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  WINDY CITY TIMES

SHELF LIFE
2002-09-04

This article shared 2036 times since Wed Sep 4, 2002
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Warrior Women: an Archaeologist's Search for History's Hidden Heroines, ( Warner Books, 2002, $24.95 ) by Jeannine Davis-Kimball with Mona Behan

You won't find Xena or even Joan of Arc in Warrior Women, but the book does have Amazons. Jeannine Davis-Kimball is an archaeologist who has worked in the Eurasian steppes, the land of the Silk Road that stretches from Hungary to China. Home to nomadic herders for thousands of years, these grasslands have sent armies on horseback...most notably the Huns and the Mongols...riding east and west to bedevil more settled peoples for most of recorded history. And before recorded history, this land beyond the Black Sea was the reputed homeland of the Amazons of Greek legend.

In 1985, Davis-Kimball went to Kazakhstan which was then part of Soviet Russia. Situated near the Caspian Sea, the steppes of Kazakhstan are dotted with mounds, kurgan tombs that date back as far as the 4th Century BCE. These tombs are circular affairs, the largest over 60 feet in diameter, and usually contain several burials of bodies and artifacts. The Bronze Age Saka were the earliest known people to have occupied this area. A loose confederation of tribes identifiable through a distinctive style of weapons and artistic motifs, the Saka may well be the Scythians who impressed the early Greeks as fierce fighters, horse warriors and purchasers of Greek gold work. The lure of golden treasure has enticed others besides archaeologists to excavate kurgan tombs.

Sauromatians and Sarmatians followed the Saka and the Scythians. Women's status in all of these groups is far from clear, but Davis-Kimball offers the customs of contemporary Kazaks to show that nomadic women enjoy a measure of independence and authority now and probably did in the past. One of the strong points of Warrior Women is that past and present, myth and history are included throughout the regular text. A number of sidebar inserts include related discussions of Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian and travel writer, changing nomadic life styles at the Chinese end of the steppes, and an account of an Irish sheela-na-gig whose method of protection is a display of her genitals. These sections add depth to the sometimes tedious accounts of digging dirt in discomfort which is the lot of an archaeologist.

The defining career discovery for Davis-Kimball occurred when she and her team found the grave of a young warrior priestess, most likely killed in battle. The woman had been buried with "arrowheads [ which ] , coupled with the dagger ( iron being as precious as gold then ) , showed that her training as a warrior within her tribe had been taken seriously. The green cluster that I had noted on her chest was an amulet suspended from a sinew thong around her neck: a single bronze arrowhead encased in a leather pouch. Another amulet also indicating potent warrior prowess, a six-inch-long boar's tusk and the largest I have ever seen, lay at her feet." In the legendary homeland of the Amazons, Davis-Kimball had found a warrior woman.

Supported by her discoveries of other women buried with objects indicating their unexpected importance, Davis-Kimball published an article in Archaeology in 1997 titled "Chieftain or Warrior-Priestess." In this article, she challenged a gender bias that assigned as male any skeleton associated with warrior artifacts. A skeleton from the 5th Century BCE had been dubbed the Gold Man of Issyk by its discoverers because all the gold ornaments and plaques included in the burial suggested a suit of armor. In her article, Davis-Kimball presented considerable evidence that pointed more toward a Gold Woman of Issyk.

Not long after the war in Afghanistan began, a columnist with a right-wing bent stated that clearly a post-9/11 world signaled the end of feminism. Everyone understood now, she wrote, why we needed our manly male warriors. In the same paper, a few pages away, was an account of a woman fighter pilot flying missions to patrol the airspace over Iraq. Perhaps in the far future some historian or archaeologist with no notion of the political antagonisms of our age will discover that newspaper and wonder which version of the existence of women warriors in the early 21st Century was true.

During her pursuit of history's elusive women warriors, Davis-Kimball found plenty of evidence for the existence of what she calls "high-status women" in the steppes' elder cultures. Mongolian women are still expert archers and there are legends of a time when they were fearsome wrestlers. I found particularly interesting a discussion of women as the first shamans. Women warriors are enjoying a lot of attention these days, and I suspect that Davis-Kimball's publishers intended for this book to share in the attention when they chose a title. The subtitle is much more indicative of the variety of legends, history, and anthropology that are to be found in the book. Some of the conclusions about women's place in prehistory will be familiar to those who like to read this subject, but Davis-Kimball succeeds in adding several brightly colored pins to the map of the past. Warrior Women has much to offer the well versed as well as the new reader.

Red Dust, ( W.W. Norton & Co., 2000, First American edition 2002, $25.95 ) by Gillian Slovo

Gillian Slovo has a solid vantage from which to write about a trial before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. She is the daughter of Joe Slovo and Ruth First, a white couple who were members of the African National Congress since the 1950s. Joe was appointed Housing Commissioner after the ANC won South Africa's first free election; Ruth did not live to see the end of the struggle against apartheid. Ruth First was assassinated by white South African security forces in Mozambique. Some of the story of this remarkable family can be found in the excellent movie, A World Apart, which has a screenplay written by Shawn Slovo, Gillian's older sister, and stars Barbara Hershey and Tim Roth. Gillian herself has written a family memoir, Every Secret Thing, that tells the story of Ruth's assassination and Gillian's return to South Africa.

Red Dust is fiction. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has convened in Smitsrivier, a desert town, to rule on an amnesty application from Dirk Hendricks, a former police interrogator. To receive amnesty, Hendricks must satisfy the Commission that he acted for substantially political purposes and is disclosing all relevant facts. Justice may not be fully served by the Commission but history will have a record and the hope is that truth may be exhumed along with the victims of the struggle for freedom. The crime for which Hendricks is seeking amnesty is an assault against Alex Mpondo that took place years earlier. "Assault" is the official euphemism being used instead of the more accurate word, "torture."

The search for truth is a ceremony that brings together a number people with conflicting needs. Alex Mpondo, an official in the new government, understands he has nothing to gain from revealing the sadist hiding within the stolid features of the policeman; he fears he can only lose if the shame and pain that still reside in his very bones are resurrected. Sarah Barcant, now a successful New York prosecutor, has been called back to the stultifying hometown she left years before by her old mentor, the aging activist lawyer, Ben Hoffman. Hoffman claims to need Sarah's help to direct the testimony of the trial to uncover the fate of Steve Sizela, who disappeared at the same time Alex Mpondo was detained by the police. Hoffman believes that Sarah's only chance to be a whole person will come if she returns to Smitsrivier to become a defender rather than a prosecutor. Seated among the spectators are Steve Sizela's parents and Pieter Muller, Hendricks' former colleague. Everyone knows in the way such things are known that Pieter Muller almost certainly murdered Steve Sizela but unless Hendricks can be maneuvered into admitting this portion of the truth, the unrepentant Muller will remain free.

Not that Hendricks is repentant. He remains adamant that he tortured Mpondo only because time required desperate measures if the community was to be protected from being terrorized by the communist insurgents. It is chilling to read how Hendricks presents himself as a victim whose life was ruined by the requirements of his work; his wife divorced him, taking his children, and a therapist attests that Hendricks suffers from post-traumatic stress. Alex Mpondo knows that Hendricks relished the power he wielded but the psychic pitfalls of full revelation still threaten the survivor; only a commitment to his murdered friend and comrade keeps Alex from quitting the trial altogether.

Slovo began her writing career with mystery novels and the technique of that genre serves her well in Red Dust. Her prose is spare, simple, direct. The steady rhythm of revelation creates a tension appropriate to this tale of a search for truth. If truth lies anywhere in this story, it is not in the facts, but in the unexpected intimacies. Torture has bound Hendricks and Mpondo so close they read each other's slightest motion; the elder Sizela and Muller gaze at each other in unspoken recognition of Muller's crime. Marriage in Red Dust, on the other hand, is a relationship of silence and distance and betrayal. Slovo falters only when she tries to resolve the attraction between Sarah Barcant and Alex Mpondo. Her metaphoric drawing of a curtain appears less like discretion and more like avoidance in dealing with a relationship so fraught with political and personal meaning in both the old and new South Africa.

Indeed, Sarah is still a question mark by the end of the book. Clearly she is Slovo's alter ego in the story and expressive of Slovo's own ambivalence toward the land of her birth. Any written work deserves to be judged on its own merits, but fiction shares the same psychic source as dreaming, concealing and revealing preoccupations and desires, opening a path to deeper concerns. Red Dust is a fitful dream, as necessary as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission it examines, yet just as unsatisfying. Truth is elusive and reconciliation is impossible, but there is history.


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