Preface
'l\ncient Graves of Armed Women Hint at Amazons."
1
Like its coun-
terparts in the exploration narratives of the sixteenth century, this New
York Times headline from February 25, 1997, is followed by an account of
recent discoveries. In this case the discoveries result from archaeologi-
cal excavations in the Eurasian steppes: female skeletons, buried with
weapons, hint that a culture in which women's bodies were equipped
for war might both substantiate and localize one of our most elusive
myths. For the Times as for early modern explorers, however, material
proof is at best dubiously connected to sensational claims; as the article
hastens to admit, the women whose graves have been discovered "prob-
ably did not quite fit the larger-than-life Amazon image of women who
seemed to prefer making war to making love"
(BlO).
The site, according
to the article, is far from the geographical areas in which classical his-
tories locate Amazons; few of the skeletons show evidence of wounds
received in battle; and the find is less valuable as evidence of actual Ama-
zons than as a foundation for reconsidering the roles of ancient women
more generally. Why, then, bring up Amazons at all? Why quote He-
rodotus on their history in order to point out that these women don't
fit? What does it mean to attach a headline proclaiming the discovery
of Amazons to an article about discovering something else?
Most obviously, it means that readers of the Times are more likely to
be interested in Amazons than in more generic women warriors, that
an Amazon is more compelling than just any woman with a sword, that
Amazons have a particular cachet, and that their discovery is of particu-
lar interest. This is true in part because Amazons, for us, are less a pres-
ence than a rhetorical move. The term 'i\mazon" appears in a variety of
contemporary contexts, from bad movies to the radical lesbian feminist
separatism of the 1970s, and, as this diversity of implicit audiences sug-
gests, it does not mean the same thing to everyone. Its status is at once
absolute and oddly contingent; we know what it means, but "we" are
difficult to limit or define. Wearing, for example, a shirt that says 'i\ma-
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