The Unknown Women of the Ancient Eurasian Steppe

By Megan Snyder

It can be challenging to study the ancient nomads of Eurasia as many cultures did not leave their own written records. Instead, it was often outsiders who did not understand the nomadic way of life and had a limited view on the culture of nomadic groups that wrote about them. Women’s roles within ancient Eurasian nomadic peoples are particularly difficult to study because we are limited to the very brief accounts of writers such as Herodotus. Archeological evidence is therefore needed to fill in the holes and to bring to light more details of women’s societal and cultural roles.

            Herodotus mentions nomadic women only briefly. These mentions are mostly to describe marriage customs or as living with slaves.[1] The Greek historian did not prioritize women’s roles within social structures other than being wives or child-bearers. The exception to his brief and limited descriptions are the Sauromatians. Herodotus may have included information on Sauromatian women because they are very different from their Greek counterparts. Herodotus describes the Sauromatians as a related or sub-culture of the Scythians and as descendants of the Amazon warriors and Scythian men who ride horseback to go hunting and into battle. He marvels at how the Sauromatian women are not allowed to marry until they have killed a male enemy and that men and women wear the same kinds of clothes.[2]

            The idea that the real Sauromatians descended from the mythical Amazons seems strange. However, archeological evidence reveals that warrior women did exist on the Eurasian steppes. An episode of the PBS series Secrets of the Dead discusses the findings of Jeannine Davis-Kimball and Leonid Yablonsky at digs on the border of Russia and Kazakhstan. The show discusses two different archeological digs, one at the time of the episode’s filming and a previous dig in 1994.

            The grave, or kurgan, Davis-Kimball and Yablonsky are filmed excavating is a single-person burial of a female buried with earrings, gold beads, a silver bowl, an Egyptian alabaster jar, and a mirror. The wealth and significance of these artifacts place the woman as a religious or spiritual leader. The fact she is buried alone shows she may have been an important figure. Her bowed legs prove she spent a lot of time riding. The inclusion of arrowheads as burial items and her placement in an ‘attack pose’ indicating she was also a warrior.[3]

            The dig at Pokrovka conducted by Davis-Kimball and Yablonsky in 1994 revealed several female burials with weapons, including swords. One woman was discovered with an arrowhead lodged in her body. The men at the site were buried without artifacts, and one man was buried with a child. None of the female burials at the site had children buried with them. This may suggest a culture where men were the primary child caretakers and women were the warriors.

            The Pokrovka burial site dates to 2500 years ago. The kurgan discussed earlier in the film is 200 miles away from the Pokrovka site and 200 years younger. Herodotus, who lived from 484 BCE to 414 BCE,[4] approximately 2400 years ago, could feasibly have been aware of the culture revealed in these sites. It is arguable that these are burial sites of the Sauromatians, whose migration is described by Herodotus.[5]

            One problem of the Secrets of the Dead episode is that it is designed for a broad general audience. It focuses on telling one specific story and does not offer much in-depth analysis. The discovery of the earrings are presented as clear evidence that the burial’s occupant is a woman before the skull has been examined.

            Besides discussing social structures, Herodotus also writes about cultural traditions, namely religious beliefs. Herodotus narrates the origin stories of the Scythians, including a version told to him by Greeks in Pontus. In this version, Heracles, looking for his lost horses, met a half-woman, half-snake.  As described by the Greek historian, the woman snake monster would not release Heracles’s horses until he slept with her. The rest of the origin story deals with the three sons of this snake woman and Heracles.[6] The scholar Anatoly Khazanov discusses this story’s connections to Scythian religion in-depth, exploring how the Greek and Scythian versions of the origin story detailed by Herodotus have similarities. More striking is the descriptions of the artwork with serpent-tailed women made by both Scythian and Greek artists. This artwork could indicate a belief in a variation of this origin myth or could, as Khazanov suggests, be a representation of a Scythian goddess.[7]

            Eurasian nomadic women’s place in religious and cultural beliefs is not limited to the Scythians’ origin stories. Khazanov details Scythian artworks depicting a goddess holding a mirror. Khazanov is not sure what goddess is depicted, but her importance within Scythian religion is high enough to mark a member of the royal family. A signet ring owned by at least two Scythian kings bearing their names depicts a goddess holding a mirror.[8] If mirrors are the symbol of a specific goddess or simply of divine power across Scythian cultures, Davis-Kimball and Yablonsky’s discoveries gain new meaning.

            The signet ring discussed by Khazanov was discovered in modern-day Romanian. The ring belonged to Scyles, a Scythian king whose downfall Herodotus details.[9] The connection between mirrors and women is not clear, but the cultural significance and divine symbol of mirrors in Scythian culture are. The fact that Herodotus is able to relate this story and the mirror wielding warrior priestess is dated to approximately 100 years after Herodotus’s lifetime suggests that the cultural meaning and significance of mirrors continued over time.

            There are limitations to archeological evidence; it can be incomplete, misleading, or misinterpreted. Once removed from an archeological dig, artifacts lose almost all context. Many Scythian artifacts are known to come from looted burials.[10] The signet ring Khazanov discusses was found at a now destroyed site, and the original context is impossible to obtain. It is very possible many important discoveries about the women of the Eurasian steppe have been lost to looters, misidentification of female remains as male, or simply have not yet been discovered.

            Sometimes archeological evidence cannot create a picture of a culture completely. Many archeological sites of Eurasian nomads are burials. Burials can tell us about genetic patterns and demonstrate relationships and patterns but may not be able to definitively determine the social structures of the living community. The genetic work of a group of scholars very carefully defines that the only patterns that can be determined are of a patrilineal and patrilocal nature. It cannot be determined if the Scytho-Siberians of the Iron Age were a patriarchal society only that male relatives were buried together and that there is evidence of women moving to different groups after marriage.[11] Only conclusions based on the physical evidence can be accepted; however, combining archeological evidence with written records, even if limited, can create a more accurate picture of a culture.

            In conclusion, the limitations of primary sources can make it difficult to understand the cultures of early Eurasian nomadic peoples, especially women’s social and cultural roles. Written records by outsiders such as Herodotus have limited details on women, often discussing the more extraordinary details, and often have limited knowledge of women in nomadic societies beyond marriage. Archeological evidence such as artworks and burial artifacts indicate the importance of women in religion in Scythian culture. There are restrictions to using only archeological evidence alone. Therefore, careful analysis of written records and archeological evidence can piece together the cultural significance of nomadic women and create a better understanding of Eurasian nomadic peoples’ social structures and culture.

Megan Snyder is a junior majoring in History. This essay was written for Dr. Daniel Prior’s “Eurasian Nomads and History” class.

[1] Herodotus. The History, trans. David Grene (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 4.1 and 4.104.

[2] Herodotus, 4.110-4.117.

[3] Secrets of the Dead, season 4, episode 6, “Amazon Warrior Women.” directed by Jens Afflerbach and Carsten Oblaender, aired August 4, 2004, on PBS, 6:40-13:26.

[4] Thomas R Martin, Herodotus and Sima Qian: The First Great Historians of Greece and China, (Boston and New York: Bedford/St.Martin’s, 2010.) 2.

[5] Herodotus. The History, 4.115-4.116

[6] Herodotus. The History, 4.8-4.10.

[7] Anatoly M Khazanov, “Notes on the Scythian Political Culture,” in Central Eurasia in the Middle Ages: Studies in honor of Peter B. Golden, ed. István Zimonyi and Osman Karatay, (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2016.) 173-174.

[8] Khazanov,175-176.

[9] Khazanov, 175-176. Herodotus, The History, 4.78-4.80.

[10] Dr. Daniel Prior, “Module 6.1” (lecture, Miami University, Oxford, OH, March 2, 2021).

[11] Laura Mary, Vincent Zvénigorosky et al.. “Genetic kinship and admixture in Iron Age Scytho-Siberians.” Hum Genet 138, (2019): 418-419.

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