Warrior Women: Archaeological Evidence

Lena and her fellow female warriors in my books draw on traditions from across a wide range of dates.

“But the world changes. In all the women’s villages of the Empire, this week or next, a soldier like myself will arrive to ask to live in the village, to take up a trade.” Casyn paused, for a breath, a heartbeat. “And to teach you and your daughters to fight.”

Empire’s Daughter

So begins the major conflict of Empire’s Daughter, the first book in my Empire’s Legacy trilogy. My protagonist Lena’s journey from fisherwoman to soldier, and the life-changing effects on her and the women of her village and her land is its theme and story. Lena is already competent with a hunting bow; now she must learn to use other weapons.

“But how realistic is this?” one of my reviewers asked. Far more so than people of my age were educated to believe, based on archaeological evidence coupled with advanced DNA analysis techniques.  In recent years, analysis or re-analysis of skeletal remains of bodies buried with weapons and other grave goods associated with warriors have shown up to a third of these are women.

In 1941, a grave was excavated at Birka, a town in Eastern Central Sweden and a centre for trade during the 8th–late 10th century. This was an exceptional grave: on a raised area between the town and a hillfort, the goods buried with the warrior included “a sword, an axe, a spear, armour‐piercing arrows, a battle knife, two shields, and two horses, one mare and one stallion; thus, the complete equipment of a professional warrior. Furthermore, a full set of gaming pieces indicates knowledge of tactics and strategy, stressing the buried individual’s role as a high‐ranking officer.”[i]

So, of course, this was a man. Except she wasn’t, when the DNA work was done in 2017, confirming earlier analysis of the bones that had strongly suggested the skeleton was female. More than a ‘shield-maiden’ of the sagas, this was the grave of a high-ranking commander.

The Hårby Valkyrie, c 800 CE, Denmark. Gilwellian / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Later in the Empire’s Legacy series, Lena learns to use a bow from horseback as a weapon of war, a bow she’s never seen before: triple-layered and powerful. In January of this year, results of excavations in the western Russian village of Devitsa revealed two, or maybe three, generations of warrior women buried in one mound: Scythians from about 2500 BCE. Ranging in age from  12 or 13  between 45 to 50 years old, these women were buried with daggers and arrowheads and spears, and in the position of a someone riding a horse.[ii] Over a third of Scythian graves containing women also contain weapons, with skeletal remains showing injuries consistent with war wounds – and with changes to bone structure indicating long hours spent on horseback and using a bow.[iii]

(Archaeoolog.ru, via https://www.smithsonianmag.com)

Key to the involvement of Scythian women in warfare was likely the Scythian bow, a composite bow. Lena first sees one when she visits the horse archers’ training ground:

Compact and deeply curved, it reminded me of the bows we had taken from the plains riders. But I had never seen one constructed like this. It had three layers, I realized as I examined it: a central layer of wood between horn on the inside and what looked to me like sinew along the outer curve. As I compressed it to fasten the bowstring, I felt its resilience.

Empire’s Exile

Composite bows combine a smaller size with higher power, making them especially useful on horseback or from a chariot.  

“If you think about it, a woman on a horse with a bow, trained since childhood, can be just as fast and as deadly as a boy or man.”

Adrienne Mayor

Lena and her fellow female warriors in my books may draw on traditions from across a wide range of dates, but I write the history of an alternate world based on ours, not a faithful interpretation of events. Could she have wielded these weapons in defence of her land?  Recent research says a resounding yes.

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[i]    https://doi.org/10.1002/ajpa.23308

[ii] https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/tomb-containing-three-generations-amazon-warrior-women-unearthed-russia-180973877/

[iii]   The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World, Adrienne Mayor, Princeton University Press, 2016/

Featured image: Statue of Boudicca at Westminter: Paul Walter: licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.