Scythian horsewomen and the myth of the Amazons

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TWH – In December 2019, the Russian Academy of Sciences reported finding the skeletal remains of four horsewomen. The burial site contained contained weapons and only female skeletons.

Archaeologists have dated the grave to between 400 and 301 B.C.E. and linked it to Scythian culture. Previously, archaeologists had found the burials of 11 young horsewomen along the Don River valley. This finding marks the first known burial of women of different ages in the same grave.

The Scythians buried their dead in burial mounds or “kurgans.” This kurgan measured 1.1 m (3.6 ft) high by 40 m (131.2 ft.) in diameter. From an entrance on the east side, mourners would carry the bodies into the kurgan. Then, they would construct a wooden frame around the bodies. Mourners would then cover the wooden frame with dirt.

1924 photo of Salbyk kurgan, prior to excavation, surrounded by balbals, and topped with a kurgan obelisk – Image credit: Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Sreejithk2000 using CommonsHelper [public domain ]

The kurgan with four skeletons

Tomb robbers had broken into the kurgan in either the 3rd or 2nd Century B.C.E. These ancient grave robbers only damaged the northern half of the kurgan. The disturbed half of the kurgan contained the skeletal remains of a woman aged between 20 and 25 as well as that of a young woman aged 12 or 13. The grave goods in this half of the kurgan included animal bones, iron hooks, iron knives, 30 iron arrowheads, fragments of ceramics, and harnesses for horses.

The southern half of the kurgan remained as the mourners had left it. It contained the remains of two other women. Two female skeletons lay on wooden planks. Mourners had covered their bodies in grass.

Along the south wall, lay the skeleton of a woman aged between 40 and 50, ”The Elder Woman.” The ancient Scythians would have considered this age to be old. She lay in an elongated position, facing westward. By her side, an iron knife was wrapped in a piece of fabric. Nearby, lay an iron arrowhead with a forked end. The Elder Woman wore an elaborate headdress of stamped gold plates. From the rim of the headdress, hung pendants, shaped like Greek amphorae.

Archaeologists have found twenty-three similar headdresses. This headdress differed. This marked the first time that archaeologists had found a woman wearing a headdress on her funeral bier. These headdresses indicate high status among the Scythians. Most Scythian gold only contained 30% gold. This headdress had a gold content of 65-70%.

Along the western wall of the kurgan lay the skeleton of a 30 to 35 year old woman, “The Horsewoman.” Her head was to the south. The Elder Woman lay along the southern wall facing west. These two women faced each other at right angles.

The Horsewoman lay as if she were riding a horse with her legs bent. To maintain this position, someone had severed her tendons. Under her left shoulder, a mourner had placed a bronze mirror. Two spears lay on her left. An incense burner lay nearby.

Other Kurgans with horsewomen

A surprising number of female Scythian burials contain weapons. Estimates range between 20% and 33%. Many of those women had war wounds. Archaeologists have found two graves of female warriors in Armenia. One appeared to be a warrior of high status. Her bones showed evidence of many blows. An arrowhead had lodged in her femur.

Golden Scythian Warrior (gender not specified) from the Issyk kurgan – Image credit: Derzsi Elekes Andor [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Who were the Scythians?

Historians have given the name “Scythians” to the ancient, nomadic peoples of the Eurasian Steppes. They dominated the region from 700 to 201 B.C.E. Given the size of the Eurasian Steppes, cultural variations must have existed among the Scythians.

This cultural group contained many ethnic groups, but spoke an Indo-Iranian language. Over time, some Scythians became sedentary and engaged in agriculture. Given their nomadic dependency on riding horses, everyone would have worn trousers or similar style clothing. The Scythians are also well-known for sitting in tents filled with cannabis smoke.

The Scythians bordered the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, the Levant, and Greece. They traded with those “great civilizations,” and frequently fought with and against them. The Scythians, however, lacked a written language. Other people wrote about them and labeled them “barbarians.”

Interior of a kurgan in Ukraine – Image credit: Anatoly Shcherbak, CC BY-SA 3.0


The Horsewomen and the Amazons of classical Greece mythology

In classical Greek mythology, the Amazons formed a militaristic culture that existed independently of any particular governance. To improve their skills with a bow and arrow, they purportedly would amputate one breast. The graves of warrior horsewomen can neither prove nor disprove these claims.

Options exist other than an offensive army. These warrior horsewomen may have been guardians of herds. In this role, they would have acted as a defensive militia when cattle raids occurred or when an offensive army attacked.

The mythic significance of the Amazon warrior differs from that of historical Scythian horsewomen. Those horsewomen may have contributed to the myth of the Amazons, but as mythic beings they transcend historical characters. These horsewomen show how gender and gender roles differ across and within cultures.