A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
The warrior women known to ancient Greek authors as Amazons were long thought to be creatures of myth. Now 50 ancient burial mounds near the town of Pokrovka, Russia, near the Kazakhstan border, have yielded skeletons of women buried with weapons, suggesting the Greek tales may have had some basis in fact. Nomads known as the Sauromatians buried their dead here beginning ca. 600 B.C.; according to Herodotus the Sauromatians were descendants of the Amazons and the Scythians, who lived north of the Sea of Azov. After ca. 400 B.C. the Pokrovka mounds were reused by the Sarmatians, another nomadic tribe possibly related to the Sauromatians. In general, females were buried with a wider variety and larger quantity of artifacts than males, and seven female graves contained iron swords or daggers, bronze arrowheads, and whetstones to sharpen the weapons. Some scholars have argued that weapons found in female burials served a purely ritual purpose, but the bones tell a different story. The bowed leg bones of one 13- or 14-year-old girl attest a life on horseback, and a bent arrowhead found in the body cavity of another woman suggested that she had been killed in battle. The Pokrovka women cannot have been the Amazons of Greek myth--who were said to have lived far to the west--but they may have been one of many similar nomadic tribes who occupied the Eurasian steppes in the Early Iron Age.
In a sidebar, "Were Sarmatians the source of Arthurian legend?" Occidental College anthropology professor C. Scott Littleton argues that a contingent of Sarmatian mercenaries sent to Britain by the Romans was the source of Arthurian legend.
In a companion piece, "Sarmatian Treasures of South Russia," Pushkin Museum curator Mikhail Treister describes the rich artifacts found in Middle Sarmatian (ca. 100 B.C.-A.D. 150) burials at four southern Russian sites: Kobyakovo, Kosika, Rostov-on-Don, and Krasnogorovka.