Warrior Women: An Archaeologist's Search for History's Hidden Heroines

Warrior Women: An Archaeologist's Search for History's Hidden Heroines

by Jeannine Davis-Kimball

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Davis-Kimball weaves science, mythology and mystical cultures into a bold new historical tapestry of female warriors, heroines and leaders who have been left out of the history books— until now.See more details below


Davis-Kimball weaves science, mythology and mystical cultures into a bold new historical tapestry of female warriors, heroines and leaders who have been left out of the history books— until now.

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Grand Central Publishing
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6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.66(d)

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"I read [history] a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all..."

-Catherine Morland, in Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey (1817)

In 1985, I had my first, long-awaited glimpse of the land of the nomads. My husband,Warren Matthew (Matt), an engineer by profession and an intrepid traveler, and I made the long journey to Samarkand and Bukhara, two cities in present-day Uzbekistan that once had ranked among the most important ancient cities and later oases caravan stops dotting the Silk Road. Matt was an aficionado of Sovietology, and we knew that Intourist, the government agency that assigned official escorts to all foreign visitors, was infamous for its overbearing style and excessive zeal, particularly when it came to ensuring that Soviet citizens didn't become polluted through contact with outsiders. Indeed, our Intourist guide, Natasha, was a charming young woman, but she dutifully hovered by our side like an anxious watchdog, making sure that we followed her beeline from the officially sanctioned hotel to the officially sanctioned bus that would whisk us to the officially sanctioned sights of the day. We were confined to separate tourist sections in restaurants and airport waiting rooms. Guards at Intourist hotels blocked-sometimes quite forcefully-ordinary Soviet citizens from entering these hallowed premises (although Matt and I noticed that they made certain exceptions in the evening for shapely young ladies in tight dresses and stiletto heels).

We chafed against all the restrictions, and were further dismayed upon reaching our Central Asian destinations.We had expected romantic locales suggestive of the heady times when entrepreneurs from the East and West met and traded exotic goods and even more exotic tales of their travels. Instead, we found the Intourist amenities were now dominated by the shoddy and singularly unattractive 1960s-era Soviet architecture, the former caravansaries reduced to piles of rubble. Although they weren't quite as magnificent as they had been in the fourteenth century, the mosques and madrasahs (Islamic colleges), as well as the palaces that had been the pride of Uzbek emirs, whetted my appetite for exploring the region further. Most of these buildings are the legacy of Tamerlane, the Turkish conqueror who balanced his lust for war with a passion for Islamic art and architecture. The structures he commissioned in Samarkand,the capital of his vast empire, are masterpieces, featuring exquisitely crafted tiles fired in azure, white, and turquoise glazes, with bands of abstractly lettered, black or gold-lustered inscriptions praising Allah.The iwans (arched reception halls of the mosques) still stand tall and elegant on dusty streets near the outdoor bazaars; here groups of old men huddle in the courtyard, spinning tales or playing chess while women sell vegetables, dried fruits, nuts, and other delicacies in shaded stalls. In one such stall, a boy of about eight took my hand and led me around the marketplace, patiently identifying the exotic wares in the gentle tone adults usually reserve for small children.The scents of ripe fruit and spices suffused the air, helping me to imagine the babble of long-gone traders, the snorts of camels, the braying of donkeys rising over the shrill voices of youngsters zigzagging in a game of tag.

The next year signaled the dawning of glasnost, the era of openness ushered in by the new Soviet General Secretary, Mikhail Gorbachev. Excited by the prospect of traveling free from Intourist's distrustful eye, Matt and I returned, only to find that change came slowly and cautiously to the people of the Soviet Union. Up until now, a free exchange of ideas with foreigners might have been enough to earn a citizen a trip to the gulag, a miserable labor camp of unimaginable hardship, in Siberia. We were met by cold and hostile stares if we asked directions, and it was almost impossible to engage in even a short friendly conversation with a Russian citizen. But not all were terrified. One elderly gentleman, striking in his poise and well-dressed elegance, deliberately drew us into the street near the Kremlin in full view of the police when we asked him for directions to the Lenin library.

"Yes, you go to the next street," he replied in an unnaturally loud voice, turning to glare in the direction of the gray-uniformed military officers patrolling near the Kremlin walls."Turn left and go two more streets. It's near the Metro stop."As we thanked him, he seemed reluctant to leave, but finally turned and crossed the street, his contempt for the Soviet authorities still evident in his deliberate stride.

Frustrated by our inability to penetrate the tourist facade, we returned home and I vowed never to return to the USSR unless I first established connections with Soviet scholars who could grant me access to the information and sites needed for meaningful research. Work on my Ph.D. dissertation and a period spent fighting breast cancer sidelined my quest for two years, but paradoxically, I finally achieved the Soviet contacts I sought in that sunny bastion of Western decadence, Los Angeles. In 1989, "Nomads of Eurasia," a Kazak art and ethnography exhibition, arrived in southern California, and I made the acquaintance of several of the curators. One was Irina Shemashko from the Institute of Ethnography in Moscow, who, fortuitously for me, also turned out to be the institute's Communist Party Secretary, a position of significant power. She paved the way for a trip later that year to the Soviet Union, arranging for the necessary travel documents, scholarly contacts, and for our guide, Nurilya Shakhanova, a Kazak curator at the Ethnographic Museum in Leningrad. Matt and I flew to Almaty, nestled among the Tien Shan Mountains in southern Kazakstan, to live in a small graduate-student hostel and study with scholars from the Kazak Academy of Sciences for a month. They were generous with their knowledge and collections, and I learned much about the hundred different nationalities of Kazakstan (most of whom had been transferred there during Stalin's reign of terror), the steppes' rich history, and the intriguing array of artifacts displayed in the excellent historical and archaeological museums.

To cap off our visit, we returned to Moscow by train, our first trip across the steppes, leaving the Almaty station during a driving early winter rain, which soon diminished as we followed the fertile alluvial plain along the foothills of southern Kazakstan.We skimmed the tip of the forbidding Kyzyl Kum desert, plowing through mile upon mile of flat, almost featureless scant grasslands, and ending with a flourish of rolling hills before pulling into Moscow's Kazansky railway station.The three-day journey covered only a small portion of the steppes, but it was enough to give us a taste of their varied terrain. It also gave us a taste of the still-present Soviet paranoia.As we neared the city of Turkestan, a friendly fellow passenger, a professional wind engineer, told me that the train might pass by an imposing mausoleum Tamerlane had built for Ahmed Yesevi, a twelfth-century mystic, and he urged me to take some photographs. As I stood in the corridor of the vagon to watch through the train window for this monument,I noticed the conductor glaring suspiciously at me. Just as we were pulling into the station, I laid the camera on my compartment seat, covering it with a scarf, and settled in to watch the fascinating Central Asian faces of the milling crowd on the platform.

Suddenly, two KGB agents appeared at our door, apparently alerted by the conductor even before the train had arrived in the city. Looking like a couple of young heavies in a grade-B mobster movie, dressed in black suits, with pomaded dark hair slicked back, they took seats on either side of our compartment. One brandished a sheaf of papers in my face before slamming them on the table."You should not be on this train,"he said in very proper but accented English."It is forbidden to foreigners."

"Why?" I replied. I tried to think what might have caused this sudden unwanted attention,then remembered the suspicious conductor and glanced at the scarf that rested against the KGBer's thigh."We're on our way to Moscow from Alma-Ata,and the Kazak Institute bought the tickets for us."

He thrust the top sheet at me, sternly saying,"Sign this. Here, on the line." I turned to Nurilya, our Kazak companion, who had joined us in the compartment. Now very pale, she only stared with wide black eyes, first at me and then at the two men.

"Nurilya, what does this say? What do they want?" She stared speechlessly back at me-my first up-close demonstration of KBG-inflicted terror. I peered at the page filled with Cyrillic script, wondering what to do, when the train whistle shrilled its warning that we were about to depart. The tension created by the KGB men was palpable. Matt muttered in a low voice,"Don't sign anything! We don't know what it is."

"Sign! Here!" the agent demanded again, jabbing at the paper with a slender pointed finger. "Here!" I picked up the pen and scrawled my name, hoping that we would make it to Moscow and Irina's protection. The men in black grabbed their papers and jumped to the station platform from the now-moving train.

At the next stop, two even tougher-looking men boarded and stood guard in the corridor, while a middle-aged dishwater blonde claimed the other half of the visibly shaken Nurilya's compartment.Suspicious of this new traveling companion, I struck up a conversation with the woman, who maintained that she was going to her son's wedding in Uralsk. Given her grungy housedress, her broken nails, and lack of luggage, it was pretty evident that she had received a phone call commanding her to imme diately board our train, and I realized we had a third agent in our midst.

The trio finally disembarked at Uralsk, and only later did I realize that our route had taken us by the Baikonur missile-launch site, and the smoke-belching factory that my wind engineer said produced ceramics was, in fact, the source of the tiles that covered the Soviet spaceships. Because this route passed through a large sensitive military area, it was naturally off-limits to all foreigners.

Later Nurilya told us that although the ticket agent had put us on the wrong train, the Kazak Institute was unjustly reprimanded for contributing to the security breach. I still wonder what the consequences were for Nurilya's "lapse" of vigilance.

Despite our rather unnerving encounter with the KGB, I returned home to Berkeley eager to relay the Kazak Institute's offer to establish a working relationship with an American organization. I made several efforts to interest UC Berkeley in this invitation, but to no avail. In fact, I couldn't find a single member of the International Area Studies staff who had even heard of Kazakstan. Finally, with the help of a Nolo Press book on non-profit organizations and advice from Dr.Alton Donnelly, a family friend and a professor of Russian history, I established the Kazakh/American Research Project, Inc. Now our work could begin in earnest.

Looking back, I can't really blame the UC Berkeley staff for their lack of enthusiasm. Little was known about the non-Russian Soviet republics at that time, and even after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, information about the area's historical and cultural significance remains skimpy. The ancient nomads themselves left behind no written records, and while Greeks such as Hellanicus and Herodotus wrote of steppe dwellers in the fifth century B.C., they freely interspersed their more sober portraits of military campaigns, industrious farmers, and nomadic herders with tales of one-eyed men called Arimaspians, griffins that guarded nuggets of gold that tumbled from mountainous crags, and tribes of fierce, man-hating female warriors. In the fifth and twelfth centuries, when Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan were building their respective empires, it often fell to the peoples they conquered, from the terrified Slavs to the Western Europeans, to report on their conquerors' beliefs and customs-circumstances that never result in a complete, much less flattering, portrait of a culture. These accounts added much to the mystique of the remote realm, but did little to enlighten foreigners about the true nature of Eurasian nomads.

In modern times, despite all the advances in archaeology and many excavations in the area, very few treatises on ancient steppe societies have been published outside Russia. Only the Scythians, a nation of warlike nomads and traders who had lived north of the Black Sea, had attracted attention in the West, thanks to the hoards of gold treasures found in their kurgans. It wasn't until Leonid Yablonsky invited me to excavate with him in 1991 that I was able to really delve into the historical and archaeological problems surrounding the tribes who fascinated me: the Saka, who occupied the eastern steppes and the Tien Shan and Altai mountains from the eighth through third centuries B.C.; the Sauromatians, who lived in Russia's southern Urals and along the Volga and the Don rivers in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C., and the Sarmatians, another nomadic confederation of mysterious origins who began displacing the Sauromatians around the fourth century B.C.

Leonid Yablonsky's friendship became incredibly important to me throughout the dig. Initially, his taciturn and somber manner was somewhat off-putting, but I soon learned that he possessed a quiet charm. When given a chance to discuss his beloved excavations south of the Aral Sea, he won me over with animated accounts of the dry desert heat and remote locales. I was intrigued by his passion for excavation, and noted a rare, wide smile emerging through his salt-and-pepper beard and his dark brown eyes shining with amusement.

The following year, with the breakup of the USSR imminent, Yablonsky could no longer excavate in Turkmenistan.He showed me his survey of the Pokrovka cemeteries, which,although in the Kazak steppes, were just within the Russian border."If you'd like,"he said,"we can excavate these kurgans together." I eagerly signed on.As we worked I developed great respect for his skills and his knowledge of kurgan archaeology. He was also an excellent physical anthropologist, who was able to sex and age skeletons in situ. He had learned this skill as a young student when he assisted the then-leading Russian physical anthropologist, who was too elderly to jump in and out of excavated pits, and therefore most appreciative of young Yablonsky's agility. Some of this esteemed scholar's lessons were decidedly less than scientific."Do you know how to distinguish a make skull from a female?" Yablonsky shook his head, and the professor replied,"When you hold it, if it has bumps that's a male, and if it's so smooth you want to pet it, that's a female." No matter how he learned them,Yablonsky's skills in physical anthropology were invaluable in our excavations.

Even before my excavations with Yablonsky at Pokrovka, Russian archaeologists had excavated and noted in their reports that there were female warriors and priestesses in these societies, and a couple of them had written articles defining the Sauromatians as a "female dominated"tribe, but because of the Cold War and the paucity of communication between the East and West, nothing had appeared in English on this topic. In reality, Soviet archaeologists were little concerned with this issue, preferring to concentrate on the more spectacular burial mounds of male chieftains. As a consequence, even in archaeological circles, the prevailing Western concept of ancient steppe nomads was that they were a pack of merciless warlords with jet-black hair and dark, slanted eyes, who marauded on tiny ponies throughout Europe, the Middle East, and eastern Asia, besieging cities and wiping out the men before carrying off the women for new breeding stock.

The true story, of course, is much less gory and infinitely more complex. As I interpreted our archaeological finds from Pokrovka, it became evident that the Sauromatians and Sarmatians were a variegated culture of Caucasoids in which women enjoyed a measure of power and prominence far beyond what previous researchers had ever imagined.And, in hunting for clues about these lost women,I realized that the steppe maidens and matrons who fought bravely on horseback or made prognostications with the aid of bronze mirrors had counterparts the world over. Many were enmeshed in warlike, seemingly male-dominated societies, a number of which crossed paths with the Sauro-Sarmatians in some fashion. Each discovery seemed to force me to look deeper and further to ferret out other hidden women of history, and my search eventually encompassed the Golden Age of Greece, the Vikings' reign of terror, the Celtic warrior queens, and the women wrestlers in the courts of the Mongol Empire. But it all started in the plains of Kazakstan, at the sacred mounds where Iron Age nomads once came to bury their dead.

Copyright (c) 2002 by Jeannine Davis-Kimball, Ph.D.

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