As a graduate student studying Iranian art, Jeannine Davis-Kimball knew basically nothing about ancient nomadic peoples, and she never imagined her career would eventually be focused on the enigmatic warrior women who once wandered the Eurasian steppes some 2,000 years ago and provided a historical basis for the myth of the Amazon. Then she happened across carved stone reliefs in one of the palaces of the Archaemedian dynasty, which ruled Persia from 559 to 330 B.C. The reliefs depicted scenes of nomads paying tribute to the kings. In contrast to others honoring the rulers, these people were distinctively dressed, wearing soft boots and tall hats, and they were leading horses. Davis-Kimball was intrigued by the figures, and she thought she knew where she might look for them. “I suspected that I might be able to find some traces of them if I were to go out to the Eurasian steppes,” to the north of the Persian empire, “because that is where you would find nomadism,” recalls Davis-Kimball, now the director of the American Eurasian Research Institute and its subsidiary, the Center for the Study of Eurasian Nomadism, at the University of California at Berkeley. “Nomadism is based on animal husbandry, primarily raising sheep and horses, and you don’t find that in cities because the animals have to have pasture land, wide open spaces.”
At the time, more than twenty years ago, American libraries and museums didn’t have much, if any, information on nomadic cultures. At museums in Kazakhstan, however, Davis-Kimball, who had been a nurse and cattle rancher before entering graduate school later in life, gained new insight into nomadism in general and specifically into the people who’d once occupied the southern Russian steppes. She soon began excavations of the kurgans, or burial mounds, of ancient Eurasian nomads, and became the first American woman to collaborate in archaeological investigations in Kazakhstan. “Everything that I excavated was very interesting because it all added to our knowledge, but my first big find was at the 1994 excavation at Porkovka,” located in Russia near its border with Kazakhstan, “when we discovered artifacts indicating there were women there who were very important within the culture.” Finding warrior women who played a prominent role in the nomadic society came as a total surprise to Davis-Kimball, and it led her to focus her career on the investigation of the warrior women of the Russian steppes and other cultures. “I had no idea that these women existed. In history and in art — for instance, in the stone reliefs of the Persian Archaemedians — there is no indication that women have any particular status. In fact, women are sort of invisible, because history is always written by men.” But Davis-Kimball has found that in reality, warrior women were quite common among ancient Eurasian societies and also among other nomads. “Our new evidence shows that women have always had a pretty prominent place in nomadic societies,” she says.
Despite her stunning discoveries, Davis-Kimball currently has no plans to revisit the warrior women of the steppes and undertake more excavations. “Our work is done at Porkovka,” she says. “There are several factors involved in excavating — you have to have a site you want to excavate that has the potential for new discoveries, and you have to consider the cost. It has become extremely expensive to put together an excavation, and a lot of the focus on research in the Middle East has gone to contemporary issues — Islam, terrorism — which don’t affect me in archaeology, but decrease the availability of funding.”