Ancient nomads, female warriors and priestesses

Jeannine Davis-Kimball
Center for the Study of Eurasian Nomads
Berkeley, California

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.

All nomadic tribes are perceived to have been ruthless raiders, faceless hordes following the commands of Genghis Khan - style leaders, terrorizing citizens of fortified cities, burning, pillaging and raping as they rode ever westward. Ancient historians, interested only in the most horrific exploits of the marauding nomads, gathered their materials from the point of view of the conquered. Archaeologists of the late 19th and 20th centuries amplified the long- standing convictions that the Early Iron Age tribes were warring, strong patriarchal societies. Over the decades archaeologists continued to interpret kurgan burials from this point of view, and individual women, or for that matter men, were not topics of study.

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:

  • Hearth person: large quantities of valuable beads and spiral earrings

  • Priest or priestess: carved-stone and clay sacrificial altars, fossilized sea shells, carved-bone spoons, colored mineral ores (shades of red, yellow, black and white), complete bronze mirrors, and objects embellished with animal style representations

  • Warrior: arrowheads, quivers, swords, daggers, and amulets denoting prowess
    Three major statuses were identified for the male population:

    (1) Warriors whose burials contained armaments were by far the most dominant (94%). In the earlier period, burials could have from 1-40 arrowheads, mostly bronze, although one male burial contained over 200 bronze arrowheads. The later dated burials from Cemetery 1 contained 20 (a few with up to 50) iron arrowheads, and almost no bronze arrowheads. Some held a single iron sword and/or dagger.

    (2) Those with no, or only one or two artifacts in their burial, constituted 3% of the total male population

    (3) Most unusual were 3% of the males who were buried with a child. (Interestingly, no females were buried with a child.) More research will have to be undertaken before conclusions can be reached concerning this category of males.

    The diagnostic artifacts from female burials reveal three female statuses:

    (1) Hearth women, 75% of the female population, were noted for their wealth of artifacts. Glass eye beads, occasionally hundreds of jet discoid beads sewn to their clothing, gold-colored glass beads, and cobalt-colored biconical beads worn as anklets or bracelets were noteworthy. Many females wore earrings; the only type found at Pokrovka was three-spiraled bronze, covered with gold foil.

    (2) Priestesses, 7% of the total female population,were found in several Pokrovka cemeteries. Cemetery 2 yielded a high status priestess aged approximately 60 years when she died. Her mortuary offerings included a stone-carved altar, a very fine bronze mirror with incised decorations composed of interlocking rosettes in the center surrounded by registers of geometric design, three fossilized sea shells, three gold plaques in the form of a Tien Shan snow leopard, and a small censer of fired clay.

    (3) Warriors in Cemetery 2, 15% of the total female population, were also high ranking. The burial of one young female warrior contained 40 bronze arrowheads in a quiver and an iron dagger. Two amulets provided prowess: a large boar's tusk drilled for suspension (which,based upon modern anthropology, may have been worn around her waist on a special cord), and a single bronze arrowhead in a leather bag around her neck. She also had two sea shells and a natural stone in the shape of a sea shell.

    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.



    Gathering gold
    Archaeologists at Pokrovka (Russia) excavating a Late Sarmatian male burial. The male had been buried with many artifacts, some never previously excavated from nomadic burial. Included were about 300 gold pieces, about 260 of which were small ornaments sewn to his jacket.

    Women Warrior Weapons
    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.

    Young female warrior
    The green material on her chest is an amulet holding a leather pouch worn around her neck which held a bronze arrowhead. Her dagger is by her right femur.

    Male with Child
    The child is seen along the right arm of the man.

    Pokrovka Priestess in situ
    The gold plaques found around her neck depict stylized Tien Shan snow leopards.

    Woman of the Hearth
    This woman, buried in a wood slab sarcophagus (whose imprints are visible on the side and head of the pit) had earrings and over 400 beads in her burial.

    © 1998 by Jeannine Davis-Kimball

    The Pokrovka Cemeteries, located at the confluence of 
    the Ilek and Khobda rivers, are approximately 120 kilometers south 
    of the city of Orenburg, Russia in the southern Ural mountains. 
    Collaborative American-Russian excavations, led by Jeannine 
    Davis-Kimball, American-Eurasian Research Institute, Inc., Center 
    for the Study of Eurasian Nomads (formerly the Kazakh/American 
    ResearchProject, Inc.), and Leonid T. Yablonsky, Institute of 
    Archaeology, Russian Academy of Sciences, took place between 

    Further Reading

    Davis-Kimball, Jeannine, "Warrior Women of the Eurasian Steppes," Archaeology, Jan/Feb 1997.

    Davis-Kimball, Jeannine, "Chieftain or Warrior Priestess?" Archaeology, Sept/Oct 1997.

    Davis-Kimball, Jeannine, "Sauro-Sarmatian Nomadic Women: New Gender Identities," Journal of Indo-European Studies, Vol 25, No. 3&4, Fall/Winter 1997.

    Davis-Kimball, Jeannine, "Tribal Interaction Between the Early Iron Age Nomads of the Southern Ural Steppes, Semirechiye, and Xinjiang," The Bronze Age and Iron Age Peoples of Eastern Central Asia, University of Pennsylvania Press and Journal of Indo-European Studies, 1998.

    Davis-Kimball, Jeannine and Leonid T. Yablonsky, Kurgans on the Left Bank of the Ilek: Excavations at Pokrovka 1990-1992, Berkeley, 1995.

    Davis-Kimball, Jeannine and Leonid T. Yablonsky, "Excavations of Kurgans in the Southern Orenburg District, Russia: Questions Concerning the Northern Silk Route," Silk Road Art and Archaeology, 4, Journal of the Institute of Silk Road Studies, Kamakura, 1995/96, pp.1-16.

    Davis-Kimball, Jeannine, V. Bashilov & L. Yablonsky, Eds. Nomads of the Eurasian Steppes in the Early Iron Age. Berkeley: Zinat Press, 1995.

    Jettmar, Karl. Art of the Steppes, Crown Publishers, New York, 1967.

    Khazanov, Anatoly M. Nomads and the Outside World, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1994.

    Rolle, Renata, The World of the Scythians, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1989.

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