver holding the warrior’s arrows inside the burial.
The palaeogenetic analysis of the bones revealed that the warrior’s corpse had been misidentified as male. The tests were performed by Kharis Mustafin, Irina Alborova, and postgraduate Alina Matsvai at the Laboratory of Historical Genetics, Radiocarbon Analysis, and Applied Physics at Moscow’s Institute of Physics and Technology.
The age of the young warrior, estimated somewhere between 12 to 13 years old, was also confirmed.
“The results of genome-wide sequencing, which showed that a girl was buried in a wooden coffin, were unexpected,” said Kilunovskaya. “This opens up a new aspect in the study of the social history of Scythian society and involuntarily returns us to the myth of the Amazons that survived thanks to Herodotus.”
Homer’s Iliad from the 8th century B.C. is believed to be the first mention of the Amazon warriors in Greek literature. Homer described them as “antianeirai” which scholars have interpreted into a number of translations such as “the opposite of men,” “antagonistic to men,” and “the equal of men.”
A.Yu. Makeeva/Vladimir Semyonov Bow (left) and leather cap (right) discovered with the young warrior’s remains.
Centuries later, Herodotus also wrote about the Amazons, who he claimed hailed from Scythia, a large steppe region in Central Eurasia. The Amazons were long believed to be mythical figures, largely due to disbelief among male historians at the existence of such fearsome women warriors.
That disbelief has been challenged by recent scientific discoveries of burial remains of women warriors that match the historical description of the Amazons.
The revelation of the teenage warrior’s female identity was not the only evidence of the legendary Amazon warriors uncovered in recent years. In January 2020, three generations of ancient Amazon woman warriors were discovered inside a Russian tomb.
Here’s hoping that, as tools for science progress, an understanding of the role of women soldiers in ancient history will grow with it.
The Battle of the Amazons, Peter Paul Rubens, 1615, Alte Pinakothek, Munich.
The legends of these warrior women portray a man-slaying fearsome race, yet are these descriptions founded in any historical proof?
From Herodotus , we find the most compelling ancient literary evidence of the existence of a tribe of warrior women. According to the historian , after the Greeks had successfully defeated the Amazons in battle, the women were taken prisoner and placed on three ships. The captive Amazons were able to overpower the crews of these ships and successfully take control of the vessels. But because the women- being land-dwelling – knew nothing of ships, the vessels soon ran aground on the Maiotian lakeshore. From there, the women ventured inland and came upon a herd of horses which they swiftly tamed. Mounted on horseback, the warrior women plundered and stole from the Scythian inhabitants.
The Ukok Female Warrior Has Changed Sex New paleogenetic data on the bearers of the Pazyryk culture (Gorny Altai)
Twenty-five years ago, the discovery of an ancient Pazyryk paired burial on the Ukok Plateau in the Altai Mountains, home of the famous Altai Princess, gave birth to the hypothesis about the Altai Amazons. Anthropologists were convinced that the burial contained remains of a girl aged 16 to 17, although they always emphasized her “unfeminine” features.
However, when Novosibirsk researchers (Novosibirsk State University, Institute of Cytology and Genetics SB RAS, Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography SB RAS) analyzed the DNA from the bone remains, the warrior girl with a serious set of weapons turned. into a young man with a thin braid and amulets of female fertility—the cowrie shells that were found beside him appear to have served as belt decorations. The new data are a reason for revising the possible kinship between the buried people: previously, this paired burial of an aged man and a young woman was considered as a burial of spouses or that of father and daughter. The details of this study will appear in a coming issue of SCIENCE First Hand
The studies of burial mounds associated with the Pazyryk nomads of the Scythian period (6th to 3rd century B.C.) in the south of Siberia gained international fame thanks to the unique preservation of the remains of humans, animals, and items made of organic materials. The discovery and study of the Pazyryk culture complexes brought the archaeologists Vyacheslav Molodin and Natalia Polosmak (Novosibirsk) the State Prize of Russia in 2004.
“. When the first complexes associated with the Pazyryk culture were discovered in the 1990s,” says Polosmak (Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography (IAE) SB RAS, Novosibirsk), “archaeologists and anthropologists did not have such a powerful research tool as paleogenetic methods. But we should not think that paleogenetics alone can resolve all archaeological mysteries.
“The situations may be highly complex and confusing, which is illustrated by the paired burial at Ak-Alakha 1 burial mound 1, which was excavated in 1990.
“The mound with an unusual burial was the first mound we investigated on Ukok. It was the first non-looted “frozen” burial of this culture, where the ice preserved all the items that usually disintegrate—burial inventory, pieces of the costume, horse harness.
“This mound 18 m in diameter is classified as middle-sized. The buried people had a high social status and were part of the Pazyryk elite. This is evidenced by the burial ritual: two log cabins—external and internal nine horses buried in a special compartment of the external log cabin the buried med had been put in woodblocks of almost the same size as those found in the so-called royal Pazyryk tumuli (Rudenko, 1953). Apart from human remains, the two woodblocks contained sets of weapons consisting of iron ax hammers with a wooden handle, iron daggers in a wooden sheath, and goryta (cases) with bows and arrows. The buried men were horseman warriors.”
Since the bodies had not been mummified, their gender and age were established from the skeletal remains using physical anthropology methods by experienced professionals—Dr.Sci.(History) Tatyana Chikisheva (IAE SB RAS, Novosibirsk) and Cand.Sci.(History) Tatyana Balueva (Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology RAS, Moscow). The sex of the person buried in the first woodblock, a man aged 45 to 50, raised no doubt, but the individual buried in the second woodblock was a different story. Although anthropologists were convinced that those were remains of a girl aged 16 to 17, they emphasized her “unfeminine” features: “the skull is very large and looks massive. the lower jaw is very massive. The postcranial bones are very long, almost the same in terms of absolute size and massiveness as male skeleton bones. The body length is very large” (Chikisheva, 1994).
The anthropologists' conclusions were confirmed by the features of the accompanying inventory: the woodblock, the wooden cushion, the quiver, etc.—all these things were smaller in size compared to the man's burial. In addition, researchers found near the pelvis of the buried person 34 cowrie shells, which might have been belt decorations. Shells were an extremely rare find in Pazyryk graves. They were usually found in handbags together with beads and seeds of exotic fruits researchers believed that the shells served as amulets. In addition, these shells were known to have a semantics of a symbol of female fertility.
The buried persons also had different hairstyles: there was long dark brown hair on the man's skull while his forehead and crown were open. On the skull of the second person, there was a little thin braid.
Discovering the burial of this girl—a rider and warrior—became one more argument for the hypothesis that the Pazyryk society may have had a tradition whereby those young girls from the elite who were prone to the art of war could learn, before they got married, to use weapons, although this was a unique case for the Pazyryk culture (Polosmak, 2001).
However, 25 years later, to clarify the phylogenetic and phylogeographic characteristics, the possible degree of kinship, and the sex of the buried persons, scientists investigated their remains by paleogenetic methods.
The main method was molecular genetic analysis with four systems of genetic markers (mitochondrial DNA, a polymorphic fragment of the amelogenin gene, STR-loci of autosomes, and STR-loci of the Y-chromosome). The investigations were carried out at the Institute of Cytology and Genetics (ICG) SB RAS, Novosibirsk (Pilipenko, Trapezov, and Polosmak, 2015).
In the experiments, scientists have obtained ample evidence for the different degrees of preservation of the DNA in the remains of the two individuals. The preservation of the DNA in the remains of the young individual was much lower than in those of the aged man. However, scientists have obtained reliable molecular genetic evidence that both of the individuals from Ak-Alakha 1 burial mound 1 were male, although these data are at odds with the physical anthropology results for the gender identification of the younger individual.
Scientists believe that “it could be due to the young age of the deceased individual: gender identification of remains of adolescents from the skeleton morphology may, in some cases, be very difficult.” However, it follows from what has been said that the genetic analysis of this individual was not that simple. Moreover, the new data are a reason for revising the possible kinship between the buried persons. Previously, researchers believed that this paired burial of an aged man and a young woman was a burial of spouses or father and daughter.
According Cand.Sci.(Bio.) Alexander Pilipenko, a researcher at the ICG SB RAS and a joint research laboratory at Novosibirsk State University, “. reconstructing the degree of kinship of individuals buried in collective graves or burial sites and determining their sex is one of the most promising areas for the application of paleogenetic methods in archeology. By analyzing uniparental inheritance markers (mtDNA and Y-chromosome), we determined the probability of close kinship between the individuals from the paired burial in both the female and male lines. The data on the profiles of autosomal STR-loci show that the investigated individuals were not direct relatives in this case, taking into account the sex of the buried, they could not have been father and son.”
Having established a sufficiently close kinship between the buried persons (at an uncle-and-nephew level), the geneticists have confirmed the conclusions made in 1994 by Balueva, who created reconstructions of the faces of the two individuals: “From the front, the noses of the man and woman from the Ak-Alakha 1 burial site are very similar. The chins of the male and female skulls are very similar in shape."
Another piece of evidence for the close kinship of the individuals was the similarity of pathological processes in the cervical vertebrae, which was reported by Balueva: “. the man had spondylosis of the cervical vertebrae, which obstructed the head movement in the female skull in the area of articular condyles of the occipital foramen, there are traces of the same deformation processes that we have mentioned above. The identical signs of illness may indicate a kinship of those buried in the mound.”
Natalia Polosmak says: “The two men were buried in one grave not only because they were near of kin and had a certain social status but also because both of them had not survived, perhaps each for his own reason, the past winter, and they were buried in the spring, when it was possible. The paired burials of Ukok are more likely to be explained by these factors.”
There is another striking fact: by the time of his death, the older man had long been a sedentary disabled person, unable to get on a horse on his own. According to Chikisheva, his skeleton had signs of severe damage with one of the varieties of chronic polyarthritis: "The general pathological process involves almost the entire osteoarticular apparatus. the disease of the deceased individual can be identified as ankylosing spondylitis, also known as Bekhterev's disease. The etiology of the disease is unknown. The disease affects mostly males and begins in the second or third decade of life.” His death could have been due to the development of the disease. As to the cause of the young man's death, neither anthropologists nor geneticists have been able to find it yet.”
. In science, like in life, myths are born from one set of facts and die under the pressure of other facts. Paleogeneticists have already rewritten the evolution of mankind, and now they are beginning to address other “dark spots,” such as gender identification for samples of skeletal remains and the degree of kinship of those buried in collective graves. However, we should not say that paleogenetics offers an infallible and absolute solution for all the unresolved problems in archaeology. Although today they have closed the romantic story of an Altai warrior girl from Ak-Alakha 1 burial mound 1, there is a new mystery of “life and death,” which scientists have yet to resolve.
3 generations of ancient Amazon women warriors found in Russian tomb
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Russian researchers made a first-of-its-kind discovery — a tomb containing three generations of ancient Amazon women warriors.
According to a release by the RAS Institute of Archaeology, the clay-and-oak-block tomb contained four skeletons in a range of ages.
The youngest skeleton was estimated to be around 12 or 13 years old, while the second and third were 20 to 29, and 25 to 35 years old, respectively. The fourth of the skeletons was likely around 45 to 50 years old.
It’s believed, per the release translated from Russian, that the Amazon warriors found were part of the Scythians, a nomadic tribe that lived in Siberia from between 200 and 900 BC.
Film and history buffs may remember Amazon warriors as they were depicted in the Wonder Woman movie and in Greek mythology: powerful, strong female fighters.
1:59 Wonder Woman conquers box office and stereotypes
“The Amazons are a common Scythian phenomenon and during the last decade our expedition has discovered approximately 11 burials of young armed women,” Valerii Guliaev, head of the Don expedition, said.
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“Separate barrows were filled for them and all burial rites which were usually made for men were done for them.”
The four skeletons were buried with items — like arrowheads, horse harnesses, knives and animal bones — that helped researchers estimate their burial to be in around the fourth century BC.
They were found in the Devitsa V cemetery, which has been under study for a decade in the Voronezh region of the country.
The tomb holding the older woman and the one a bit younger than her remained in perfect condition, undisturbed by grave robbers, unlike the other tomb.
Per a translation by CNN, the younger of the two was buried with her knee tendons cut to make it appear as though she were on horseback. A bronze mirror was kept under her shoulder, and she had two spears and a bracelet on her left side.
She also had a drinking cup and a dish at her feet.
The older woman, on the other hand, was buried wearing a ceremonial headdress, decorated with pendants and floral plates.
SCYTHIAN HISTORY, WARFARE, RELIGION AND ARCHEOLOGY
one vision of
a Scythian warrior The Scythians were Indo-Iranian horse people who migrated from Central Asia to the European Steppe north of the Black Sea around 700 B.C. For 400 years they dominated an area that stretched from the Danube across the Ukraine, Crimea and southern Russia to the Don River and the Ural Mountains and then mysteriously vanished. [Source: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, September 1996]
The Scythians preceded the Huns, Turks and Mongols by many centuries. Never constituting an empire, they were a network of culturally similar tribes that ranged from Siberia to Egypt almost 3,000 years ago and faded away around A.D. 100. The Scythians were not a unified group but rather a confederation of related, warring nomadic tribes. The Scythians did not have a written language It is believed that they spoke an Indo-European language similar to Persian.
Andrew Curry wrote in Discover: The Scythians were a seminomadic culture that once dominated the steppes of Siberia, central Asia, and eastern Europe. Beginning around 800 B.C., the Scythians thundered across the central Asian steppes, and within a few generations, their art and culture had spread far beyond the steppes of central Asia. The Scythians’ exploits struck fear into the hearts of the ancient Greeks and Persians. Herodotus wrote about their violent burial customs, including human sacrifice (which the Arzhan 2 find tends to confirm) and drug-fueled rituals. He speculated that they came from mountains far to the east, in the “land of the gold-guarding griffins.” [Source: Andrew Curry, Discover, July 2008]
The Scythians inspired such terror among the Greeks that they are credited with inspiring the myth of Centaur. Some scholars believe that the Biblical prophet Jeremiah was referring to the Scythians when he warned the Israelites: “Behold a people comes from the north. They lay hold of bow and spear, they are cruel, and have no mercy. The sound of them is like the roaring of the sea they ride upon horses, arrayed as a man for battle against you, O daughter of Babylon.”
Some scholars believe that the Biblical prophet Jeremiah was referring to the Scythians when he warned the Israelites that warriors would come who "are cruel and have no mercy their voice roareth like the sea and they ride upon horses, every one put in array, as men for war against thee."
Many aspects of Scythian history and daily life are still veiled in mystery. They had no written language. No one knows exactly where they came from or why their empire collapsed. Historians do not even known if they had a capital and if they did where it was. Russian scholar Nadezhda told National Geographic, "I'm inclined to think that there was no capital. Perhaps the capital was wherever the king happened to be."
See Separate Articles SCYTHIAN LIFE, CULTURE AND GOLD factsanddetails.com HERODOTUS ON THE SCYTHIANS factsanddetails.com HERODOTUS ON SCYTHIAN BELIEFS AND CUSTOMS factsanddetails.com
Websites and Resources: Mongols and Horsemen of the Steppe: “The Horse, the Wheel and Language, How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes shaped the Modern World", David W Anthony, 2007 archive.org/details/horsewheelandlanguage The Scythians - Silk Road Foundation silkroadfoundation.org Scythians iranicaonline.org Encyclopaedia Britannica article on the Huns britannica.com Wikipedia article on Eurasian nomads Wikipedia Wikipedia article Wikipedia The Mongol Empire web.archive.org/web The Mongols in World History afe.easia.columbia.edu/mongols William of Rubruck's Account of the Mongols washington.edu/silkroad/texts Mongol invasion of Rus (pictures) web.archive.org/web Encyclopædia Britannica article britannica.com Mongol Archives historyonthenet.com
Herodotus and Other Sources on the Scythians
Scythian man The Scythians were contemporaries of the Greeks. Much of what we know about them is based on accounts by Herodotus, the founding father of history, who wrote about the Scythians in the 5th century B.C.. Other information about them has been gleaned from archeological excavations and accounts from other Greek historians.
Herodotus wrote extensively about the Scythians It is not clear how much was based on first hand observation or second hand accounts but the latter seems most likely. It is also not clear how extensively Herodotus traveled in the Black Sea-Dnieper River heartland of the Scythians On one journey around 450 B.C. he probably reached Olbia, 40 miles west of the Dnieper River.
Herodotus described the Scythians as savage warriors who committed many atrocities. Some think that Herodotus gave the Scythians an unjustified, prejudiced bad rap and in all probability they committed no more atrocities than the Romans, Persians, Egyptians or even the Greeks themselves.
A. I. Melyukova and Crookenden Julia wrote in the “Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia”: The basic sources for the study of Scythians and Sarmatians "are the testimonies of the Greek and Roman authors who were interested in different aspects of the life of barbarians, archeological and ancient epigraphical data. Written sources describing the Scythians are more numerous, but they contain only fragmentary and often contradictory evidence. The archeological materials dating back to the Scythians and Sarmatians are now enormous thousands of burial sites have been examined, helping us to formulate and to resolve a number of questions about the Scythian and Sarmatian tribes, their material and spiritual culture. Along with this it must be said that the available written and archeological sources still do not enable us to give any definitive answer to certain important questions about both Scythian and Sarmatian history and archeology. These questions are still being discussed and are explained in different ways by different scholars. However, the study of the Scythians and Sarmatians in the Soviet era has made very considerable advances, particularly through the accumulation of new archeological sources in the post-war period.” [Source: The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia, edited by Denis Sinor. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990]
Although they had no written language many scholars believe the Scythians spoke an Iranian language. German Scythian expert Hermann Parzinger told National Geographic: “From ancient sources we know the names of several tribes, and they seem to be Iranian names. There were different groups but they had the same way of life and same burial customs.”
Andrew Curry wrote in Discover: Archaeologists say the Scythians’ Bronze Age ancestors were livestock breeders living in the highlands where modern-day Russia, Mongolia, China, and Kazakhstan intersect. Then something changed. Beginning around 1000 B.C., a wetter climate may have created grassy steppes that could support huge herds of horses, sheep, and goats. People took to horseback to follow the roaming herds. Around 800 B.C., all traces of settlements vanish from the archaeological record. [Source: Andrew Curry, Discover, July 2008]
The Scythians were living in the Tuva area of Central Asia and Siberia in the 9th century B.C. They arrived in the Black Sea region of present-day Ukraine from Central Asia on a migration route that skirted the northern reaches of the Caspian Sea. They were probably seeking grazing land for their horses and other animals. Excavated graves of people who lived in the Black Sea region before the Scythians arrived have revealed skulls with Scythian arrowheads impeded in them. These early inhabitants were known as the Koban culture.
Scythia in the Roman era
For a period of 30 years in the 6th century B.C., Herodotus wrote, the Scythians burst out the Black Sea region and across the Caucasus and raided communities in Asia Minor and the Middle East. They migrated as far westward as Germany and captured land formerly controlled by the Medes in present-day western Iran and by the Assyrians in Mesopotamia. The pillaged cities as far away as Palestine and Babylon before they were finally driven back by the Medes.
At the height of their power in the 4th century B.C., the Scythians controlled an empire that covered much of what is now southern Russia and the Ukraine and stretched 4,000 miles from eastern Europe to Mongolia.
According to Herodotus the Scythians were ruthless and nearly invincible warriors who made cloaks from their victims scalps and drank from their skulls and sacrificed one out of every hundred prisoner of war. Wealthy Scythians reportedly gilded the insides of the skulls of their enemies and used them as drinking cups.
Scythians are credited with creating the first truly effective cavalry and employing tactics described as an ancient version of the blitzkrieg. They attacked their enemies on horseback and cut down their enemies with weapons mentioned below. They were difficult to fight against because moved swiftly on horseback. The nomadic ways made them difficult to attack and even find. There is also archeological evidence that the Scythians participated in battles and may have even lead charges.
The Scythians and their cousins the Sarmatians were the earliest recorded group of steppe warriors. In a review of Erik Hildinger’s “Warriors of the Steppe”, Christopher Berg wrote: “Herodotus first made the “distinction between the Western and steppe ways of warfare.” Their style of war was simple but effective: they never engaged the enemy preferring to remain just out of harm’s way, and, feigning retreat, drew their foe unwittingly into an ambush. Hildinger notes, “Steppe warfare at its purest is one of travel across great distance, missile warfare and, if it is advantageous, strategic retreat before the enemy until attrition, exhaustion or isolation have made his defeat inevitable.” The example of Crassus’ defeat at Carrhae illustrates the effectiveness of feigned retreats and the ability to neutralize opponents from a distance. Another tactic employed by other Barbarian tribes in Eastern Europe was encircling the enemy. Feigned retreats, drawing the enemy out, encirclement, and horse archers would be employed time and again by all steppe cultures with devastating effect. [Sources: “Warriors of the Steppe: A Military History of Central Asia 500BC to 1700AD” by Erik Hildinger (Da Capo Press, 1997) Christopher Berg, Sam Houston State University deremilitari.org /^]
Scythians used spears, battle-axes, iron swords, composite bows, and arrows with iron arrowheads. Iron was a relatively new invention and the Scythian smelted their own iron ore. Arrowheads were also made of bronze and bone. Many were barbed like a fishhooks, which made them difficult to take out, and tore up the flesh when they were.
The Scythians were skilled archers. The used different arrows depending on the situation. When they hunted birds they used a delicate arrowhead because they aimed for the eye. Warriors carried up to 200 needle-sharp arrows into battle. Some were poisoned. Ovid described a “poisonous juice” brewed from a mixture of snake venom, purified blood, and dung. that “clings to flying metal.”
Only two Scythian bows have been unearthed. One was 32 inches long and double curved like the Greek letter sigma (Σ). It was laminated and made of trips of willow and alder joined with fish glue. According to an inscription at the Greek Black Sea trading town of Obia one of these bows fired an arrow 570 yards (over half a kilometer).
Scythians carried gortos (a combination bow and arrow holder) and wore armor consisting of bronze or iron scales sewn into leather that provided protection from arrows and spears but was also flexible and relatively lightweight.. Noblemen are believed to have fought with hammered gold helmets and headdresses, and decorative gold scabbard that were found in their graves.
Scythians Women Warriors and the Amazon Myth
Scythian archer Some scholars believe that Scythians are the source of the Amazon myth and that the Amazons were a real-life tribe of large women warriors that existed in Asia Minor. Supporting this claim are reports from many different sources with the same information---the queen’s names, their battle tactics and style of dress--- and the discovery of a number of burial chambers in the steppes of Russia, the Ukraine and Central Asia women warriors decked out in gold and jewels and outfit with a variety of weapons.
Herodotus relayed stories he heard of Scythian female warriors in the Black Sea that fought side by side with the men in battle and reportedly were not allowed to become warriors until they killed an enemy man. He also said that in some cases these women removed one of their breasts to make shooting a bow easier. One Russian archeologist told National Geographic, "The Greek writers don't mention women warriors among the Scythians. They had to be armed to defend the place where they lived while the men were away."
Two groups of women warrior that Herodotus called Amazons and the Scythians called Oirpata ("killers of men") ultimately went off together and formed their own tribe. These women were enthusiastic about making love but they didn’t want to be domesticated. One reportedly said: “We are riders, our business is with the bow and the spear. ut in your country. women stay at home in their wagons occupied with feminine tasks, and never go out to hunt, or for any other purpose.”
The grave of one steppe nomad woman thought to be a woman warrior was discovered in 1969 in a kurgan burial chamber excavated near Alma Alta, Kazakhstan. Buried in a 5th century B.C. and initially identified as the Issayk Old Man, the woman was dressed in a boots, trousers, an elaborate 25-inch-tall golden headdress and leather a tunic decorated with some 2,400 arrow-shaped gold plaques as well as dear heads, moose and snow leopards made from gold.
Scythians Versus Persians
In 513 B.C., the Persian King Darius I marched a 700,000 man army over 1,000 miles to lead an attack on the Scythians. Historians believe that he may have been trying to strengthen his borders against invaders or trying the shut off the grain supply to his enemies the Greeks.
When Darius' soldiers advanced on the Scythians, the Scythians used “tactical retreat” and fell back and stayed out of range, setting the steppe on fire and poisoning wells. According to Herodotus, Darius wrote a message to the Scythian ruler that essentially said: Stop running and fight like men. The Scythian leader Idanthyrus replied that the Scythians had no cities or crops to defend, "we have the graves of our fathers come, find these and try to destroy them then shall you find whether we will fight you."
Itching for battle, Darius deployed thousands of soldiers in attack. The Scythians only showed contempt for these tactics. According to Herodotus, the Scythians were so little concerned by the Persians attack they broke ranks to chase a rabbit while awaiting their charge. Fed up, Darius took his army back to Persia.
End the Scythians
The Scythians were driven out of much of their empire by another group of horsemen, the Sarmatians, and were defeated in a battle by Philip II of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great, in the forth century B.C. Excavation of Scythian sites show nothing in third century B.C.
The Greek geographer Strabo wrote that some Scythians move westward during this period into present-day Transylvania, establishing an independent Little Scythia, and others migrated south to the Crimea. According to Strabo the a Greek army from the kingdom of Pontus in Anatolia attacked the last enclave of Crimean Scythians in 108 B.C. and destroyed the Scythian force and burned their city of Neapolis.
No one is sure why the Scythian empire collapsed. Before they were defeated by Philip II they began to settle down and marry other tribes and abandon herding. Excavations from the forth century B.C. suggests that the Scythian herds of animals were declining. Some tombs from this period contained stoves, symbolic of the comfort of and warmth of a home, some archeologist believe, and an indication that the Scythians were abandoning the nomadic life.
Other theories include a prolonged drought or fire that degraded their grazing land invasions from Sarmatians, a rival horse people from the east that encroached on eastern Scythian land in the 4th century B.C., or a conflict the denitary demands of an empire and nomadic wanderlust. Some scholars theorized that the Scythian love of alcohol may have led to their demise. See Scythian Life Below.
Yevgeny Chernenko, Ukraine's most respected archeologist told National Geographic, "The truth is that we simply don't know what happened. Scythia may have just collapsed from internal pressures, like the Soviet Union."
Scythian Religion and Burials
It is believed that the Scythian worship creatures depicted in their art---stags, fish, and mythological griffins---and that these animals had magical meanings. Fire worship was a part of the burial ritual for Scythian and other horsemen. Scythian purified graves with torches.
The Scythians believed their dead ascended to another world where they would keep their social position and wealth. Tombs were outfit with objected deemed useful in the next world.
Scythian tombs contain sacrificed servants and decapitate horses. Scythian mummies show signs of primitive embalming: Internal organs were removed and replaced with grasses. f
The burial customs of the Scythians are thought to be the same or similar to those of the Pazyryk See Pazyryk Burial Customs
Scythian Horse Sacrifices
The Scythians revered their horses in death as they did in life and practiced horse burials and sacrifices. The number of horses someone was buried with was often a sign of wealth. One kurgan found in Ukraine contained 400 horses arranged geometrically around one person.
Horses were often buried with their bridles intact. Sometimes they were adorned with decorative wooden bands with images of moose, griffins, horned lions and sheep. Many skeletons have been found without skulls which has lead archaeologists to speculate that some sort of dismembering ritual took place.
A Scythian kurgan excavated near the village of Berek in the Bukhtarma Valley in the Altai mountains in Kazakhstan in the early 2000s in Kazakhstan contained 13 horses than been frozen since around 500 B.C. Because the had remained frozen since the time they were buried their skin, hair, harnesses and saddles were still intact.
The horses buried near Berek were placed on the north side of the kurgan while the coffin of a man---believed to have been a nobleman who owned all the horses---was on the south. The horses were buried on two levels, covered by layers of twigs and birch bark. The horses had been sacrificed in full regalia but appeared to be well past their prime. One was eighteen and a had trauma marks on its skull indicated that it was probably killed with a pick-ax.
Human Sacrifices at Funeral for a Scythian King
Herodotus described a funeral of deceased king in which Scythians expressed their grief by hacking out their hair, cutting off parts of their ears, piercing their left hands with arrows and slicing their arms open with knives.
The embalmed body of the king was taken from one encampment to another until he finally arrived at his tomb. Prized possessions were placed in the grave and concubines, servants and horses were sacrificed. A year after burial, Herodotus said, 50 servants and 50 horses were killed and planted on posts around the royal Kurgan. The horses were stood upright and the dead men were mounted on top of them..
Describing the funeral Herodotus wrote: "When they put the dead in his grave on a bed, they fix spears on either side of the corpse and stretched above it wood planks bound with plaited rushes in the burial's remaining open space they bury one of his concubines, after strangling her, and his wine bearer, cook, groom, valet, and message bearer. Also his horses, and the first fruits of anything else. having done this, everyone sets about raising a great mound of earth, showing the greatest zeal and rivalry with one another to make it as big as possible."
The tomb a chief contained a strangled servant, a decapitated horse, gold medallions silver cups used to drink koumiss and amphorae for wine.
Kurgan Important Scythian leaders and warriors were buried in mounds known as kurgans. Thousands of kurgans remain despite the fact that thousands of others were plowed over to make room for farms. Those that remain often look like small isolated hills rising up from a potato or wheat field. Some of the kurgans rise as high 65 feet, the equivalent of towering mountains on endlessly flat steppe.
Scythians were probably not the only groups that made kurgans. Of the hundreds of kurgans that have been excavated only three can be linked with specific people. The tombs are dated within an accuracy of 10 to 15 years by matching the maker's or inspector's mark on ceramic vessels found in the tomb with a catalogue of such marks
The heaviest concentration of kurgans is along the lower Dnipro River, where the "Royal Scythians," described by Herodotus resided. Mamay Gora (south of the city of Zaporizhzhya, Ukraine) is the largest known Scythian burial site. It consists of seven large kurgans (burial mounds) and a 300 lesser ones.
The kurgan of the chief near Rzyhanovka at the southern end of in a line with 20 other kurgans, . running north to Nearby is a 20-foot-high kurgan believed to contain the remains of the chief’s relatives.
The majority of the kurgans excavated by archeologist, who sometimes used bulldozers to get at the garves inside, have been stripped of their most valuable pieces befor the archeologist got to them by looters who tunneled into the burial chamber. Looting and grave robbing has become especially big problems since the collapse of the Soviet Union and people scramble to make money any way he can.
Scythian Tomb Features
The dead were buried with objects to be carried into the afterlife. Men were buried with an array of weapons, carriages with bells and horses with bridles and stone shrines with blackened hearths. Women were buried with gold rings on every finger and cloak with small gold plates sewn into the fabric. Both men and women were buried with mirrors.
The chief in one tomb wore red trousers and white caftan and surrounded by 150 finely-crafted gold objects included a sword with a gold handle, a gold necklace and silver drinking cup with an image of a griffin attacking a deer.
Scythians tombs found near Kiev are believed to be modeled after real-life homes. Fabrics covered the walls and ceilings and reed mats lined the floor. Food and wine were set out. Others were filled with many sacrificed horses and contained cut squares of sod from prime grasslands, seemingly to provide food for the departed's livestock in the hereafter, causing one scholar to speculate that kurgans were "symbolic pastures."
A mock hearth found in a 30-foot-tall kurgan of a chief near the village of Rzyhanovka, 75 miles south of Kiev, dated to a period of Scythian decline, led some archeologist to suggest that it may symbolize the comfort of and warmth of a home and may indicate the abandonment of the nomadic life for a more settled life.
Valley of the Tsars
Scythian Neapolis Mausoleum Some kurgans found in the Tuva region in Russia, north of Mongolia and dated to the 8th century B.C., are the size of football fields and made of sandstone from nearby cliffs. The area has been dubbed the Valley of the Tsar because the kurgans are so large that local people felt that only kings would be buried in them. Each kurgan contains several vaults with the highest ranking person, possibly a king, buried at the center, less ranking people buried further from the center and horses laid to rest near the perimeter. Few artifacts have been fond in the burial chambers because most of the tombs had been looted. [Source: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, June 2003]
There are four stone kurgans in the valley, each about a mile or so from the other and each thought to have belonged to a ruler in a single dynasty. One named Arazan 1 was excavated in the 1970s and was dated to the 9th century B.C., one of the oldest Scythian sites. Each tomb required hundreds if not thousands of laborers to make. Just bringing the sandstones slabs from the edge of the valley, several miles away to the tomb site was quite an undertaking. A typical tomb was comprised of sandstone slabs stacked in a circle 90 meters across and two meters high.
A vault dated to the 8th century B.C. in a kurgan called Arzhan 2, excavated in the early 2000s, was located four meters under the ground and was built of rot-resistant larch. Inside was a man estimated to be around 40 and a woman thought to be 30 or so. Both was found on their side, slightly curled like they were sleeping. Around them was an array of stuff to carry with them to the afterlife: thousands of gold ornaments, an ax, a whip, a bow, arrows, combs, jugs and bows, 431 amber beads from the Baltic, 1,658 turquoise beads, bronze, bone and iron arrowheads, stone ceremonial dishes. See Gold Objects, Jewelry, Below.
Ethnic groups that live in remote Caucasus valleys in Iran, Georgia and southern Russia still speak an Iranian tongue similar to what the Scythians spoke and practice customs whose origins can be traced back to the Scythians.
Customs in Ukraine that are thought to be Scythian in origin include the taboo of forbidding the extinguishing of fires on St. John's Day, Christmas and New Year's Eve. The Ukrainians believe that Scythian kurgams were raised by mourners placing handfuls of earth on the grave, which means the larger the mound the larger the number of mourners.
According to scholars, Scythian culture is till very much in alive in North and South Ossetia, regions in Caucasus along the Russian and Georgian mountains. See Ossetians, Minorities, Russia.
Forensic Analysis of Scythian Warrior Mummies
Andrew Curry wrote in Discover magazine: “That the warrior survived the arrow’s strike for even a short time was remarkable. The triple-barbed arrowhead, probably launched by an opponent on horseback, shattered bone below his right eye and lodged firmly in his flesh. The injury wasn’t the man’s first brush with death. In his youth he had survived a glancing sword blow that fractured the back of his skull. This injury was different. The man was probably begging for death, says Michael Schultz, a paleopathologist at the University of Göttingen. Holding the victim’s skull in one hand and a replica of the deadly arrow in the other, Schultz paints a picture of a crude operation that took place on the steppes of Siberia 2,600 years ago. [Source: Andrew Curry, Discover, July 2008]
“The man was crying, “Help me,” Schultz says. Thin cuts on the bone show how his companions cut away his cheek, then used a small saw to remove pieces of bone, but to no avail. Pointing to a crack in the skull, he describes the next agonizing step: An ancient surgeon smashed into the bone with a chisel in a final, futile effort to free the arrowhead. “Hours or a day later, the man died,” Schultz says. “It was torture.” The slain warrior’s remains were found in 2003, buried with those of 40 others in a massive kurgan, or grave mound, in southern Siberia at a site that archaeologists call Arzhan 2.
The Arzhan 2 grave mound contained the bodies of 26 men and women, most of them apparently executed to follow the ruler into the afterlife. One woman’s skull had been pierced four times with a war pick another man’s skull still had splinters in it from the wooden club used to kill him. The skeletons of 14 horses were arranged in the grave. More impressive was the discovery of 5,600 gold objects, including an intricate necklace weighing three pounds and a cloak studded with 2,500 small gold panthers.
“In 2007, Schultz reported finding on a prince buried at the center of the Arzhan 2 mound. Using a scanning electron microscope, Schultz found signs of prostate cancer in the prince’s skeleton. This is the earliest documentation of the disease.” On another mummy Schultz noted “that the mummy’s teeth are surrounded by pitted bone---evidence of painful gum disease, probably the result of a diet rich in meat and dairy but lacking in fruits and vegetables. Between 60 and 65 years old when he died, the man was slim and just about 5 feet 2 inches. At some point he had broken his left arm, perhaps in a fall. His vertebrae show signs of osteoarthritis from years of pounding in the saddle. Badly worn arm and shoulder joints testify to heavy use. “That kind of osteoarthritis and joint damage is very characteristic if you handle wild horses,” Schultz says. The clues reinforce what Parzinger and others have suspected: He belonged to the Scythians
In the 1940s horsemen mummies were found in the Altai Mountains, which run through Siberia and Mongolia. Later, after the fall of the Soviet Union, when some of the sites became more accessible for excavation, Scythian-related discoveries came at a faster pace. In the 1990s and 2000s well-preserved mummies---not skeletons---have been found at altitudes of 8,000 feet in the valleys of the Altai Mountains. Still other discoveries have been made on the coast of the Black Sea and the edge of China. [Source: Andrew Curry, Discover, July 2008]
Andrew Curry wrote in Discover magazine: “In the late 1940s, Soviet archaeologist Sergei Rudenko traveled to the Pazyryk region of the Altai Mountains and made some stunning finds. Richly appointed wooden chambers contained well-preserved mummies, their skin covered in elaborate, twisting animal tattoos. Their brains, intestines, and other organs had been removed and the corpses sewn up with horsehair. The dead had been dressed, armed, and laid to rest in chambers lined with felt blankets, wool carpets, and slaughtered horses.
In 1992 Russian archaeologists began a new search for ice lenses---and mummies. Natalya Polosmak, an archaeologist in Novosibirsk, discovered the coffin of an elaborately tattooed “ice princess” with clothes of Chinese silk at Ak-Alakha, another site in the Altai Mountains. Other finds in this area included a burial chamber with two coffins. One coffin contained a man, the other a woman armed with a dagger, war pick, bow, and arrow-filled quiver. She wore trousers instead of a skirt. The find lent credence to some scholars’ suggestions of a link between the Scythians and the legendary Amazons.
In the early 1990s, just a few miles from that site, Parzinger’s partner Vyacheslav Molodin uncovered the more modest mummy of a young, blond warrior. The burial style resembled that of Parzinger’s mummy, the one found at the Olon-Kurin-Gol River whose face was crushed by ice.
Study of Scythian Graves, Permafrost and Global Warming
There are concerns that global warming may soon put an end to the search for Scythians. Andrew Curry wrote in Discover magazine: “Rudenko’s dig diaries contain reports of weather far colder than what modern archaeologists experience in the Altai. “When you read descriptions from the 1940s and compare them with the climate of today, you don’t need to be a scientist to see there’s been a change,” Parzinger says. Geographer Frank Lehmkuhl from the University of Aachen in Germany has been studying lake levels in the Altai region for a decade. “According to our research, the glaciers are retreating and the lake levels are rising,” Lehmkuhl says. With no increase in the region’s rainfall, the change “can only come from melting permafrost and glaciers.” [Source: Andrew Curry, Discover, July 2008]
As the permafrost thaws, the ice that has preserved the Scythian mummies for so many centuries will thaw too. In the Olon-Kurin-Gol grave, the ice that once crushed the mummy against the roof of the burial chamber had receded nine inches by the time the chamber was opened. Within a few decades, the ice lenses may be completely gone. “Right now we’re facing a rescue archaeology situation,” Parzinger says. “It’s hard to say how much longer these graves will be there.”
Finding a Well-Preserved Half Frozen Scythian Mummy
Hermann Parzinger, a German archaeologist and head of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation in Berlin, and his Russian colleague Konstantin Chugonov excavated the tombs of the wounded warrior and the cancerous prince at Arzhan 2 and were tantalized by the possibility of finding a well-preserved mummy. [Source: Andrew Curry, Discover, July 2008]
Andrew Curry wrote in Discover magazine: “In the summer of 2006, his search took him to a windswept plain in the Altai Mountain range that is peppered with Scythian grave mounds. Parzinger worried that mummies in the highlands may not be around much longer, as global warming reverses the chill that has preserved them for millennia. A team of Russian geophysicists had surveyed the area in 2005, using ground-penetrating radar to look for telltale underground ice. Their data suggested that four mounds could contain some sort of frozen tomb. Parzinger assembled 28 researchers from Mongolia, Germany, and Russia to open the mounds, on the banks of the Olon-Kurin-Gol River in Mongolia. The first two mounds took three weeks to excavate and yielded nothing significant. A third had been cleaned out by grave robbers centuries earlier.
The radar data for the fourth mound---barely a bump on the plain, just a few feet high and 40 feet across---were ambiguous at best. But a thrill went through the team as they dug into it. Buried under four and a half feet of stone and earth was a felt-lined chamber made of larch logs. Inside was a warrior in full regalia, his body partially mummified by the frozen ground.
Researchers recovered the mummy intact, along with his clothes, weapons, tools, and even the meal intended to sustain him in the afterlife. He shared his grave with two horses in full harness, slaughtered and arranged facing northeast. Mongolia’s president lent the team his personal helicopter to shuttle the finds to a lab in the country’s capital, Ulaanbaatar. The mummy’s body spent a year in Germany his clothes and gear are at a lab in Novosibirsk, Russia.
Before Parzinger opened his grave, the warrior had lain for more than 2,000 years on an ice lens, a sheet of ice created by water seeping through the grave and freezing against the permafrost below. The mummy “had been dehydrated, or desiccated, by the ice in the grave,” Schultz says. The combination of ice and intentional preservation resulted in remarkably resilient specimens. When Schultz shows me the mummy, housed in the same lab as the skeleton of the wounded warrior, the temperature is a comfortable 70 degrees, and sunlight streams onto its leathery flesh.
Ovid_among the Scythians
The mummy’s facial features were destroyed. But in this instance---unlike the case of the wounded warrior skeleton---the destruction was inflicted by nature. When the ice lens formed under the burial chamber, it expanded upward. “The extent of the ice was so high, the body was pressed against the logs on the ceiling and smashed,” Schultz says. The skull shattered, making facial reconstruction impossible. His chest, too, was crushed. Still, a lot can be learned. “You can establish a kind of biography from the body,” Schultz says.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wikipedia, BBC, Comptom’s Encyclopedia, Lonely Planet Guides, Silk Road Foundation, The Discoverers by Daniel Boorstin History of Arab People by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991) Islam, a Short History by Karen Armstrong (Modern Library, 2000) and various books and other publications.
4 Warrior Queens Of The Middle East
Warrior women were not confined to the Eurasian plains. Elsewhere in the ancient world, we find accounts similar to the Greek narratives. Neo-Assyrian records from the eighth century BC speak of queens of Qedar who ruled over nomadic Arab and Semitic tribes ranging from Syria to the Nile. One of them, Zabibi, may have been part of a dynasty that included the legendary Queen of Sheba, whose visit to King Solomon is recorded in the Bible.
Zabibi was a vassal of the Assyrain king Tiglath Pileser III. Her successor, Queen Samsi, threw off the yoke of tribute and, with the ruler of Damascus, began a rebellion against Tiglath Pileser in 732 BC. Male Arab warriors were joined by females in the decisive battle near Mt. Saquuri. Unfortunately, Samsi and her Amazons were defeated, and the queen fled into the desert. Samsi ultimately surrendered, and Tiglath Pileser allowed her to remain queen of Qedar until 728 BC. Samsi&rsquos successor, Queen Yatie, joined an alliance of Chaldeans, Elamites, and Arameans to wrest control of Babylon from King Sennacherib of Assyria in 703 BC.
In a world where kings held absolute sway over governance, the mention of queens taking on a male-dominated role is intriguing. It lends credence to the Biblical tale of the Queen of Sheba. Sheba herself may be the &ldquoSaba,&rdquo whose tributes Tiglath Pileser received. However, after Queen Te&rsquoelkhunu in 691 BC, politically active Arab queens disappear from the historical record.
By the first century AD, the Qedarites were no more, but the third century saw the rise of a warrior queen named Zenobia, who defied the Romans. Later medieval Arabic romances were populated by warlike females, among them a woman named &ldquoWolf.&rdquo
Warrior Burial Is Scythian Amazon Girl No Older Than 13 - History
Spring 2005 (13.1)
Legends in History
Fearless Women Warriors in Life and Lore
by Farid Alakbarli
Legends about the Amazons - a warlike tribe of women warriors - have existed in various cultures throughout the world. Not many people realize, however, that Amazons are closely associated with Azerbaijan. Yes, ancient Greeks believed that Caucasian Albania was the native land of the Amazons. Perhaps, much of what has been written about Amazons is only a legend however, it is true that many Albanian women really did serve in the armies of Caucasian Albania when they fought against the Roman invaders during the 1st century BC.
Kingdom of Caucasian Albania
Caucasian Albania was a territory that covered most of entire region of modern-day Azerbaijan Republic including some additional areas in neighboring countries. Note that Caucasian Albania had nothing to do with the modern state of Albania in the Balkans. According to legends, the kingdom of Caucasian Albania was founded in the 4th century BC by king Aran. There were 26 different tribes in Albania including Udi, Sodi, Gargar (Gagarians) and Gardman. Strabo describes Caucasian Albanians as tall, blonde-haired and gray-eyed. He characterizes them as brave and warlike. Albania was a fertile agrarian state with vast wheat fields, grape vineyards and fruit gardens. People worshiped the moon and various stars and planets. There was a Temple dedicated to the Moon located in the vicinity of Gabala in northern Azerbaijan, which was the ancient capital of Albania.
Sometime during the 4th-5th century AD, Albania adopted Christianity. Today we know about Albania from ancient Greek and Roman historians such as Pliny (23 AD to 79 AD), Ptolemy (100 AD to 170 AD), Strabo (64/63 BC to 23 AD), Plutarch (46 AD-after 119 AD).
Strabo and Albanian Amazons
Left: Note the apparel of th woman typical of Amazons, wearing a sword and two cases of ski - one to hold her bow and the other, her arrows.
For example, a little explicitly Strabo is reporting: "Also the Amazons, it is said, live in the mountains of the Caucasian Albania. Theophanes, who took part in Pompeius campaign (106 BC-48 BC) and marched on the country of the Albanians, says that the Geles and the Leges - Scythians - lived between the Amazons and the Albanians.There was a river called Mermadalis, running between these tribes and the Amazons. Others, however, among whom were Metrodorus the Sceptic, and Hypsicrates, who were also familiar with these regions, wrote that the Amazons lived near the border with Gagarians in the northern promontories of the Caucasus called the Ceraunian Mountains.
Strabo writes: "The Amazons spend their time isolated from men, occupying themselves with plowing and sowing, planting, taking their herds to pasture and, especially, in breeding horses. The more courageous among them engage in hunting on horseback and exercise martial arts.
"In their youth, all of these women have had their right breast cut off to enable a more effective use of their right arm, especially in throwing the javelin. They also make use of the bow, the axe, and a light buckler (a shield worn on the arm). They prepare helmets, clothing, and waist belts from animal skins.
"In the spring, they celebrate two special months, when they climb the nearby mountains which separate them from the Gagarians. Following an old custom, the Gagarians meet them there and carry out sacrifices with the Amazons. Then they unite to procreate children. They do it secretly in the dark - every Gagarian with the Amazon women that they choose. After the women become pregnant, they return. The female children who are born to the Amazons are kept, but the boys are passed over to the Gagarians to raise. Each Gagarian who is given a child raises it as his own son, despite the uncertainty of its origin."
Gagarians and Amazons
The Gagarians about which Strabo writes were one of main tribes of the Caucasian Albania. In other sources they are called Gargarians or the Gargar people. Together with the Udi people, Gagarians / Gargarians were the most important tribe in the region. The province where they lived was called Gargarian Lowland (now known as Mugan steppe in Azerbaijan).
But who were the Amazons? Despite the fact that Strabo's story is, obviously, part fantasy, part legend, it may offer some basis for fact. For example, it states that there were two neighboring tribes in Caucasian Albania: the Amazons and Gagarians. Of course, it is hard to believe that Amazons consisted only of women. More than likely, it was a tribe with strong traces of matriarchy, where women served as warriors and chiefs of tribes. So the Amazons and Gagarians may have been people of different cultures and traditions and, perhaps, with different languages and racial peculiarities.
Left: From Miniatures of Nizami's Poetry (Baku, Yazichi 1983).
In 66 BC, the Roman legions marched on the Caucasus, hoping to be able to easily overtake and conquer this mountainous region. The Roman army was headed by the distinguished General Pompey (Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, 106-47 BC). Orois, the king of the Caucasian Albania, made a fearless attack on the Roman legions. The Albanian army numbering about 40,000 warriors, was defeated by Romans.
The next battle took place at the Alazan (Ginikh) River in the region that is now known as northwest Azerbaijan. This time, the Albanian army was commanded by the king's brother Cosis. His troops encountered 22,000 in cavalry (including the so-called "Amazons") and 60,000 in infantry. During this bloody battle, Cosis pressed the Roman warriors and got near Pompey himself. The Roman historian Plutarch (circa 45-125 AD) in his "Life of Pompey" writes: "Their general was Cosis, the king's brother, who as soon as the battle had begun, singled out Pompey, and rushed at him, thrusting his javelin into the joints of his breastplate. However, Pompey, succeeded in retaliating, pierced him through the body with his lance, and slew him. In this battle, the Amazons were fighting together with the barbarians (Albanians). They had come down from the mountains from the river Thermodon".
After killing Cosis, the Romans took the offensive. Even though the Albanian troops retreated to mountains around Gabala and Shaki, they continued their resistance, with surprise attacks against the Romans in various parts of the country. Again, it was the Amazons who played an important role in these attacks.
Soon, most of Romans were either killed or wounded. Others starved because the Albanians had scorched their food supply - their own fields of crops and fruit gardens. As a result, Pompey could not reach the Caspian shores and so he returned to Iberia (modern Georgia), which the Romans had captured earlier. Unlike Armenia and Iberia, Caucasian Albania was never conquered by the Roman Empire. Amazons had played an invaluable role in this resistance.
The Amazon Race
This very important question of the identity of the Amazons still puzzles modern historians. It is interesting that among peoples living in Albania, Strabo mentions Scythians and points out that they lived in the vicinity with Albanians and Amazons. From history, we know about women warriors among the Scythians, Sakas and Sarmatians. These peoples had related traditions, which were very similar. Scythian-Saka women were known to have fought on horseback in their cavalries.
From ancient times, these related peoples had lived in Caucasian Albania and other areas of Azerbaijan. During the 8th-7th century BC, Scythians created their own kingdom in Azerbaijan. Sakas also settled in Azerbaijan at this time. One of the provinces of the Caucasian Albania was named Sakasena which means "Land of Saka". Today one of the ancient cities located in the foothills of the Caucasus mountains in northwest Azerbaijan is called "Shaki", a name that is related to the Saka people. Later, Scythians intermarried with Albanians and other tribes of ancient Azerbaijan. All of them are ancestors of modern Azerbaijanis.
Left: "Khosrov and Shirin Meet While Hunting". Note the woman on horseback has skillfully shot the deer with her bow and arrows. Another has pierced a lion with her sword. From Miniatures of Nizami's Poetry. (Baku, Yazichi 1983).
In the 1st century BC, the Sakas of Azerbaijan were a semi-nomadic warlike tribe with evidence of matriarchy in their culture. The Saka women had many rights and served in the army as cavalry women. The Greek historian Ctesius (5th century BC) writes: "The Saka women are brave and help their husbands in war".
However, not all Saka women participated in battles. Mostly, it was the young and unmarried girls who were specially trained in archery, wrestling, horse-riding and fencing. The elevated status of women is proven by the fact that in Sarmatian burial mounds, the queen is often placed in the center of the grave, while the men servants were buried around her. Ancient Greeks called the ruling system of Sarmatians and Sakas "Gynocracy" (society ruled by women). Zarina and Sparetra were famous Saka queens. It is believed that the legends about Amazons stem from these practices among the Sarmatians or Sakas.
Perhaps, the Sakas are those Amazons mentioned in Strabo's "Geography". It is important that Strabo and Plutarch both wrote that the Amazons lived in Caucasian Albania, but that they never mention that Amazons and Albanians were similar or related peoples.
Plutarch writes that Amazons helped Albanians to fight against the Romans. The Albanian king would ask help from the neighboring Saka tribes and sent their cavalry - both men and women on horseback - to fight against Romans. It may be that the men and women of Saka were divided into different detachments.
Perhaps, the Romans saw troops that were comprised only of women. It's only natural that when the Romans saw armed women on horseback, they were surprised and concluded that they had met the real Amazon tribes. Perhaps this is why they describe the Saka men warriors as Scythians, and Saka women warriors as Amazons.
Queens of Turan
In ancient Iranian sources, Scythians, Sakas and Sarmatians are called "Turanians". The great Persian poet of the 9th century Ferdowsi wrote in his "Shahname" (Book of the King) about war between agrarian Iranians and nomadic Turanians. Iranians lived in cities and villages and they were patriarchal their women had few rights. However, Turanians were nomads and lived horseback. In contrast to the Iranians, they had strong traces of matriarchy. Turanian women participated in wars and often they were ruled - not by kings, but queens - such as the famous Turanian (Massagat) queen known as Tomris.
References to Queens can also be found in the poem, "Khosrov and Shirin" by 12th century Azerbaijani poet Nizami Ganjavi. For example, he writes about Shirin, the Christian queen and wife of the Sasanid king Khosrov II (590-628). There are different versions about ethnic origin of Shirin (Syrian, Armenian, Caucasian Albanian, Aramaic, Western Iranian). Nizami writes that legends about queen Shirin were held in the city of Barda (located in central Azerbaijan). It is important to note that in the times of which Nizami writes (Sasanid Iran, 2nd-4th century AD), Barda was the capital of the kingdom of Caucasian Albania. Shirin was characterized as a brave woman who rode a horse. In other words, she had all the characteristics of being an "Amazon".
Another legendary queen of Barda that Nizami wrote about was Nushaba who lived during the times of Alexander the Great (356-323 BC). Despite the fact that historical sources have not been found that tell us about this Albanian queen, her prototype may have been a Saka chief (queen) from Sakasena, the autonomous province of Albania. Both Nushaba and Tomris are typical queens of Turan - Amazons.
Left: From the "First Conversation of the Lovers", Miniatures of Nizami's Poetry (Baku, Yazichi 1983).
Sakas and Scythians lived in Azerbaijan from the 1st millennium BC until first centuries of the Christian Era. Then, they became assimilated by the local population. During the first centuries AD, other nomadic peoples, the Oghuz, Seljuks and Kipchaks arrived in Azerbaijan. The traditions among these semi-nomadic tribes were similar to each other. These three groups have been found to have traces of matriarchy in their culture. During the Middle Ages, both the Scythians-Sakas and Oghuz-Kipchaks were considered Turanians and women warriors were typical to all of them.
In medieval Azerbaijani and Iranian manuscripts, we see miniatures painted with images of armed women fighting on horseback. In the medieval Azerbaijani epic "Kitabi-Dada Gorgud" (11th century AD), we read about such women warriors as Burla khatun and Banuchichak. Women of the Turk Oghuz also were armed and fought on horseback. Detachments of women resembling Amazons also existed.
In this epic, we read about the wife of Dirse khan, the king of Oghuz: "Dirse khan's wife had returned back home. She did not yield and she armed 40 maidens, acquired horses for them and led them herself. She mounted a swift-footed horse and went to look after her son". These 40 armed maidens led by the Oghuz queen are the real Amazons.
From these facts, we may conclude that the information about Amazons in ancient Greek sources is not pure fantasy. The prototypes of Amazons - the Scythian-Saka and Oghuz-Kipchak tribes - really lived in the ancient and medieval Azerbaijan.
In the miniatures depicted these stories we find images of Shirin and others. They are equipped for battle - with swords, bows, arrows and shields. However, their appearance is peaceful. Only some of the cavalry women shooting appear warlike and aggressive. In contrast to the European-faced Shirin in this miniatures, the cavalry women have a slightly Mongoloid appearance (slanted eyes), typical of the Kipchak nomads who were a group of Turkic tribes living in the Eurasian steppes between Mongolia and Siberia and the Caucasus. For example, Afag (pronounced ah-FAGH), the wife of Nizami was also a Kipchak. The king of Kipchaks, known as Kipchak Malik and his daughter Seljan are described in the medieval Azeri epic Dada Gorgud. So, in these miniatures, we see two types of Amazons: (1) the Turanian Saka type (Queen Shirin), and (2) the Turkic Kipchak type (cavalry women on horseback, shooting).
There was also a third type of Amazons - the Turkic Oghuz woman warriors. The Oghuz tribes lived throughout Azerbaijan. They comprise the main ancestors of modern Azerbaijanis today. During the first centuries AD, Oghuz intermarried with Sakas, Albanians and Medes. They rarely had slanted eyes. They looked almost like modern Azerbaijanis.
The woman warriors of Oghuz (Burla khatun, Banuchichak and others) are also described in Dada Gorgud. Unfortunately, we have no ancient miniatures showing Burla khatun and Banuchichak in battle, only modern day illustrations by Azerbaijani artists.
Amazons in Verbal Folklore
Modern writers incorporate these folk epics and stories about Amazons in their books and plays. In 1927, the famous Azerbaijani playwright Jafar Jabbarli wrote a romantic historical novel entitled "Od Gelini" (Fiancé of Fire) which depicts a heroine struggling against Arab invaders of the eighth and ninth centuries. The famous writer of Azerbaijan Anar simplified and adopted the "Dada Gorgud stories" for children. Writer Nabi Khazri wrote a play "Burla khatun, about the legendary Oghuz queen and warrior Burla khatun, who participated in battles with troops of armed Oghuz women.
Legends about Amazons are still quite prevalent in the verbal folklore of Azerbaijan. Ashugs (folk minstrels who tell these stories accompanying themselves on the traditional stringed instrument-saz) are the real repositories of these legends. For example, some of them still sing about the women warriors. Ashugs in the Gazakh district (northwest Azerbaijan) sing of these feats from Dada Gorgud in the squares, tea houses and cafes.
Usually, the folk minstrels concentrate and improvise on specific sections of these long epics. One of the most popular ones related to Amazons is a story about Beyrek and Banuchichak. According to this story, the Oghuz prince Beyrek wanted to marry Banuchichak, a princess from another clan. Banuchichak was a skillful rider, hunter, archer and wrestler. At last, he finds Banuchichak in the royal tent in the steppe, but he doesn't recognize her because Banuchichak disguises her personality.
The following discourse is said to have taken place: "What is your business here, young man?" asked Banuchichak. "Bay Bichan Bey is supposed to have a daughter. I've come to see her," replied the prince.
The girl said, "She's not the sort of person who would show herself to you. But I'm her maid servant. Let's go hunting together. If your horse can run faster than mine, then you can beat her horse, too. Then we'll shoot arrows with our bows. If you can shoot an arrow farther than I can, you can beat her at this, too. Then, we'll wrestle. If you can defeat me, you can defeat her, too." Beyrek agreed: "Very well, then. Let's mount." The two got on their horses and rode out onto a field. They spurred their horses, and Beyrek's horse outran the girl's. When they shot their bows, Beyrek's arrows landed at a further distance than the girl's. The girl noted: "Oh, young man, no one has ever ridden faster than me, and no one has ever shot an arrow further than mine. So let's wrestle."
Beyrek dismounts. They grappled with one another like two trained wrestlers. Beyrek tried to knock the girl to the ground, while she tried to make him lose his balance and fall. Exhausted, Beyrek thought, "If I'm beaten by this girl, everyone will laugh at me and say terrible things about me throughout the lands of the Oghuz."
So he gathered his strength and finally threw the girl. He first tripped her up and caught her by her breast while she struggled to free herself. Then Beyrek took the girl by her narrow waist and threw her down again, making her fall flat on her back.
The girl finally admitted: "Young man, I am Banuchichak, daughter of Bay Bichan."
Beyrek kissed the girl three times. Then, taking the golden ring from his own finger, he placed it on the girl's finger, and announced: "May your wedding be a happy one, oh, daughter of a khan. Let this be a sign of our engagement."
This and other stories from Dada Gorgud provide evidence that ancient Amazon traditions continued to live in Azerbaijan even up to the first stage of the Islamic Era (approximately 7th-15th century AD).
Despite the fact that queens disappeared after the 7th century when Islam was introduced into the region, evidence in folklore suggests that women warriors sometimes existed in nomadic Turkic tribes of Central Asia and Azerbaijan until 10th-12th centuries.
After that, this phenomenon seems to have disappeared, as well even though both the mother and wife of the king Uzun Hasan Aghgoyunlu (15th century) continued to play important part in governing the country which at that time had its capital in Tabriz.
Stories about the Amazons were not just a figment of the imagination amongst ancient Greek and Roman historians. Prototypes of the Amazons really existed in vast plains of Eurasia which stretch from Caucasus mountains of Azerbaijan and steppes of Ukraine to the deserts of Mongolia. These mysterious Amazons were not a separate nation or an unusual human race. They were regular women who took on the role as warriors from very early times.
These facts provide the basis for the legends that have grown up around the Amazons. Therefore, the Azerbaijan of antiquity was known to historians outside the region, not only as "land of fire", but also as the land of the "Amazons".