Sunday, September 11, 2011

Literature review: Sulimirski's "The Sarmatians", with some notes on research style

   In 1970, T. Sulimirski published a book called The Sarmatians. This was the first time anyone had tried to collect what was known about the Sarmatians into one place. It was a fantastic achievement combining ancient texts, archeological data, and the knowledge of cultural anthropologists, resulting in a volume filled with a wealth of information.
   This book is a fantastic resource for finding out about grave goods and burial styles at different places and times. A large portion of the book is devoted to this given that they're a major source of information on the Sarmatians. It has some wonderful plates of various goods which someone in the SCA could find quite handy
Another thing prominent in this book is following the various Sarmatian tribes geographically and politically. He records where you could find each of the major tribes throughout the course of their history, why they moved, how they interacted with their neighbors, and when they eventually left or were absorbed into the cultures they were living among. To this end, his most famous figure is a diagram of tribe location and activity through time and space. It's kind of hard to read, but I've included it below for your perusal.

   Like any academic subject, knowledge about the Sarmatians changes over time, and over 40 years have passed since he wrote his book. This means that some of the information found therein is flat out wrong. That doesn't mean Sulimirski did a poor job (it was quite the contrary, actually)- he was working with the information available at the time.

   When I'm researching a new subject, I like to do it one of two ways: 1) Read literature reviews (like Sulimirski) first, and 2) read older papers before newer papers. This does several things. Reading the general syntheses before the specific papers gives me an overall sense of the subject. I can quickly get the gist of the subject as a whole and decide which to study in more detail first rather than wading through specific article after specific article feeling like my knowledge base is growing very slowly.
   Reading older papers first has a pro and a con- The con is that I will have wrong ideas at the start simply because of the nature of the thing. The pro is that I get a better sense of the history of the subject in addition to the subject itself (i.e., how ideas have changed over time, why, who was resistant to things commonly accepted, who drove the new paradigms...). I'm not going to talk shop with people until I've caught up to modern day literature or give any workshops or talks at events (Except for the Alans in Gaul lecture at St. Denys' Day because of the timing. I am going to skip forward in the literature in this instance so I don't say anything wrong.), but I feel like understanding the history behind it gives you a better grasp of it.
   I didn't say it in these exact words before- but you're learning the same way by proxy. If anything I say conflicts between posts, assume the newer one is right.

   I don't know enough yet to list off which information in the book has been overturned, but I can tell you one thing which is wrong- the idea that Eurasians had a matriarchal society in the Stone Age. This comes up because Sarmatian women (early on, at least), are sometimes found buried with weapons. The extrapolation from this is that Sarmatians maintained the matriarchal influence for longer than other cultures.
...The problem is that the whole"prehistoric matriarchal societies which became corrupted into a patriarchal one" is based on conjecture and feminism, not fact. Many people don't think to look into the idea's origins- especially when it sounds like the way they want the world to be. Modern scholars don't accept it. There might be a few hangers-ons (I don't know; in general, I don't read cultural anthropology journals), but that doesn't make it a viable hypothesis (There are a few paleontologists who refuse to accept that birds are dinosaurs despite the overwhelming evidence. We call them the Flat Earth Society.).
I get the impression that Sulimirski either accepted it or was open to the idea of it being correct. Sarmatian women did have more freedom than the Greeks, who told us about the Sarmatians and other cultures in their world; but the Greeks were strongly patriarchal, so any deviation from that in one of the barbaric societies (barbarian meaning "not Greek") was astonishing and disgusting to them, and therefore worth noting because, in their eyes, it made them look more civilized than those crazy people that let their women do what they want. Even women in the Middle East used to have more freedom (this was mentioned in the "SCA Silk Road Persona" panel I went to at Dragon*Con this past weekend). A shift from more egalitarian to patriarchal, rather than matriarchal to patriarchal, is all that's needed to explain it. Assuming an extreme is unnecessary when a simpler explanation will suffice.
   On the other end of things, Sulimirski does acknowledge that  just because you find a bow and arrows in a female grave doesn't mean she spent her entire life as a warrior. She could have been a hunter while the men were away on a raid or at war.

   All this being said, I still recommend this book to anyone interested in a Sarmatian persona. Even if some of the cultural anthropology is incorrect, there is still good information on what sort of artifacts you find among different tribes, time, and places. I've gotten several project ideas after reading this book and found several more lines of research to pursue.

Sulimirski, T., 1970,  The Sarmatians, vol. 73 of Ancient Peoples and Places, Praeger Publishers, Inc.


  1. The 'matriarchal vs. patriarchal' debate is an interesting point. I know a couple of examples that I've seen people say they were once matriarchal (including the protogreeks with the snake goddess cult and the Japanese). This makes me wonder as to whether or not those are actually valid assumptions, or if those cultures were more egalitarian than matriarchal orginially.

  2. There are cultures out there which put more stock in matriarchal lines than patriarchal. (Like a minority ethnicity in China with "walking marriages" where people live in the house of their mothers their entire lives. Men walk to their lover's house to visit them. They raise the children of their female relatives instead of their own biological children. Glad I'm not from there...) They're just few and far between and independent derivations rather than remnants of an ancient global state. They also aren't fully matriarchal in the sense that many cultures are or have been patriarchal. Just because goddesses are worshipped, or women the heads of households, doesn't mean men had no power in society.
    Unless it was in a recent peer-reviewed journal article, be wary of any instance you hear of. The idea of an ancient matriarchal society has become ingrained in the consciousness of many people, particularly in the new age circles, and continues to spread that way.

    1. Some native tribes in the American Southwest have similar marriages in which a man cares for his sisters children while his wifes brother cares for his own. These tribes are matrilineal but not matriarchal. The purpose of this is to bind all of the families in the tribe with overlapping areas of responsibility.

    2. Thanks for the addition. :) How widespread is/was it there?

  3. I forgot to say, the book "The Sarmatians" is a must-read. They had it at my highschool library and it was highly influential to me and kept a place in my memory for twenty years. It would be worth buying for the info on swords alone.

  4. There are some tribes of the Southwest that are Matriarchal and not just Matrilineal. The Pueblo are one. My Aunt is the ruling head of the Acoma Pueblo as her mother was before her and as her daughter will be some day.

    I believe you are right in that Matriarchal societies are/were rare regardless of how far back you go. Like there is only one Matriarchal group of Apes (the Bonobos), only one Matriarchal group of cats (Hyenas), and so on. Matrilineal is more prevalent and may be mistaken for Matriarchal when researching pre-written history civilizations.

    I believe that goddess or female worshiping civilizations were probably less likely to be Matriarchal because of the need to protect the females.

  5. Trish, you have connections to Acoma? That is awesome, that is one of my favorite places in the world. Aside from the Pueblo itself, the little museum at the base of the mesa is well worth visiting. They have one of the best-preserved 16th century bucklers in the world, with its cloth covering mostly intact. They also have one of the coolest 16th century swords I ever sow, also in such good condition you could pick it up and use it today.

    As to the T. Sulimirski book, I absolutely must get a copy, and luckily it is very inexpesive as far a good books go, with some copies going for under $100. It is a miracle for me to find a book I really want for less then $500.