Moscow -- The theory that parts of ancient eastern Europe were patrolled by posses of heavily armed women akin to the legendary Amazon warriors has been boosted by new evidence uncovered by Russian scientists.
A team of archeologists investigating 2,400-year-old burial mounds built by the Scythian people on the upper River Don has found that five of 21 graves contained the bodies of young women with their weapons.
"Usually such women are found in large kurgans (Scythian burial mounds), buried with the same rituals as for men," said Valery Gulyayev of the Russian Institute of Archeology in Moscow. He and his colleagues schedule annual digs near the city of Voronezh.
"They are buried with womanly things -- mirrors of silver and bronze; necklaces of gold, glass or clay; earrings; and sometimes a symbolic spindle," Gulyayev said. "But alongside these are weapons -- a quiver, bow and arrows, and often two throwing spears."
At roughly the same time the Scythian women were being buried, the Greek historian Herodotus described how a mythical race of women warriors, the Amazons, had left their homeland on the south shores of the Black Sea, traveled north, taken husbands among the local males and founded a new society.
Herodotus's tales of Amazons of the steppes in what is now Ukraine and southern Russia had been dismissed as fantasy. But the Voronezh discoveries, the first of their kind on the northern edge of Scythian settlement, add to older finds in Ukraine, the lower Don and the Ukok plateau near Mongolia. They indicate a swath of sister cultures stretching from Hungary to China, which shared a love of gold and horses, and relationships that differed sharply from the male-dominated society of their neighboring contemporaries, the ancient Greeks.
"We have a fixed idea that European civilization was built on Greco-Roman foundations," Gulyayev said. "In a sense, this is fair. But if we ignore the fact that in the West and in the East, two large, so-called barbarian cultures, the Celts and the Scythians, made an enormous contribution to ancient Europe, we fail to see the whole picture."
Debate about the role of the women warriors of ancient Ukraine and Russia has intensified lately as the long-divided archeological cultures of the Soviet and Western worlds begin to mesh.
Contemporary Greek accounts of military clashes do not mention women on the battlefield. Modern writers have suggested that closer examination of the "female" skeletons may prove them to be transvestites.
Gulyayev's theory is far from the blood-thirsty picture painted by Herodotus, who said virgin Amazons were not permitted to marry until they had killed a man in battle.
"Yes, there probably was an obligation on the women to serve as warriors," he said. "But it seems likely that when the men left the settlements to pasture their herds, they left the women on guard. These young women and girls on horseback were in the role of lightly armed troops. They were guarding the hearth and the homestead."
The tombs being excavated by Dr Gulyayev's team were originally inside kurgans. The dead were buried in high chambers, with their possessions and weapons gilded, beside an amphora of Greek wine, foal meat and an iron knife. Most of the graves were plundered long ago, but last year the team found an untouched burial chamber containing the skeleton of a man and an old woman of high status, who, at the time of death, was severely disabled and unable to eat solid food.
The woman, who had traces of rouge on her face and had left fragments of face powder on her mirror, wore solid gold earrings with gold panthers hanging from them. A chain of gold-foil boars was placed across her shoulders. The man had dozens of tiny gold-foil horses scattered across him.
Working with few resources, Gulyayev's team are racing to excavate kurgans in the region before intensive farming and building destroy them.
"All the kurgans are on plowable black earth. I've seen kurgans three meters high just vanish," Gulyayev said. "If we don't excavate them now, then in a few years they'll disappear.
"Our aim now is to get the money by any means and from any source -- apart from criminal -- to get these graves investigated."