ARISTOCRAT?, AMAZON?, OR PRIESTESS? (Some Remarks on the Status of Women in Greco-Scythian Communities)

  • Ja. Chochorowski Department of Bronze Age archaeology at the Jagiellonian University
Keywords: Chora of Olbia, female burials, prestige behaviours, cult of Demeter and Persephone.


In the year 2000, a joint expedition from the Archaeological Museum in Odessa and the Institute of Archaeology of the Jagiellonian University in Kraków conducted excavations in a Greco-Scythian necropolis at Koshary, near the Tiligul Estuary. In a circle of tombs surrounding a Scythian barrow (no. 55), grave no. 111 (dated to the late 4th century BC) stood out with its noticeably special status. In a large niche tomb meticulously carved in the bedrock, a young woman aged Infans II / Iuvenis (i. e. 14—15 years old) was buried on a bed made from reeds and grass and covered with felt. The body was placed to grave with the head to the east, and the burial stands out from other female graves in the Koshary necropolis by an impressive set of jewellery. The set was comprised of the following: silver earrings in the shapes of the heads of Demeter and Persephone, with bronze hooks for attachment, glass beads from a string on the neck, 6 bronze finger rings (4 on the left and 2 on the right hand), and 2 round bosses or appliques made of bronze on the chest. In addition, a tray containing a portion of meat and an iron knife provided with a bone handle was placed by the woman’s head. Immediately by the tray, a set of Greek vessels was placed, consisting of a thin-walled cup-skyphos, a saltcellar, and two small handmade bowls. Four bronze rings (possibly earrings) were also found near the vessels. A leather quiver with Scythian-type arrowheads, deposited to the right from the body, is a unique element. The deceased most likely had Greek origins (buried with the head to the east), but was connected with the family / lineage whose progenitor had been the man buried in the Scythian (in terms of burial orientation) barrow no. 55. Taking into account the over-standard furnishing, the size of the tomb, careful arrangement of the burial, and the monumental size of the stone barrier closing the niche, one can certainly regard the deceased woman as belonging to a group or class of high economic status and representing local elites. Her social role seems to be hinted at by the symbolism of Demeter and Persephone featuring on the ceremonial earrings, namely that of the longing mother and daughter lured by Hades into the underworld, whose cyclical, spring-summer meetings were supposed to bless the Earth with good harvest. The deposition of a «Scythian» quiver by the body was probably meant to additionally emphasise her prestige and social status, and her role as a guardian of her kinsmen’s fortunes. The newly forming, syncretic communities developing at the fringes of civilisations were undoubtedly distinguished by a very high degree of «openness» of their social structures towards «foreign» individuals. Of crucial importance were economic objectives determining the strategy of subsistence. For the Koshary community this was first of all cereal farming, as evidenced by a significant number of grain-storing structures (suggesting an industrial scale) discovered in a settlement adjoining the necropolis. This role of the Black Sea coast as a supplier of food (cereals in particular) for Greece allowed the region to be introduced into civilizational arteries of the Mediterranean world. This is why agricultural cults and Eleusinian Mysteries became important elements of spiritual life in the region. Thus, it comes as no surprise that individuals engaged in agricultural cults (associated with the ideology of immortality and afterlife) enjoyed high prestige in the analysed community. Perhaps, such person was the young women buried in grave no. 111, with the set of exquisite jewellery including impressive silver earrings with the heads of Demeter and Persephone.


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Chochorowski, J. (2018). ARISTOCRAT?, AMAZON?, OR PRIESTESS? (Some Remarks on the Status of Women in Greco-Scythian Communities). Archaeology and Early History of Ukraine, 27(2), 193-203.