by Jeannine Davis-Kimball
The Center for the Study of the Eurasian Nomads (CSEN)
"We are riders; our business
is with the bow and the spear, and we know nothing of women's work." - Herodotus IV, 114
Numerous myths and legends grew up around women or tribes of women in ancient times, who either fought alongside or alone against men. The Greeks and Romans called some of these Amazons. The Scythian word for these women is Oiorpata, meaning "to kill man." Not until the 20th century did the archaeological evidence actually prove the existence of thse fearsome women and, thus, historians and scholars have largely dismissed the ancient accounts as being purely mythological.
However, new excavations at Pokrovka on the Kazakh steppes along the Kazakhstan and Russian border have yielded evidence to the contrary -- that women among the Sauromatian and Early Sarmatian (Early Nomad) tribes are warriors. Their kurgans (burial mounds) are found in the southern Ural steppes. Offering included in their burials that the nomads needed for their journey to the next world included ordinary household objects, religious and cultic items, horse trappings, and weaponry for both men and women alike. The populations in this region are Indo-Europoids and spoke an Indo-Iranian language. A skull of one such women was reconstructed. At this early date there is no Mongoloid admixture among the Sauromantians and Sarmatians at Pokrovka.
Artifacts from the Pokrovka burials in the southern Ural steppes include ordinary household objects, religious and cultic items, horse trappings, and weaponry for both men and women alike. The cultic objects are found in female burials. Animal bones, along with an iron knife use for cutting the meat and eating, are the remains of food left for the journey to the next world.
After we developed a methodology for studying the artifacts by placing them in categories according to their use, they are matched with the sex of the person in the burial to determine the status of these individuals. Male statuses are predominently warriors. In addiiton there are a few very poor individuals without grave goods, and a few other males that had a child buried with them. No female burials at Pokrovka had a child in the burial. About one-third of the burials are children and except for those in male burials, all are buried alone in their own burial pit.
Female statuses fell into several major categories that are not mutually exclusive. Women of the femininity and hearth status have many imported artifacts including gold-covered bronze earrings, imported jet and other semi-precious stone beads as well as faience and magical glass eyebeads. They also frequently contained spindlewhorls.
The burials with spindlewhorls may present a special category as some spindlewhorls associated with Saka (a neighboring tribe of nomads) female burials had magical scrolls carved on the surface.
The women's occupations during their lifetime run the gamut from housewife, to herder, to priestess, to warrior horsewoman. These are the remains of a society lost to history, where gender roles were not defined according to sex and women more often than not were tribal leaders with power and status.
Two cemeteries, Pokrovka 10 and Pokrovka 2, had significant numbers of female burials with mortuary offerings indicating they were priestesses of various degrees of rank or importance. Gold artifacts including animals style plaques and temple pendants, fossilized sea shells, a beautiful bronze mirror, and a ceremonial altar were all part of her accoutrements.
The priestesses' burials held stone-carved or clay sacrificial altars, fossilized sea shells, and animal-style amulets. The skeleton found in the burial with these artifacts was in her teens. She was buried in a very small catacomb off a small pit and was quite difficult to excavate. However, all the details of her burial were carefully preserved.
Because they are located much further to the east of the north Black Sea region where the ancient Herotodus gathered his information, the female warriors at Pokrovka were most probably not the Amazons that this ancient Greek historian wrote about in the 5th century B.C. He probably had heard of "fighting women" and connected them to the Amazons that the Greeks mythologized. The Amazons have many provenances including North Africa, Anatolia, and Colchis east of the Black Sea. Other women warriors belonged to the Sauromatian and Sarmatian tribes living between the Don and Volga rivers and whose lifestyle was very similar to that of the women at Pokrovka in the southern Urals.
Further research has confirmed that Sarmatian women of special status belonged to tribes from the region near Ufa, located at the western edge of the Ural Mountains, to the north Black Sea region around Azov.
The warrior women's burials contained bronze arrowheads sometimes in a quiver made from small branches and leather, iron daggers and swords, and amulets that indicated prowess. Among the artifacts excavated from a young woman warrior's burial were about 40 bronze arrowheads, (2) an iron dagger, and several amulets indicting prowess including (1) a leather pouch worn around her neck which held a bronze arrowhead. Other artifacts shown here are (3) two fossilized seashells, and (4) a natural stone in the shape of seashell which has the residue from ground chalk probably used in a ritual. The presence of the seashells along with weapons indicates she was a warrior-priestess.
Within the last decade, two additional, and yet more ancient cultures were discovered in Eurasia that have several characteristics in common. These were named "Petrovka" and "Sintashta." Located in the southern Ural region, they are dated to c. 2000-1600 B.C. (Gening, Zdanovich 1993, Zdanovich 1995, 1997) The former occupied the eastern region (Tobol -Ishim), and the latter the southern area. Previously, Sintashta settlements had been excavated but they had not been understood because of their difference from the classical Andronovo culture. Moreover, because the complexes contained some features belonging to the Abashevo culture, the original researchers had initially included them into the Abashevo sphere.
The most diagnostic feature of the Sintashta settlement site is its closed fortification that consisted of ramparts and ditches, enforced by a fence or wall built from unfired clay bricks and wooden frames. The site plan was based on either a round or rectangular form. The fortified area included from 6,000 to 30,000 sq. meters. Towers and other constructions protected the entrances and the accesses to water (Zdanovich 1995). The houses were 25-130 sq.meters, rectangular and had pit-storage, open fire hearths, wells. Some also included metallurgical furnaces.
Why had the individuality of Sintashta sites and their associated artifacts not been recognized earlier? And why are the sites still the subject of dispute? The crux of this matter is that frequently the more ancient deposits had been destroyed by subsequent layers of occupation. It was possible to understand the Sintashta settlement only after a another site had been investigated more recently.
The Sintashta sites have been referred to as "The Land of Towns " (Gening, Zdanovich 1993, Zdanovich 1995). The culture had occupied the territory along the eastern slopes of the Ural Mountains. The fortified settlement studied in most detail is Arkaim. Occupying 20,000 sq. meters, it was discovered in 1987 by the team headed by G. Zdanovich during salvage excavations before the construction of a dam. The excavation revealed that the settlement had been burned and, therefore, many details were preserved. The population, however, had vacated the city before the fire and took all their possession with them.
Arkaim had two protective circular walls and two circles of standard dwellings separated by a street around a central square. The external wall, 160 m in diameter and 4 m wide, was built from specially selected soil that had been packed into timber frames before being faced with adobe bricks (Zdanovich 1997). On the interior, houses abutted the wall and were situated radially with their doors exiting to the circular internal street.
Many interpretations have been suggested in relation to this site - a military fort, proto-city, or a ceremonial and religious center. The latter hypothesis appears reasonable, if we bear in mind that the sets of artifacts excavated were not characteristic of everyday usage. More plausible are the interpretation put forward by researchers who regard sites such as Arkaim as combination of administrative and ceremonial centers. Possibly this was a location where about 1,000 to 2,000 peoplearistocracy (and craftsmen) gathered periodically to perform rituals.
With the emergence of the Urnfield culture of Central Europe, there appear a people whom some scholars regard as being 'proto-Celtic', in that they may have spoken an early form of Celtic. As the name suggests, the people of the Urnfield culture cremated their dead and placed the remains in urns which were buried in flat cemeteries without any covering mound. The period of the Urnfield culture, like that of the Tumulus culture, was one of expansion, particularly during the first millennium B.C.E. It is during the period of the Urnfield culture that the Bronze Age was at its peek in Central Europe. They produced weapons, tools, eating and cooking vessels, etc. all out of Bronze. From the Urnfield Culture, the Celts emerge as an agricultural people.
Whereas the Urnfield people may justifiably be considered to have been proto-Celtic, their descendants in Central Europe, the people of the Hallstatt culture, were certainly fully Celtic. The Hallstatt culture and its successor, that of La Tène, together represent the iron-using prehistoric peoples of much of Europe. These are the Keltoi, the Galli and Galatae of classical writers. The two cultures are named after sites at which were found archaeological artifacts now considered to be representative of a particular stage of each culture. Hallstatt is a village in Central Austria at which was found an important cemetery; La Tène is near the north-eastern end of Lake Neuchâtel, in western Switzerland. In rough terms the Hallstatt culture existed from approximately 1200 to 500 B.C.E., with some overlap of the Urnfield culture. The La Tène culture in the parts of Europe which would soon become part of the Roman Empire ended with the arrival of the Romans. Beyond the Empire, such as Ireland and Northern Britain (modern day Scotland) the La Tène culture flourished until about 200 C.E..
Pastoral nomadism, characterized by the trailing of domesticated animals to better seasonal pastures, was made possible only when horseback riding was a fait accompli. Augmented by the exploitation of pasture lands, and the increased demand for horses created by southern urban centers including the Achaemenid Empire, nomadism greatly increased cultural contacts between far-flung regions. The region in which Eurasian nomads herded their livestock is defined by kurgans (burial mounds), because tribes returned over many years to the same summer pastures where they buried their dead. This region, the great Eurasian steppe, begins in Moldova in the west and continues east across the Ukraine and southern Russia (north of the Black Sea), south and east of the Aral Sea, and through Kazakstan to include southern Siberia, western Mongolia, and western China. Major nomadic cemeteries are located in interfluvials of the Dnieper and Dniester rivers, as well as the deltas of the Amu Darya, Syr Darya, and Don. Kurgans along the great Volga, Samara, and Ural rivers mark nomadic routes that penetrated deeper into the more arid steppe lands.
Further east, in the fertile Semirechiye (Seven Rivers) region of Kazakhstan, extra nutritious grasses in the high pastures of the Tien Shan and Altai mountains contributed greatly to the success of nomadism, as the well-being and wealth of nomads is directly dependent upon the health of their herds. Identified from archaeological remains, but also referred to in ancient and contemporary texts, these tribes are known as the Saka, Sauromatians, and Sarmatians, and date to the second half of the first millennium BC. Sedentary populations along the edges of the Talimakan Desert in Xinjiang, China interfaced with the Saka and provided further impetus to nomadism.
Between 1992 and 1995, collaborative American-Russian excavations at Pokrovka unearthed over 150 burials in five cemeteries. The skeletal material from the Sauromatians and Sarmatians was aged and sexed by two physical anthropologists. A wide variety of well-preserved burial artifacts were found. This excellent sample of the material culture from multiple populations allowed us to pose two interesting questions: using the artifacts as criteria, can a status (that is, the relative position of an individual in a ranked group or social system) be determined, and if so, what was the individual's status?
Animal bones, iron knives, and clay pots were categorized as providing sustenance for the journey to the next world; because they were placed in almost all burials, they were excluded from the status categories. Other artifacts included tools, armaments, cultic, and luxury items used in everyday life, or placed in burials for use during the journey to (or for use in) the netherworld, and identified the status of their owners. The artifacts were placed in three status categories:
Three major statuses were identified for the male population:
The diagnostic artifacts from female burials reveal three female statuses:
In comparing artifact types excavated from female burials, however, it became apparent that statuses had been over-simplistic. For example, in two priestess burials a significant number of weapons were also included, and a female with a long iron sword and four seashells in her burial was excavated from a nearby cemetery. This combination of warrior and priestess artifacts indicated that 3% of the females had been warrior-priestesses. Thus, a fourth category of females was identified.
Because we had excavated significant quantities of remarkably well-preserved mortuary offerings, we were able to use these to determine statuses of the individuals buried at Pokrovka. Using the same methodology, we subsequently researched in Russian museums from Azov in the lower Don region to Ufa, in Bashkortostan west of the Ural Mountains.
There we discovered that priestesses and warrior-priestesses were an inherent part of Sauromatian and Early Sarmatian belief systems. Subsequently, we identified priestesses and warrior-priestesses among the Saka who pastured in the Altai and Tien Shan mountains. Perhaps most surprisingly, we found priestesses among the archaeological remains of sedentary populations from oases in the Taklimakan Desert in Xinjiang, China who had maintained symbiotic relationships with Saka nomads. Much more research needs to be done to determine the specific functions of these powerful priestesses and priestess-warriors of the early Eurasian nomads.
Over the course of 5000 years the Kurgans [people of the mounds] migrated from East-Indo Europe and established trade routes all over Europe and across the continentental divide into North America; as time passed these areas gradually became known as Alaska, Canada, northern China, Greece, India, Mesopotamia, Italy, Austria, Hungary, the Balkans, Spain, Switzerland, and France! They finally emerged as a Celtic presence in Hallstatt, Austria around 700 BCE
In 1824 came the first signs of the existence archaeologically of an important Iron Age cemetery at Hallstatt, a small village in Upper Austria. Since much was lost about the Celts through the centuries, archaeology, just developing as a science in the 19th century, became a chief source of knowledge about the Celts in Europe. From 1846 until 1963, when excavations stopped at the cemetery, anywhere from 1000 to 2000 graves (My sources conflict) were excavated. The cemetery mostly dates to the seventh and sixth centuries B.C.E., and includes graves of many different classes.
Warriors' graves made up only about a quarter of the Hallstatt cemetery. Women's graves tended to have masses of clanking jewelry and bulky fibulae. Rich graves in the cemetery often contained impressive sets of bronze vessels - buckets, situlae (buckets with rims turned inward), bowls, and cups, presumably imported from the Mediterranean. Hallstatt remains one of the richest known cemeteries of its kind, with a wide range of weapons, brooches, pins, and pottery. From these excavations, we can develop a comprehensive picture of who the early Celts were.
The individuals buried at Hallstatt came from an early Iron Age community, whose lives depended on the mining of nearby rock-salt deposits, an important commodity in those days for preserving food. Salt also effectively preserves organic remains. Investigations of the mines themselves yielded clothing, equipment and even the body of a miner, perfectly preserved by salt. Around 600 B.C.E. another big salt mine opened not far from Hallstatt, at Hallein (near modern day Salzburg), a site that was more easily accessible. Hallstatt then went into decline. From the 5th century on it had fewer and fewer well furnished graves. In the fourth century B.C.E., Hallstatt was devastated by a vast landslide.
As stated in the Origins section, the Hallstatt culture, together with La Tène, represent archaeologically the iron-using prehistoric peoples of Central, Western and, temporarily at least, some other parts of Europe. The Hallstatt culture is now thought to span a period from 1200 to 500 B.C.E.. From about 1200 to about 800 B.C.E. there is some overlap with the Urnfield culture as Europe was moving from the Bronze Age into the Iron Age. There are many similarities between the Urnfield and Hallstatt cultures, and it hard to determine when one left off and the other began. One thing is for certain, the first truly Celtic culture saw its beginnings in the Hallstatt culture.
The Hallstatt era is divided into four phases: A, B, C, and D, by modern day archaeologists. Approximately, Hallstatt A and B correspond to the late Bronze Age, c. 1200-800 B.C.E.; Hallstatt C refers to the very early Iron age, c. 800-600 B.C.E.; and Hallstatt D ranges from c. 600-500 B.C.E.. During Hallstatt A and B there is an apparent lack of large scale political organization. Until the eighth century, the known settlements suggest no more than petty chiefdoms. It is during the Hallstatt C period that we start to see fortified settlements on hilltops north of the Alps with greater frequency. Consequently, many burial mounds mark the graves of the rising noble classes, who no doubt had the hillforts built. Increased trade volumes seem to have contributed to the rise of these nobles. In the last phase, Hallstatt D, the richest graves are more concentrated in the west than previously. Resulting, seemly from the wishing to be closer to trade routes to the newly founded Greek colony of Massalia (Marseilles), near the mouth of the Rhône. Reaching the Greek world via Massalia, stories about the 'barbarian' chiefdoms were in all likelihood one of the earliest sources for tales of the people called Keltoi.
The fifth century B.C.E. began with a sudden extinction of the rich chiefdoms of the Hallstatt D. Hillforts all over Central Europe were abandoned, and rich burials ceased. At about the same time, wealthy warrior societies were developing, mostly to the north of the old Hallstatt centers. Almost certainly Celtic speakers, these peoples founded a unique culture and developed an artistic style unlike anything previously seen. This then is the developement of the La Tène culture.
Located on the nothern edge of Lake Neuchâtel in Switzerland, La Tène was identified as an archaeological site in 1857 when amatuer archaeologist, Hansli Kopp, found some ancient iron weapons and timber piles driven into the bed of the lake. Draining and dredging the section of the lake in the 1860's and 1880's revealed an exceptional wealth of artifacts, including human remains, swords, spearheads, tools, and shields. The extraordinary quantity of artifacts recovered since then have convinced archaeologists that La Tène is a representative site for the period of greatest Celtic development and expansion.
Whereas the Hallstatt culture probably consisted of many different peoples and language groups, the La Tène culture can truly be termed "Celtic". The La Tène culture evolved during the fifth century B.C.E. in part of the Hallstatt area. There are several reasons for distniguishing archaeologically between the Hallstatt and La Tène cultures. One most important and distictively different feature of the La Tène culture is the unique art-style, usually represented in their metal-work. This style most likely developed between the Meuse, Neckar, and Main, and had spread quite rapidly. The era in which it flourished begins around 500 B.C.E. and ends, on the European continent at least, around 50 B.C.E.
La Tène Culture lifts the Celts from being just another of the many European tribal peoples. La Tène truly establishes the Celts as a real 'civilization'. La Tène Culture generated some of the ancient world's most stunningly beautiful pieces of decorative art. The use of animals, plants, and spiral patterns in the art eventually epitomized and perpetuated the legend of the Celts.
La Tène society seems to have risen to prominence through trade with the Mediterranean, with the Greeks and Etruscans, and later the Romans. La Tène Culture finds the Celts amonst wealth and glory and expression. In general, the technological level of the La Tène Celts, with very few exceptions, was equal to, and in some cases surpassed, that of the Romans.
It was inevitable, however, that in any conflict between the Celts and Romans, the superior powers of organization, discipline, and orderliness of the Roman culture were bound to overcome the passionate and undisciplined Celts. But before the Romans were able to conquer the greater part of Celtic-dominated areas of continental Europe, the Celts during the La Tène period were to achieve their most widespread expansion. They spread into and beyond those areas previously held by the Urnfield and Hallstatt cultures. They forced their way into Greek and Roman history by sacking Rome in 390 B.C.E. and Delphi around 279 B.C.E..
With the La Tène Culture, the Celts came of age and marked a major cultural presence in Europe. Through La Tène, European peoples saw them as important, powerful, and something to be feared. Their spread across the continent and their impressive pressence, made them a force to be reckoned with. From Germany and Eastern Europe they spread southward into the balkans and Italy, and westward into France and Iberia. Before the La Tène culture of the Celts was finally destroyed by Roman conquest and culture, some of its elements had travelled beyond the continent into the British Isles. Ireland remained (at least no evidence suggests) untouched by the Romans.
With the La Tène culture, the Celts had given themselves definition, acquired a considerable presence, and earned respect from all the peoples of Europe at that time. The Celts had developed a semi-stable society for over a millennium, distributing their wealth through a network of clans consisting of extended families in tribal groupings, as well as international trade via roads and river barges.
The first historical recorded encounter of a people displaying the cultural traits associated with the Celts comes from northern Italy around 400 B.C.E., when a previously unknown group of barbarians came down from the Alps and displaced the Etruscans from the fertile Po valley, a displacment that helped to push the Etruscans from history's limelight. The next encounter with the Celts came with the still young Roman Empire, directly to the south of the Po. The Romans in fact had sent three envoys to the beseiged Etruscans to study this new force. We know from Livy's The Early History of Rome that this first encounter with Rome was quite civilized:
[The Celts told the Roman envoys that] this was indeed the first time they had heard of them, but they assumed the Romans must be a courageous people because it was to them that the [Etruscans] had turned to in their hour of need. And since the Romans had tried to help with an embassy and not with arms, they themselves would not reject the offer of peace, provided the [Etruscans] ceded part of their seperfluous agricultural land; that was what they, the Celts, wanted.... If it were not given, they would launch an attack before the Romans' eyes, so that the Romans could report back how superior the Gauls were in battle to all others....The Romans then asked whether it was right to demand land from its owners on pain of war, indeed what were the Celts going in Etruria in the first place? The latter defiantly retorted that their right lay in their arms: To the brave belong all things.
The Roman envoys then preceded to break their good faith and helped the Etruscans in their fight; in fact, one of the envoys, Quintas Fabius killed one of the Celtic tribal leaders. The Celts then sent their own envoys to Rome in protest and demand the Romans hand over all members of the Fabian family, to which all three of the original Roman envoys belonged, be given over to the Celts, a move completely in line with current Roman protocol. This of course presented problems for the Roman senate, since the Fabian family was quite powerful in Rome. Indeed, Livy says that:
The party structure would allow no resolution to be made against such noblemanm as justice would have required. The Senate...therefore passed examination of the Celts' request to the popular assembly, in which power and influence naturally counted for more. So it happened that those who ought to have been punished were instead appointed for the coming year military tribunes with consular powers (the highest that could be granted).
The Celts saw this as a mortal insult and a host marched south to Rome. The Celts tore through the countryside and several battalions of Roman soilders to lay seige to the Capitol of the Roman Empire. Seven months of seige led to negotiations wherby the Celts promised to leave their seige for a tribute of one thousand pounds of gold, which the historian Pliny tells was very difficult for the entire city to muster. When the gold was being weighed, the Romans claimed the Celts were cheating with faulty weights. It was then that the Celts' leader, Brennus, threw his sword into the balance and and uttered the words vae victis "woe to the Defeated". Rome never withstood another more humiliating defeat and the Celts made an initial step of magnificent proportions into history. Other Roman historians tell us more of the Celts. Diodorus notes that:
Their aspect is terrifying...They are very tall in stature, with ripling muscles under clear white skin. Their hair is blond, but not naturally so: they bleach it, to this day, artificially, washing it in lime and combing it back from their foreheaads. They look like wood-demons, their hair thick and shaggy like a horse's mane. Some of them are cleanshaven, but others - especially those of high rank, shave their cheeks but leave a moustache that covers the whole mouth and, when they eat and drink, acts like a sieve, trapping particles of food...The way they dress is astonishing: they wear brightly coloured and embroidered shirts, with trousers called bracae and cloaks fastened at the shoulder with a brooch, heavy in winter, light in summer. These cloaks are striped or checkered in design, with the seperate checks close together and in various colours.
[The Celts] wear bronze helmets with figures picked out on them, even horns, which made them look even taller than they already are...while others cover themselves with breast-armour made out of chains. But most content themselves with the weapons nature gave them: they go naked into battle...Weird, discordant horns were sounded, [they shouted in chorus with their] deep and harsh voices, they beat their swords rythmically against their shields. Diodorus also describes how the Celts cut off their enemies' heads and nailed them over the doors of their huts, as Diodorus states: In exactly the same way as hunters do with their skulls of the animals they have slain...they preserved the heads of their most high-ranking victims in cedar oil, keeping them carefully in wooden boxes. Diodorus Siculus, History. The Celts ran naked, bloody, painted and tattooed into battle, feeling the fire running through their veins, shrieking and berserk, instilling panic and awe within the hearts of their adversaries. They took warfare very seriously and took the heads of the defeated as seats of the soul and instilled terror into their enemies. Heads were collected as trophies adorning warriors' necks, chariots and even doorways.