Journal of Martial Arts Anthropology

Abstract - The Phenomenon of Burying Women with Weapons in Iron Age Poland Tactical, social and funerary considerations

Aim. This article focuses on the phenomenon of military items buried with individuals anthropologically identified as female. While the body of sources informing the analysis of this archaeological phenomenon have already been presented in a separate article [Bochnak 2010], this publication will discuss the possible lines of interpretation for such finds and attempt to explain them. Is the presence of military items in the graves of women enough to posit that warrior-women did exist in the Iron Age? Or perhaps, should it perhaps be viewed as an expression of other customs, not necessarily indicative of women actually wielding arms, barring exceptional cases?

Methods. The article discusses both ancient and early mediaeval written sources mentioning women taking part in combat in the context of Central Europe [Cassius Dio, Vita Aureliani, Jordanes, Getica , Isidore of Seville, Etymologiæ, Paul the Deacon, Historia Langobardorum and Liutprandi Leges]. It is possible that at least some of these mentions pertain to extraordinary situations requiring all members of a local community capable of bearing arms to fight. For the Germanic peoples, the idea of armed women would not have been improper or offensive. The figure of the Valkyries – the fierce mythical daughters of Odin – should be testament enough. Nevertheless, all the above sources speak of territories which were either close to the borders of the Roman Empire or the location of which are not strictly defined. Sadly, we do not possess any similar sources confirming the existence of female fighters north of the Carpathians in the younger pre-Roman and Roman period. To demonstrate warrior women did exist, we first need to consider the social implications of the phenomenon, as well as the tactical advantages this may have entailed. Accounts of female warriors mainly describe communities which preferred ranged weapons over hand-to-hand combat, as was often the case among nomadic peoples. Cavalry formations were especially common in the steppes of Eurasia or America but both Central and Western Europe lacked the swathes of open space for such tactics to take hold. While the Germanic social order did allow women to assume prestigious functions, for example as envoys, it does not necessarily follow that these women would have enjoyed the privilege of carrying arms.

Results & Conclusions. It seems more likely that the weapons discovered in graves did not belong to the deceased as such but were a form of funerary offerings or gifts. They may have served a magical purpose of some sort or were perhaps an expression of respect for the buried women. And even though women of the Przeworsk culture may have occasionally participated in armed combat, there is little evidence that they may be called warrior-women in the proper sense.