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20-07-2015, 04:28


Tattooing is often associated with women in many of the ancient and modern examples. Tattooed Thracian men are not represented in Greek art, although Herodotus, Xenophon, Cicero, and others included men in their descriptions of tattooing.18 Archaeological evidence hints that female tattooing may have an extremely ancient history across Thrace and western Scythia. Neolithic sites of Cucuteni culture (4800-3000 BC) in the forest steppes of Romania and southwestern Ukraine have yielded hundreds of clay female figurines inscribed with lines and spirals; some scholars believe they represent tattoos. Along with the clay figurines, archaeologists also unearth caches of inscribed horse phalanges (toe bones). The bones’ natural shape suggests a nude female torso; the distal condyles resemble breasts or shoulders. The four-inch-long bones were smoothed and polished and then incised with geometric designs (sometimes nipples were indicated). One obvious interpretation of the decorations is that they signified tattoos. Similar incised figurines have been discovered at sites of the same date near Lykastia, Pontus (a region known for women warriors, according to Apollonius

FiG. 6.6. Neolithic female forms, incised with tattoo-like designs. Left and right, horse toe bone figures, Botai culture, Kazakhstan; center, Cucuteni culture clay figure, Ukraine. Photos courtesy of Sandra Olsen, collage by Michele Angel.

Of Rhodes; chapter 10). Painted spiral patterns also decorate similar figures of the same time frame in Turkmenistan. Yet another region long associated with Amazons, Gobustan in Azerbaijan, has about seven thousand ancient petroglyphs (Neolithic-Bronze Age) depicting symbols, animals, and people armed with bows, axes, and spears, some riding horses. One composition shows eight females (carrying bows.?) whose body markings could indicate tattoos.19

The curious practice of creating decorated female torsos from horse bones was very widespread, from Romania and Pontus to Kazakhstan, the heart of ancient Scythia. Troves of these incised female forms, along with vast collections of horse remains, were recently excavated from sites of the Botai culture of northern Kazakhstan (ca. 3700-3100 BC). These seminomadic people were among the first to domesticate horses. The archaeological evidence shows that they also made human skulls into bowls, drank fermented mare’s milk (koumiss; chapter 9), and apparently enjoyed a high level of gender equality, prominent features of Scythian-Amazon life reported by Herodotus and others.20

The archaeologists interpret the geometric markings on the Botai horse-bone figures as some of the earliest representations of ancient clothing construction. Based on their assumption that the marks on the torsos indicate stitching, belts, and necklines of clothing, the archaeologists suggest that Botai horsewomen wore stiff, loose-fitting, ankle-length dresses of homespun hemp. If the incisions on the torsos do represent clothing, a close-fitting tunic might be indicated, since nothing below the hips is shown. (Wide skirts could be modified into trouser-like garments for riding; see below and chapter 12).

An alternative possibility, not mentioned by the archaeologists, is that the lines on some of the female torso shapes represent tattoos. As we have seen, it can be difficult to distinguish tattoos or body paintings from garments in ancient artifacts. The Botai patterns that the archaeologists interpret as stitched seams call to mind the ladder/fence tattoo designs that mimic the seams of sleeves along the edges of the bare arms of Thracian women on Greek vases. Similar stitching/seam patterns appear on nude female clay figures from Turkmenistan (26002100 BC); they also appear on Bosnian and Kurdish women’s arm tattoos.21 The deliberately smoothed surface of the horse bone to make it look more like a shapely female torso—sometimes with dots around the pubic region or nipples—conveys an impression of nudity. If these objects had some ritual purpose, as argued by the archaeologists, a naked female form seems more appropriate and powerful than a clothed one. It is interesting that the dashes, zigzags, cross-hatchings, ladders, triangles, and chevrons prefigure some of the patterns on both the exotic attire of Amazons and Thracian tattoos in vase paintings. At any rate, the mysterious female forms created from horse bones point to a strong, very ancient relationship between horses and women in Thracian-Scythian lands.

Tattooing traditions among women persist in many locales associated with ancient Amazons, both mythic and historical. As in the Balkans, in Dagestan between the Caucasus and Caspian Sea (where the Amazon queen Marpesia was active) women still tattoo their arms with geometric symbols. Their traditional marks include dots (coded love messages), moons (for happiness and luck), and bird-tracks (thought to make a girl a fast runner). Ornamental tattooing is also practiced by Aghach Eris women, Turki-Persian-speaking nomads of Iran, and by Turkmen people. Kurdish women of northern Iraq and the southern Caucasus, thought to be descendants of Bronze Age Hurrians who spoke a Caucasian language, still tattoo themselves with rayed circles

FiG. 6.7. Traditional forearm and hand tattoos of Bosnian women (left) and Kurdish women (right). Drawing by Michele Angel.

And half-circles, dots, chevrons, and stitch, fence, and comb shapes. On his journey across Central Asia in the thirteenth century Marco Polo described how women and men used needles and ink to engrave the “strange likenesses” of raptors, lions, and dragons on their bodies. In many cultures, tattoo designs are repeated in clothing, textiles, and other objects, which helps explain the similarity of motifs on barbarian clothing and the skin of Thracians, Scythians, and Amazons in ancient Greek art.22

Some modern scholars argue that Athenian vase painters drew tattoos on Thracian women to brand them as savage “barbarians” who failed to conform to the classical Greek feminine ideal. Likewise, the exuberantly patterned clothing worn by Amazons and Scythians in Greek art is thought to be an artistic convention for signaling “Otherness.” But the artfully rendered tattoos of the Thracian women on Greek vases were grounded in fact: such tattoos were a daily sight in Athens. The specific forms of the Thracian tattoos—repeated in the patterns worn by Amazons—were not simply invented by Greek artists in pottery workshops. The same abstract and animal designs appear on leather, wood, and golden objects and textiles excavated from tombs of Thrace and Scythia, ca. 550-100 BC, and they also match traditional tattoo motifs on once-living inhabitants of ancient Amazonian territories.23

Tattooing methods, like tattoo motifs, are extraordinarily conservative, unchanged over millennia (needles, pigments, and stencils have been recovered from Scythian graves). First the design was drawn or traced on the skin. A bundle of three to seven needles punctured the design into the skin and then pigment was rubbed in (carbon paste from charcoal ash). The paste was variously mixed with other substances, such as tallow, honey, wild berry juice or indigo (for blue pigment), sap, ox bile (to set the dye), saliva, or the breast milk of a woman nursing an infant girl or, in the Balkans, a son. The colorful flower tattoos of the Mossyn-oeci of Pontus suggest that colored pigments were known in antiquity.24

Tattooing equipment was recently excavated in 2013, next to a skeleton dressed in a richly decorated tunic and trousers, buried with lavish grave goods in a Sarmatian-Scythian kurgan on the steppes between the Ural Mountains and the Caspian Sea. The tattoo kit consisted of pigments and spoons for mixing them on two stone palettes, gilded iron needles, and other tools. Many Scythian burials contain similar items, which had been mistaken for women’s cosmetics by earlier archaeologists.25

Plentiful evidence makes it safe to assume that Greeks were familiar with tattooing practices of Scythian and related Eurasian tribes, and that they would expect the women they called Amazons to wear inked designs. The most powerful proof is frozen in time—inscribed on the skin of mummified bodies recovered from icy graves in the Altai.  to some extraordinary recent discoveries, we now know precisely what sort of tattoos were worn by real horsewomen of the steppes.