30 January 2015


Is this the face of a real, once-alive Amazon?  

This woman, whose face can be seen by us for the very first time today, was about 25-28 years old when she died.  Her body was discovered inside a Siberian burial mound (kurgan) a little more than 20 years ago.  She had been placed in a hollowed-out log dug deep within the mound, where she froze into a solid block of permafrost ice.  And that's why she -- and the six chestnut-coloured horses buried with her -- were so amazingly well-preserved.

They had all been alive around 500 BCE -- just about the time when Herodotus [9.27] was writing about the Amazons.  He recorded a speech in which Athenians boasted of the glorious deeds done by their ancestors -- even as the citadel of Athens was burning and the Greek army prepared for battle against the Persians at Plataea in 479 BCE:
It is our belief that we are gathered for battle with the barbarian, and not for speeches; but ... we must prove to you how we ... have by virtue of our valor a hereditary right to the place of honor.

[We have] on record our great victory against the Amazons, who once came from the river Thermodon and broke into Attica, and in the hard days of Troy we were second to none.
Thus, among the examples of Athenian bravery taken from the mythical history of the city, the battle against female warriors, the Amazons, is right up there with the epic of the war against Troy.  In fact, Homer knew of Amazons, too.  In the Iliad (6, 168-95; 2, 811-15), they already appear as a mighty band of warrior women who fight against men, and with whom conflict is dangerous even to the bravest of male heroes.   'Fearless in battle', and the 'equals of men', the Amazons were said to live somewhere to the north and east of the Black Sea, across the Caucasus Mountains and eastwards throughout the vast plains and steppes of central and northern Asia.  This was a world inhabited, in fact, by countless nomadic tribes of many different histories and languages but all sharing a horse-centred nomadic warrior lifestyle with similar weapons, artistic motifs, and burial practices.  To the Greeks, those people were known collectively as 'Scythians' -- and ancient Greek historians, including Herodotus, identified Amazons as one of these real tribes of Scythia. 

Lured on by pastures, [they] live in camps and carry all their possesions and wealth with them.  Archery, horseback riding, and hunting are a girl's pursuits.

One of Herodotus' earliest informants (whose work is almost entirely lost to us) was the poet and miracle-worker Aristeas.  Aristeas had travelled to those distant regions some time in the late-7th century BCE and he was the first to link the Amazons to the Scythian nomads who actually inhabited those lands ... and so began the colourful, intricate, tangled threads of fact and fiction about Amazons and Scythian women, "bow-legged from riding since childhood and scarred by battle, buried with their weapons and horses in the vast landscape" of the steppes.

Princess Ukok's shoulder, with tattoo of a fantastic animal, and a drawing of it.
So, who is this woman who now stares at us from the top of this page,* whose burial was adorned by six sacrificed horses with trappings including bridles made of gold?  She is called 'Princess Ukok', named after the high altitude plateau in the Siberian steppes where she was discovered.  A tall woman (about 5'6"; 168 cm), her left shoulder was decorated with a brilliant blue tattoo showing a twisting deer with extravagant antlers and a falcon's beakMore tattoos ran down the remains of her arm, with images of a mountain sheep and a panther or leopard.  

Princess Ukok's burial is one of more than a thousand ancient 'Scythian' tombs excavated across the Eurasian steppes from Thrace to Mongolia.  In recent years, our understanding of these people has radically changed.  New ways of studying skeletal remains have turned their 'male' and 'female' burials quite upside down.  It used to be simple: burials with weapons and tools belonged to men; spindles, jewellery and mirrors meant that the body was female.  But, really, all we were doing was reinforcing our own gender biases.  Now, thanks to osteological science, we know that, in some cemeteries on the steppes, as many as 37% of tombs with weapons, tools, and armour contain female skeletons. 
The armed women were buried exactly as the armed males were, with similarly constructed graves, sacrificed horses, funeral feasts, food offerings, weaponry, and valuable local and imported grave goods.
Not only that, but their bones and skulls sometimes bear battle scars identical to those of male warriors, with injuries inflicted by battle-axes, swords, and daggers -- bringing to mind scenes of violent battle and hand-to-hand combat.   

Such discoveries are the starting point for Adrienne Mayor's wonderful new book, The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across The Ancient World.    Mayor takes us on an exhilerating gallop through the archaeological evidence for female 'Scythian' burials with weapons and the scars of war, and of the evidence for the more egalitarian way of life for these horse-nomads in antiquity.

Were the Amazons real?

What do we actually know about this world of warrior horse-women across ancient Eurasia?  Was the Greek story of Amazons inspired by reports of -- and perhaps direct contacts with -- real warrior women among the steppe nomads in 'Scythia'?  

The early Greeks certainly believed that Amazons were real, even if the tribe no longer existed in their own day.  The Athenians portrayed Amazons on the Parthenon metopes when, after they won the battle of Plataea, they rebuilt the temple of Athena.  Little did they imagine that this might have been a most distant echo of the lifestyle of Princess Ukok.

Part II of this post will continue with The Amazons.

The Amazons:
Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World
Adrienne Mayor

Princeton University Press
Hardcover | 2014 | $29.95 / £19.95 | ISBN: 9780691147208
536 pp. | 6 x 9 | 10 maps. |
eBook | ISBN: 9781400865130 |

* The reconstruction was made by Swiss taxidermist Marcel Nyffenegger (below), and published in The Siberian Times, 26 January 2015. Next to hear body was a funerary meal of sheep and horse meat and ornaments made from felt, wood, bronze and gold, as well as a small container of cannabis, along with a stone plate on which were the burned seeds of coriander.

Face of tattooed mummified princess finally revealed after 2,500 years


The book under review.  See also my review of an earlier book by Adrienne Mayor,  The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome's Deadliest Enemy  (Times Higher Education).


Top left: Reconstruction of face of 'Princess Ukok' by Marcel Nyffenegger.  Photo credit: The Siberian Times 26 January 2015

Second left: Amazonomachy (battle between Greeks and Amazons). Attic red-figure terracotta bowl for mixing wine and water, attributed to the Painter of the Berlin Hydria.  460-450 BCE.  Photo credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1907. Accession Number: 07.286.86

Third left: An Amazon warrior delivering a Parthian shot. An Etruscan figure from the lid of a bronze dinos or cauldron from S. Maria di Capua Vetere, Capua, 6th century BCE.  Photo credits  http://www.agefotostock.com/en/Stock-Images/Rights-Managed/HEZ-2586947

Centre:  Close-up of Princess Ukok's shoulder, with tattoo of a fantastic animal, and a drawing of it.  Photo credit: The Siberian Times, 14 August 2012

Below left: Red and white sardonyx cameo. First century BCE/CE.  Marlborough Gems, Beazley no. 507.  Photo credit: Classical Art Research Centre

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