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In Which I Consider the Smithsonian Channel’s Epic Warrior Women

Last night My Own True Love, Ms. Whiskey-Cat and I settled in to watch the first episode of the Smithsonian Channel’s new series, Epic Warrior Women.

The episode, titled “Amazons,” dealt with the women warriors of Scythia–an ancient culture of nomadic horsemen (and women) from the Central Asian steppes and the earliest known women warriors.

The program was an engaging mix of historical fact and historical fiction. The scripted story of a young Scythian girl who grew up to be the war leader of her tribe was interwoven with scholars discussing what we know about the Scythians and how we know it* and footage of the nomadic people of modern Kazakhstan.** The story, complete with sex, drugs and the prehistoric equivalent of rock and roll, gave the program a vehicle for historical speculation and emotional connection with a person that would have been hard to establish otherwise. The scholars provided a surprising depth of context for the story in the course of an hour, drawing on information from ancient texts, grave goods, human remains, anthropological comparisons with modern nomads, and the evidence provided by the relatively new discipline of bioarchaeology.

The scripted story had a few heart-in-the-throat moments, but Adrienne Mayor provided the show’s most thrilling moment when she summed up the thread of the program near the end. The women warriors described in ancient texts were real, not fantasy: “We have the proof in their bones.”

Bottom line? I’ll be in front of the television next week, eager to learn about female gladiators in classical Rome.

*Including Adrienne Mayor, author of The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World–a book I can’t recommend highly enough.

**Most of what we know about ancient steppe cultures comes from their burial mounds, known as kurgans, which can be found from the Balkans to Siberia. These rich physical finds are supplemented by the often sensational accounts written by outsiders, beginning with Herodotus, and occasionally with reference to the oral traditions and customs of the existing peoples of the Eurasian steppes. I must admit, development theories about ancient Scythian culture by drawing from modern Kazakh life makes this historian a bit queasy.

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