06 February 2015

AMAZONS! (Correction & Part II)

Continuing my review of Adrienne Mayor's The Amazons (Part I, here)


A major correction: Last week, following breaking-news as reported in The Siberian Times, we began our review of Adrienne Mayor's The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across The Ancient World by asking: is this face (above) 'the face of a real, once-alive Amazon'?  It may well be.  But, alas, the face recreated by Swiss taxidermist Marcel Nyffenegger was not, as reported, that of the 25-28 year-old tattooed  'Princess Ukok', discovered buried with six sacrificed horses in the Altai region of Siberia, but rather belongs to a 16 or 17 year-old girl who was buried beside a much older man, more sacrificed horses, and two piles of weapons, in an adjacent tomb.  Neighbours to 'Princess Ukok', but not the princess herself.*


Nonetheless, theirs was also a very rich burial with sacrificed horses, and it has the added attraction of lots of battle weapons.

The 16/17 year-old teenager was described as "unusually tall and strong, well-built".  She  was discovered in a double grave alongside and to the left of a male who was about 45 when he died. Very little of her remains were still intact, unlike Princess Ukok who was preserved in permafrost, but it is thought she also once had tattoos on her body.

Remarkably, the pair were equipped and dressed exactly alike.  Both wore elaborate felt caps with earflaps (it was cold in Siberia), and their collars and hats were lavishly decorated with golden leopards, stags, horses, and wolves.

Both were interred in their leather boots and red woolen trousers. Trousers have always been gendered male in greater 'Scythia'.  Typical nomad attire, trousers were practical for horse-riding over long distances and for engaging in mounted warfare.  After all, if you spend day after day on horseback, trousers and seat coverings are essential.

So, the girl's being dressed in trousers must mean that, during her lifetime, she could move more freely, ride horses, and be as active as a man, whether exercising, hunting or fighting.

That she, in fact, did hunt and fight is strongly suggested by her being buried, just like the man, with a complete set of  weapons to hand  -- battle-axes, bows, quivers, arrows, and shields [of which only the shield-boss survived]. An iron dagger lay by her right thigh in an extremely badly preserved wooden sheath, along with remnants of leather belts.  Beside her left thigh was the wooden base of a quiver, with engraved scenes of leopards attacking wild boars. Next to it were found seven bone arrowheads, staffs, and parts of a composite bow.  If Amazons ever really existed, the bow would have been their weapon of choice: it requires less muscle strength to use than spears and swords.  It does demand concentration, good co-ordination of hand and eye, and a precise sense of distance and timing -- all skills which could be acquired through rigorous daily training in childhood.

Was our 16-year old a young Amazon?

The Greek pseudo-Hippocrates [4, 17] - who lived in the late 5th century BCE - wrote about the Sarmatians, a Scythian tribal group famed for their mastery of mounted warfare:
Their women, so long as they are virgins, ride, shoot, throw the javelin while mounted, and fight with their enemies. 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'.
This could mean that only very young nomad women were ever mounted fighters, while older women with children would ride to war only in emergencies.

Or, as so often with Greek legends, it could be entirely fanciful and mean nothing at all.**

Every steppe warrior -- male or female -- owned several horses.  And even the humblest nomad rider would be buried with his or her mount (Princess Ukok was hardly humble: she had six horses with her in her tomb). 

The young girl and older male in this double tomb also took an exceptional number of horses with them into the next world: nine horses were sacrificed and buried in their grave mound. All the horses were richly adorned with decorative harnesses and other trappings; four of the nine were bridled in death. Seven complete sets of harness were found.

Have we found a real, once-alive Amazon at last?

Now that we have attached the reconstructed face to the right burial (or so we hope!), and the teenager is given her rightful due, we can get back to our main subject and to the postponed review of Adrienne Mayor's The Amazons in our next post:

Part III: click here



*I hope they've got it right this time because the picture (above) still shows her with the blue tattoo that was inked on Princess Ukok's left shoulder.  On the other hand, her cheek in profile has what looks like a pimple, perhaps Mr Nyffenegger's little joke to indicate that she is still adolescent.

** Psuedo-Hippocrates is also responsible for spreading the story that the Amazon had but one breast:  They have no right breast; for while they are yet babies their mothers make red-hot a bronze instrument constructed for this very purpose and apply it to the right breast and cauterise it, so that its growth is arrested, and all its strength and bulk are diverted to the right shoulder and right arm.  Utter nonsense. Adrienne Mayor rightly demolishes this long-lived fallacy.

Illustrations

All photographs and drawings from The Siberian Times, 6 February 2015:

Top: Reconstructed face of "16-year old fighter buried with her weapons and horses." Reconstruction: Marcel Nyffenegger.

Above left: Detailed plans of the burial, with the young girl on the left.

Left inset: Reconstructed felt cap worn by the young girl.

Lower left: Some of the weapons buried with the young girl.

Lowest left: Felt saddle decorations on her horses and plan of the horses' burial.

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