Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Of Ancient Norse, Egalitarian Societies, and Burial Practices

Some of you may have seen an internet article like this one going around recently for a study that was actually published three years ago. But if your local library doesn't have the access to go behind the paywall of the original article, you might also find yourself being mislead. Here's a more accurate write-up of it close to the time of publication, and here's a write-up explaining where the newer misleading ones went wrong. I recommend reading through the comments of the last one; some of them are quite informative.

I first got wind of this study through one of the newer studies. I had a brain fail and didn't check the primary reference (shame on me!) before commenting on a friend's post that I wasn't surprised. The Norse did give us Valkyries and shieldmaidens, after all. And I'd heard from SCAdians with Norse personas that women in those cultures had much more freedom than more stereotypical medieval European societies. But then I saw the post explaining the errors and I was also not surprised. The game of Internet Telephone and bad science journalism strike again...

One of the comments reminded me of something that I've never explicitly stated (and I apologize for not doing so before)—when you hear or read about egalitarian societies of the past (or today)—it doesn't necessarily mean they're egalitarian because they believe in equality. It might be because they don't really have a choice.

<tangent>To bring in another of my bio/paleo analogies, terrestrial vertebrates can be bipeds or quadrupeds, but the description doesn't end there. They can be obligate or facultative bipeds or quadrupeds. There's a difference between an organism being bipedal because it has to be vs. bipedal because it wants to be. Raccoons, for example, are quadrupeds normally, but I've seen them pick up food in their front paws and run away on their hind legs. It was more useful for them to be bipedal at that point in time because they could carry more food that way.
</tangent>

In her book, Davis-Kimball recounts some time spent with a modern nomad group. Their chief was a woman. She asked the men what they thought about having a female leader. They looked at her like she was an idiot and told her she was their chief because she was the most qualified to be their chief. End of story.

If you're like me, you probably have a pretty privileged life. Living inside a decent building. Your access to the internet is good enough that you can afford to spend time on it reading my blog instead of doing necessary things like checking if your boss has e-mailed you recently. You can likely go to a nearby grocery store to buy your food. Maybe you even have the fallback of living with your parents if your job doesn't pan out.

But if you live a nomadic life on the steppes, or you're looking for new farmland across the sea, the future quality of your life is much less certain. You can't afford to tell half the population "No, stay home. We'll take care of everything here" or "You can't fight or be a leader because we want you to sew things and cook, even if you aren't terribly good at it". What an individual does is dictated by necessity as much as by their skill. If a male Viking spends all day raiding a nearby village, he's not going to be able to stay home and tend the fields. If your group needs a leader, you pick the best because you may not fare well in the winter if you don't. The way "civilized" society has been set up, we have more leeway with the mistakes we make. Crops didn't do well this year? That's okay. We've got plenty from last year in the freezer.

But having all that leeway means the powerful also have more wiggle room to let their personal preferences creep in. And in Western society, that means assuming males are more competent than females in many jobs and deserve more pay. Now before you counter that the pay gap is false, I've read the same 70% statistic as you and, like you, disregarded it because the study that number came from failed to account for various factors that would cause it to look more serious than it should. I didn't see any reason to believe the pay gap diatribe until I read this horrifying study. It's in an open access journal, so you have no excuse not to read it.

But if you're in a rush, here's the take-home message (before you go read the full thing later): Give people (male or female; it's so ingrained in our culture that it doesn't matter!) the resume of an applicant for a STEM field position. If the gender of the name is masculine, they are more likely to hire that person, offer them a higher salary, give them more career mentoring, and consider them more competent.

The thing that makes this study so convincing is that the only thing that changed on the resume was the gender of the name. Everything else on the resume—the achievements that actually tell you how good a candidate a person is—was the. Exact. Same. And there have been plenty of other studies showing similar biases (which is why female authors often abbreviate their names).

...So back to my original point—when you read about female warriors of the past, or female leaders of modern nomadic tribes, don't assume it means that society believes/d everyone is created equal. It might just be because they had/ve no choice but to act that way.

Remember the post on the Nart Sagas I linked to? Where there's a prophecy that "one day men and women will live peacefully as equals"? At first glance, it sounds all warm and squishy because it means they accept that it's possible for people to be equal regardless of gender. But also remember that wife kidnapping was a thing there. And forcing an unrelated woman to treat you like a son by doing something that, in our society, is sexual harassment was an accepted practice.

Early Sarmatian (or maybe just Sauromatian, I forget if it stopped with them) graves with weapons may have been 20% female, but that practice died off. By the time you get to Late Sarmatians, there are no more female warriors defending their tribes against the Huns or raiding nearby Roman settlements. And as for that 20% number, again, things aren't necessarily what they seem. Just because someone is buried with an object doesn't always mean they regularly used that object in life. Ancient Egyptians were buried with a book; that doesn't mean they were all librarians.

Like the Book of the Dead, the steppe nomad practice of burying weapons with people could be a ceremonial or religious thing (from what I've read, they did practice a sort of sword worship). Maybe that noblewoman was buried with a sword because her tribe felt that people of note should be buried with a symbol of power. Or maybe their mythology had dead souls paying their way to the afterlife with a sword, like the coins for Charos (note: I completely made that one up; I have no reason to actually believe that). Who knows? One could come up with any number of theories, both substantiated and unsubstantiated. The same goes for the occasional steppe nomad man buried with both weapons and mirrors (normally associated with female graves)—doesn't necessarily mean he was something like a Two-Spirit, which Davis-Kimball suggested. The assumption that grave goods are solely representative of use in life is rife with errors and where Davis-Kimball's book falls flat.

On the other hand, it doesn't mean that every case of being buried with weapons was like that. It is common practice, after all, to bury people with things they were attached to in life. Just remember that's it's not going to be a 1:1 correlation. If you want to be sure about a particular find, look for data like whether a particular sword was worn from use and whether the skeleton shows skeletal pathologies consistent with being a warrior.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Saka "Golden Woman" Reconstructions

Two years ago, a new, undisturbed find of a wealthy Saka woman from the 4th to 5th centuries BC in western Kazakhstan made the news. Finding an unlooted kurgan is always great news. So many of them were looted in both distant and recent history (in modern cases, many looters melt the gold down, which means all cultural information is lost). A week ago, images of many of the artifacts in her grave, along with reconstructions of some things (like her clothes and her comb) were published here. Take a look through them! It's pretty awesome.
  The claim that her symbols represent a belief in Zoroastrianism confused me. Maybe something was lost in translation, but worshiping a sky/sun god is kind of an ancestral Indo-European thing (discussed in The Horse, The Wheel, and Language), so it should by no means be indicative of Zoroastrianism over other religions in that category.
  Side note 1: The tall hat would have been made of felt over a wooden frame. I don't know more details than that; it's something that was briefly noted in Warrior Women by Davis-Kimball.
  Side note 2: The "Golden Man" is also a woman. But because the archeologists in charge of reporting her operated in a highly patriarchal paradigm, they failed to report it, even though some of them suspected it. It ruffled their feathers that she was buried with a warrior's accoutrements. Davis-Kimball also recounts how she independently figured it out and the reception of her findings in her book.
  One thing I should note before anyone rushes off to recreate her outfit: just because someone is buried in something, doesn't mean they would have worn it in life. It could be funerary clothing. Someone noted on this facebook page that a hat like that is impractical, so why would someone living on the steppes wear it? Couldn't it get blown away by the wind? All I have to offer to counter that is that there are depictions of steppe women wearing tall hats while alive in their goldwork. See this post for one example. However, it's still possible that they were specifically for ceremonial purposes, rather than for everyday use.

Anthony, D.W., 2007, The Horse, The Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, Princeton University Press, pp. 553.
Davis-Kimball, J., and Behan, M., 2002, Warrior Women: An Archaeologist's Search for History's Hidden Heroines, Warner Books, pp. 268. 

Friday, August 22, 2014

Sarmatians et al. in the SCA

  I've started hearing from more and more SCAdians with Sarmatian personas. I think it would be nice if we all had a way to contact each other and share what we know. Maybe even start a household. :)
  So if you have a Sarmatian or other Iranian steppe nomad persona and are willing to be included on this list, could you e-mail me (or comment here with) your SCA name (or mundane if you're trying to decide or want both listed), kingdom, and local group? If you have more specific persona info, (century, tribe, geographic area...) you can opt to give me that as well.
  If you've e-mailed me in the past and I haven't accidentally deleted the conversation during an inbox purge, I'll contact you separately to ask. But if you haven't heard from me by this Monday (August 25), assume I lost it and contact me again. If you've commented on a previous blog entry but not included your e-mail address, I probably won't have a way to reach you, so please also comment here again.
  I haven't decided what the best way to make a contact circle would be. I could hyperlink e-mails here (with your permission). We could start a Yahoo or Google group. What's everybody's preference?

  • SCA name: Aritê gunê Akasa
    Mundane: Jess Miller-Camp
    Tribe: Undecided
    Time: Undecided
    Place: Undecided
    Kingdom: Calontir
    Local: Shire of Shadowdale
  •  SCA name: Undecided
    Mundane: Csenge Zalka
    Tribe: Undecided
    Time: Undecided
    Place: Undecided
    Kingdom: Middle Kingdom
    Local: Barony of Red Spears 
  • SCA Name: Storanê Sauromatis
    Mundane: Carol Botteron
    Tribe: Undecided
    Time: Undecided
    Place: Undecided
    Kingdom: East
    Local: Barony of Carolingia
  • SCA name: Maiôsara Sauromatis
    Mundane name: Sarah Mitchner
    Tribe: Roxolani
    Time: 5th century
    Place: Tomis
    Kingdom: Middle
    Local: Barony of the Flame
  • Sarmatian Name: Undecided
    Real Name: Holly Herda
    Tribe: Iazyges
    Time: Late 2nd Century AD
    Place: Sarmatia (Hungary) / Britain
    Location: Texas, USA
  • SCA Name: Minythia
    Mundane: Rachel Baltz
    Tribe: Scythian/Sarmatian (intermarriage)
    Time: 6th Century BCE
    Place: Nomadic- Don River to Altai Mountains
    Kingdom: Caid
    Local: Barony of Calafia



Thursday, August 21, 2014

Sarmatian-related Objects in the British Museum

  I was actually able to find some Sarmatian-related things in the British Museum! Yay! Many of them were artifacts from sedentary cultures that were either traded from or influenced by their steppe neighbors, be they Sarmatian or contemporaries of the Sarmatians.

  First up is something a sedentary culture picked up from either the Sarmatians or a contemporary steppe culture. They liked to sew gold plaques on their clothing. There were some in a case of Parthian items from the 1st century AD.
  There are tiny holes on the edges for the thread. Not pictured above these were some gold leaves mimicking early Greek head wreaths. The label notes that the wreath was probably placed on a corpse, so in this case the gold plaques may have been a funerary-specific thing.


 There were also a type of small, three-sided arrowhead which were apparently indicative of Central Asian steppe cultures before some sedentary ones decided they were awesome and started using them themselves. They were apparently quick and easy to make and good at piercing armor. They were fired out of recurved bows—also introduced form the steppes.
 These are from a soldier's cemetary (Deve Hüyük) from the mid-6th to 4th century BC in northern Syria, which was then part of the Achaemenid Empire.

  This horse bit is from the same site as the arrowheads. Nothing was said about whether the style was native Achaemenid or steppe-influenced, but I've included it here since it's contemporary and may be of interest to equestrians.
  I wouldn't advise actually using these on your horses, though. The label noted that the knobs on the snaffle, while allowing control with very small movements, would be uncomfortable for the horse.



  They also found items in at least one female grave there. Bronze mirrors were also ritually buried with priestesses in steppe nomad kurgans. It used to have a wooden handle. The bone tube used to have a lid and contained some sort of makeup. The other items are a cloak brooch and bracelets with stylized calf's head motifs.
  Anyone know what the burial practices of an Achaemenid garrison would have been?  Would they bury wives of soldiers there as well? Would they have had a religious leader there? Or did women sometimes fight in their culture like the Sarmatians? The labels didn't say if these were found alongside martial artifacts or not.

  Fast-forward in time to the Sassanian Empire—the last Iranian empire before the spread of Islam. They made seal stamps out of various minerals. People, animals (real and mythical), plants, and inanimate objects were all possible images on the seals. ...So were tamgas. :)
  The BM display only had the one tamga seal (no provenance given), but you can see quite a few more in a private Austrian collection on this website.


   And, finally, there was the Ribchester Hoard. The hoard itself is too early to belong to any of the Iazyges Sarmatians that were stationed there, but other, later Roman artifacts were displayed in the same case. And some of them looked to be lifted from the Sarmatians. One of the re-enactment groups I'll talk about soon discussed how Romans tended to absorb weapon and armor styles from the people they conquered.
  There were a number of weapons in this case—swords, daggers, etc...—and one of them is a ring pommel sword. Ring pommel swords were popular among Sarmatian from the 2nd century to the 2nd century AD (mentioned in the Osprey book on them). They were also used by other Central Asian peoples, though it doesn't seem like they were very popular until later according to the discussion on this forum. About the time the Iazyges were first drafted into the Roman army, ring pommel sword became popular amongst Romans.
  This sword is from the 2nd-3rd century AD, Pevensey, East Sussex. It was found with coins from Emporer Commodus' reign (176-192AD). It was buried in the ground intact. The wood and leather scabbard(?) (I think they may have meant to say grip there...) rotted away, but the tin-coated bronze pommel is intact.

  I'll talk more about the Ribchester Hoard and the Sarmatian ala there in an upcoming post on the Ribchester Roman Museum.










Quick Update

I am working on the next few posts. I have quite a few I want to get out! I still have a couple from my Europe trip, plus now a quick archeology news share and updates based on some of the books I've been reading while on planes, trains, and buses in both Europe and the paleo dig in Wyoming. I've just been getting more work stuff square away, but my goal is to get one out by tomorrow afternoon.
Also, I've made a last-minute decision to go to Cattle Raids this weekend. Anyone want to meet up? I think I'll load the Roman re-enactor videos (complete with cavalry and horseback archery!) back onto my camera and take it, so you can get a sneak peak if you find me. :) I'll be wearing some...uh...totally non-period lime green Thai pants...'cause I ruined my only pair of period pants trying to resize them...-_-* At least they're linen?

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Scythian and Scythian-related Objects in the British Museum

I was quite happy with the British Museum (BM). They had many steppe nomad and steppe nomad-related artifacts on display. And, because they're an archeology museum, their labels were much more informative than the Louvre's. Also, there's so much I want to talk about that I've decided to split my visit there into two posts--this one focused on the Scythians and the next on the Sarmatians.

The Oxus Treasure
Scythian feline on a ring biting its tail.
Similar to the pommels at the Met.
The Oxus Treasure is a collection of Achaemenid-period metalwork and coins found in modern-day Tajikistan just across the border with Afghanistan. Much of it was unfortunately cut or melted down for bullion by the merchants the finders originally sold it to, so museums only contain part of the find now. The art styles in the hoard are highly variable, so one hypothesis is that the hoard was temple tribute, with individual pieces being of various ages and originating from various cultures. The BM dates the metalwork to the 5th or 4th century BC. Some of them are the steppe nomad's Animal Style. Others simply demonstrate interactions with them.

Scythian bracelet with two
interlocking monsters.
Luristan Bronzes
The most adorable little Scythian monster ever!
Originally, it would have had stone inlays
and may have been on a hat or hair accessory.
This Achaemenid piece shows a
Persian hero killing steppe nomads.
I finally found out what those deer-ibex motifs in the Louvre are--they're from a group of artifacts called the Luristan Bronzes. They're from the Early Iron Age of west-central modern-day Iran. Some pieces are ornamentative, some ceremonial, and others had more practical purposes (e.g., the weapons). The BM had more on display, including some that looked like humans shaped to be rather, uh...phallic. I haven't included any pictures of this collection.

Caucasian artifacts
There was an entire section on the early first millennium BC Caucasus as the "gateway to the north" for Iran. Some of the artifacts in this section were of Scythian style from northwest Iran, while others were Caucasian (Koban culture). Below are gold fragments from late 8th century belts from Ziwiye in north-east Iran, which would have been sewn onto cloth or leather backings and are daggers from Iran and Georgia.

Scythian-style feline motifs with missing stone inlays
Look familiar? The label here gave more information on this
artifact than the one in the Met, some of it conflicting. I'm
not sure if they're two pieces of the sameartifact with the
Met either getting the less battered piece or restoring their's
more nicely, or if they're two separate artifacts made by the
same person. There are two different styles here.
The stags and ibexes are done in Scythian style. The motif
encasing them is more along the lines of Near Eastern art.
I do wonder about its identification as apiece of a belt...that
would have to be a pretty wide belt...even wider for the Met's.



10th-9th century BC Iran
The style is similar to some found in both northwest Iran and Georgia.
The handle was covered in wood held attached with small cooper
rivets. The edges have been sharpened, so it has actually been used
as a weapon.
14th-9th centuries BC, Georgia
These are types of Caucasian daggers.
The left is of a style often found with
other weapons (swords, axes, spearheads)
 in graves in Armenia and Georgia. The
right is younger and of the Koban culture.
 The style with animals facing each other
on the handle may have influenced later
Scythian handles.