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There are 19 ancient burial mounds in the Russian village of Devitsa.  Archaeologists opened up one of these 2500 year old tombs and you will never believe what they found inside!

Or, well, uh, actually you will believe the contents if you read the news headlines…or are a fan of ancient Greek history…or just follow Pontic steppe archaeology in general (or even read the title of this article), but that doesn’t make the discovery any less extraordinary.  Devitsa lies north of the Black Sea (beyond the borders of present day Ukraine) on the great rolling temperate grassland of Eurasian steppe.  Many cultures have passed through the region over the millennia, but the graves date back to the time of the Scythians–nomadic horse-mounted warriors whose fierce culture flourished between the 8th century and the 3rd century BC.  The Scythians were not exactly an empire–more a lose confederation of wandering tribes (probably of Iranian heritage), but they controlled a hefty swath of Central Asia from the borders of ancient China all the way to the shores of the Black Sea, where they abutted Greek colonies.

The regimented and hierarchical (and patriarchal!) Greeks were scandalized and fascinated by the savage freedoms of the Scythian way of life.  The Greeks looked down on the “barbaric” mounted warriors, yet they also looked up to them.  Greek writing exoticized and romanticized the free-riding Scythian lifestyle and Greek thinkers, writers, and artists incorporated elements of Scythian culture into Greek mythology (and into the Greek weltanschauung).  One of most widely known of these Greek fixations was with “the Amazons” the women warriors of classical mythology.  Amazons were so prevalent in Greek writing and art that the world’s biggest river–in South America!–was later named after the warrior women (and it is rumored other huge modern entities also bear the name).  Historians and scholars have long argued about the extent to which these myths were based on real world exemplars–which brings us back to the tomb excavations at Devitsa.  The most recently opened tomb contained the mortal remains of four Scythian warrior women of different ages.  The graves of a young women (aged 20-25) and of a teenage girl (aged 12 or 13) had been despoiled by robbers, but the graves of two older high-status women (one woman in her early thirties and a woman who died between 40 and 50) were undisturbed.

These latter graves yielded not just iron hooks and weapons but also glass jewelry, a bronze mirror, and a finely wrought gold headdress of gold and iron alloy (pictured above).  The Greeks may have made up a lot of things–like the tale of how Scythians descended from the union of the greatest Greek hero and Echidna, an infamous lady monster–but it seems like fierce and headstrong warrior women were a real phenomena which the Greek colonies of Asia Minor dealt with on a regular basis.  The coast of the Black Sea is the first known location of viniculture and goldsmithing.  The Scyths also seem to have brought cannabis to the classical world via Thrace.  Ancient Greece and the Scythians were at least as closely entwined as Herodotus made them out to be.  It makes one wonder what innovations really came from whom!

 

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