On the windswept steppes of southern Russia, broad, low mounds of earth gently rise from a bleak landscape, marking the seasonal ebb and flow of ancient nomads.
Beneath many of these burial mounds lie the remains of what appear to be female warriors dating as far back as 600 BC, suggesting that the ancient Greek myth of a race of female warriors called Amazons may have been grounded in fact.
Indeed, the more archaeologists and anthropologists learn about these ancient nomads, the more convinced some are becoming that the region may have had a larger influence on Western culture than previously thought.
"Many of the cultural things we've assimilated may have originated in the steppes," says Jeannine Davis-Kimball, director of the Center for the Study of Eurasian Nomads, a nonprofit research institute in Berkeley, Calif.
"We're beginning to see a real paradigm shift" in the way the region is viewed, adds Scott Littleton, an anthropologist at Occidental College in Los Angeles, who also is studying the region's cultures.
In the current issue of Archaeology magazine, Dr. Davis-Kimball summarizes the results of four years' fieldwork excavating 50 Sauromatian and Sarmatian burial mounds near the Russian town of Pokrovka, close to the Kazakstan border.
Among the finds were seven females buried with iron swords, daggers, and bronze arrowheads, as well as whetstones for sharpening the weapons. She notes that this is not the first time such items have been found with females entombed in these burial mounds, known as kurgans. In the past, however, Soviet-era researchers interpreted the finds merely as provisions for the trip to the afterlife.
Yet based on the wider sample of kurgans she and her colleagues have explored and the different collections of artifacts found in different female graves, Davis-Kimball holds that the women in these early cultures were roughly divided into three groups, including warriors. Some of these females exhibited signs of long periods spent on horseback and even evidence of battle wounds.
She notes that the Greek legends place the Amazons much farther west than the Sauro-Sarmatian kurgans she's excavated. Still, she says, "It's clear that either through firsthand or secondhand reports, the Greeks knew of women warriors and they elaborated on the stories."
Indeed, she continues, the work she and her colleagues have done paints a picture of nomads who remained far to the south during the bitter winters, then migrated north in the summer with their herds of sheep, camels, and horses.
"We found 11 cemeteries in this region," she says, each containing several kurgans. "This clearly was a holy place to them." These cultures may have viewed the rivers as pathways to the afterlife, she says, since the cemeteries and their kurgans often are found near rivers.
A typical kurgan may be 60 feet across and rise 7 feet above ground level. The oldest and simplest form of grave beneath the mound is a pit 4 to 6 feet deep that, once filled, was ringed with a low wall. Later graves dug beside the pit display catacomb-like niches for the dead.
Over a period of a few centuries, a kurgan might accumulate up to 25 burials. In each case, the dead were surrounded by artifacts that have yielded clues to their roles in society. Aside from the distinctions she found between women based on the artifacts in their graves, Davis-Kimball says that in general, the women were buried with more, and a greater variety of, artifacts than men.
Kurgans also have been found in places ranging from western Mongolia in the east to Moldova in the west. There, she says, some of the larger kurgans have been in continuous use as burial sites until as recently as 100 years ago.
Sarmatian culture may have become woven into that of the West in other ways as well, Dr. Littleton says. He notes that in AD 175, the Romans take 5,500 Sarmatian cavalry to northern Britain from the Danube region. There they had links to several other groups of people, some of whose descendants, known as Ossetians, have since settled in the Caucasus. The calvary's leader took the title Artorius.
Key elements of folk tales among these people bear a striking resemblance to the Arthurian legends, he says, from quests for a magic cup or cauldron to the disposal of the hero's sword at his death. Moreover, around AD 500, the Ossetians' ancestors invaded Western Europe, bringing tales of a character now known as Lancelot.
Littleton acknowledges that this interpretation is not widely accepted, nor is the view that these early nomadic cultures are as influential as Davis-Kimball and others are coming to believe. Yet, Davis-Kimball says, it is clear that the breakup of the Soviet Union has opened an archaeological frontier to Western researchers.
"Here's a half of the world we don't know anything about," she says. Moldova in particular "is very rich archaeologically. It's a fulcrum between East and West." As a result, "Moldova may hold a number of secrets to cultural developments in the West."