Wednesday, April 12, 2017

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

Archaeologist Jeannine Davis-Kimball's Warrior Women: An Archaeologist's Search for History's Hidden Heroines is book mostly about the fun and experience of being an archaeologist. As such, it is a lively and engaging memoir.

It is also refreshingly free of cant and jargon. It is clearly written for a lay audience, but that the author came late to academe (she got her Ph.D. at 49) after what could only be described as a broad range of life experiences--three marriages, six children, surviving breast cancer, and what she describes as:
a varied resume that included stints as a nurse in Idaho, an administrator in a convalescent hospital in southern California, an English-language teacher in Bolivia and Spain, and a failed cattle rancher in South America (p.xii)
likely helped the easy-to-read and practical tone of the work.

The book wears its scholarship lightly but pervasively. There are boxes (ranging in size from half a page to three pages) providing background on matters touched on in the main narrative and the text is extensively footnoted and referenced.

The rhythms, discomforts and joys of archaeological endeavour are nicely brought to life. Much of her archaeology was in the former Soviet Union, concentrating on various kurgans or burial mounds, and the "joys" of dealing with Soviet agencies and suspicion of outsiders are woven into the narrative. Though it turns out that the contemporary People's Republic of China is worse, with Chinese officials going as far as to insert a (headless) museum exhibit mummy into a dig site as part of the official disapproval of interest in the Caucasian features of said mummies (p.140).

Davis-Kimball also interweaves current observation of steppe nomads with the archaeology, partly in the hope that the lives of the former might shed light on some of the finds of the latter (which, on at least one case, it did). Indeed, the observations about the life of steppe nomads are of interest in themselves. The book is something of a treasure trove of information on the archaeology, ethnology and history of the steppe nomads and is worth reading for that alone.

The warrior women of the title are only one of several themes in the book. The most striking passage on warrior women is early in the book, when the characteristics of the 194 adult skeletons found in the Povkrovka kurgans are listed. 94% of the men were buried with weapons, 3% with a clay pot or two, 3% with a child (though none of the women were). Roughly 15% of the women were buried with weapons, 7% with artefacts that suggested they were priestesses, (3% fell into both categories), 3% with chalk whorls too fragile to be of practical use and 75% were buried as hearth women (Pp46-7).  The percentage of women buried with weapons is within the range of Scythian, Saka, Sarmatian burials more generally.

Davis-Kimball's book is full of striking details, though at times I would have liked a bit more interweaving with general patterns. Low population densities societies tend to teach women to fight (the men might be away) and (as Davis-Kimball notes, p.62) the horse archery of the nomads made imbalances in upper body strength and physical size less of a problem than other styles of fighting. Since it took a lot of grass to support animals, and a lot of animals to support people, and pasture is effectively a given, there would also be less pressure on women to give birth early, allowing a warrior stage of life in one's teenage years among early nomad peoples (most of the women warriors found died in their teens, p.60). There is not much evidence of women actually fighting with armies among later nomad peoples (and limited evidence for the early nomads, p.65), though more intense competition for pasture (and trade) may have shifted the balance against incorporating women in armies, rather than as last-ditch home guard. Even with these early nomads, Davis-Kimball suggests that women warriors may have been largely auxiliary or home defence forces (p.65).

Davis-Kimball is interested in all of the roles of women in these societies. Their apparent domination of religious activities is striking. Those men who seem to be of religious or shamanistic significance seemed to have cross-dressed (Pp180ff), part of the wider pattern associating queer folk with shamanistic roles. A considerable part of the text examines the role of women in spirituality and religion, religious rituals and belief in goddesses, particular a Mother Goddess.

A 12th century sheela na gig on the church
at Kilpeck, Herefordshire, England.
The two chapter segue into the myths and archaeology of Ireland towards the end of the book at first seems to be just about being an archaeological memoir but she relates both back to the archaeology and history of the steppes. (Davis-Kimball clearly favours the steppes as the origins of Indo-European languages and culture.) That the genealogy of Irish heroes is always traced through the female line suggests a matrilineal past (p.210). She also points out that these were oral traditions until written down by Irish monks seems to have affected their transmission, with the role of women becoming more dependant and more morally perverse the later the transcription (Pp196ff). (She actually uses the term patriarchy correctly, as authority being centred in certain males, which is good to see.) There is also a discussion of those oddities, the sheela na gig's (Pp205ff).

The role of women in Norse (Viking) society is also discussed, including how archaeology supports Ibn Fadlan's claims about the rich adornment of their women: indeed, the archaeology suggests that women might have had more role in commerce than the men (Pp216ff). There is also a nice discussion of the series of powerful women in Mongol history--that the Mongol elite was highly polygynous did not seem to stop wives being regents in the interregnum between the death of one khan and the election of the next (Pp220ff). The contrast with Islamic history on this matter is striking, likely reflecting steppe women being taught to fight and the absence of religious-based relegation of women.

The final (short) chapter provides a summary of what has been traversed in the book, noting the historical downward shift in the standing of women when patriarchal priesthood-kingship models were adopted but ending, where she began, with the sheer fun of archaeological discovery.

Jeannine Davis-Kimball's Warrior Women is both an informative journey and a fun read. A good starting point or way station to understanding the varying gender dynamics of human societies in history.

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