More than three millennia ago, across the Mediterranean and Near East, society collapsed. Previously stable dominant empires and civilizations were brought to their knees, entire languages disappeared, and what had been pastoral and nomadic communities were replaced with imposing and fortified citadels run by a paranoid elite.
Life was violent and cruel. People were forced to take up arms to defend themselves and their kin. But while we’re used to the idea of men saddling up and waging war, a new paper, published recently in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, has found the remains of two female warriors – horse-riding women who fought for their people with bows and arrows.
“Previously, it was common knowledge that the injuries on males' skeletons testify to military clashes, whereas on females' – to … raids or domestic violence,” lead author Anahit Khudaverdyan told IFLScience.
But recently, that prejudice has been slowly breaking down. Skeletons that had long been assumed to be male – because, well, why would a woman have been buried like an honored warrior? – have been conclusively proven to be female, and archaeologists have found themselves revisiting the idea that ancient trauma was segregated so strictly.
“The role of a victim or aggressor is culturally specific,” Khudaverdyan explained. “[It] is not always determined by … biological sex.”
The women found buried in the Jrapi cemetery – the third site in Armenia to reveal the remains of ancient female warriors – had lived through extensive physical trauma before they died. The first, an older woman of about 45 to 50, had been smashed across the back of the head with a mace or a sling at some point – an injury so severe it had left a noticeable dent in her skull. She likely died in battle: the arrow that killed her was found still lodged within her ribcage.
The second woman was much younger – just a teenager. But she had suffered even more extreme violence in that short life: she had been shot badly in the ankle at some point, and stabbed in the jaw from below with a dagger – injuries which hint at a possible role as a cavalry soldier, the authors note. Her skull had also been caved in by a mace, leaving an injury “similar” to the older woman’s, “but larger,” the paper says, and though it wasn’t a fatal blow, the authors note that the girl “might have had disabilities acquired from serious hits … [for example] motor, cognitive, and psychological impairment.”
Both, however, were “well trained, muscular, presumably conducting archery-related hard physical activity on a regular [basis],” the paper notes. They were buried with bowls and jars, but also arrows, daggers, and decorative beads – the funerary rites of “professional warriors,” Khudaverdyan told IFLScience.
While graves of women warriors are rarely discovered in Armenia, the country has a rich and proud traditional mythology of women warriors, the authors note: they are “documented not only by anthropological data but also by archeological and historical evidence,” the paper explains, and “women riders depicted on vases and bronze belts could be fully compliant with the perceptions of the population in Armenia.”
“Not only [did] ordinary Armenian women [defend] their native land with arms … but also noble Armenian queens and princesses inspired generations with their courage, fearlessness, and feat of arms,” the authors write. “In the 12th century brave defender Aytsemnik left a notable mark in the history of the Armenian medieval capital Ani … She courageously repulsed the attacks of the Seljuk troops headed by emir Patlun. Sose Mayrig, participant of the Armenian national liberation movement, wife of the famous hajdúk leader and hero from Sasun Aghbiur Serob, fought side by side with her husband against the Turks and the Kurds.”
While evidence of women or non-binary combatants often stirs controversy, Khudaverdyan told IFLScience that the discovery “cannot be controversial.” The idea of women being unsuited for war comes mostly from 19th century prejudices, the paper explains, but “the study of human remains themselves frees the researcher of problems of historical bias,” Khudaverdyan said.
“Information that would otherwise be invisible about humans’ lived experiences because it didn't make it into written records rises to the surface when the researcher consults the skeleton,” she added. “In this sense, the skeleton provides some of the most direct evidence of past lived experiences.”