A Romano-Sarmatian soldier in circa 2nd c. AD Britain

« previous post | next post »

We have occasionally mentioned Sarmatians on Language Log, but usually in association with the Scythians, of whom we have often spoken (most recently here, with extensive bibliography).

These two peoples of ancient times both spoke languages in the Iranian language family and lived in the area north of the Black Sea. The languages and cultures of the Scythians and Sarmatians were related but distinct. In particular their styles of warfare were different. The Scythians were noted as mounted archers. They may have been the inventors or one of the inventors of the stirrup. The stirrup enabled mounted archers to fire (shoot) arrows reasonably accurately while riding. The Scythians attacked in a mass firing of arrows. If their adversaries were not overwhelmed by the hail of arrows then the Scythians turned and rode to a safe distance for regrouping to mount another mass attack.

Most adversaries were overwhelmed by the Scythian battle tactics. It was only the Sarmatians who found a successful counter-strategy to withstand the Scythians. The Sarmatian warriors and their mounts were protected with armor. Usually the armor consisted of metal plates of bronze or iron sewn onto leather garments. This armor enabled the Sarmatians to withstand a Scythian attack. After a Scythian onslaught the Sarmatians would attack the Scythians with fifteen-foot-long lances. The Sarmatians were probably the originator of the armored knights of medieval Europe.


Before focusing on the single ca. 2nd c. AD Sarmatian who is the main subject of this post, we would do well to learn more about the Sarmatians themselves.

The Sarmatians (/sɑːrˈmʃiənz/; Ancient Greek: Σαρμάται, romanizedSarmatai; Latin: Sarmatae [ˈsarmatae̯]) were a large confederation of ancient Iranian equestrian nomadic peoples who dominated the Pontic steppe from about the 3rd century BC to the 4th century AD.

The earliest reference to the Sarmatians is in the Avesta, Sairima-, which is in the later Iranian sources recorded as *Sarm and Salm. Originating in the central parts of the Eurasian Steppe, the Sarmatians were part of the wider Scythian cultures.[3] They started migrating westward around the fourth and third centuries BC, coming to dominate the closely related Scythians by 200 BC. At their greatest reported extent, around 100 BC, these tribes ranged from the Vistula River to the mouth of the Danube and eastward to the Volga, bordering the shores of the Black and Caspian seas as well as the Caucasus to the south.


Now we have a detailed scientific report about one of those Sarmatian soldiers who made the roughly 1,500 mile trek to Romano-Britain during the early part of the first millennium AD.

Ancient Skeleton From Southern Russia Surprises UK Scientists, by Sam Anderson, ExplorersWeb (December 27, 2023) 

Offord Cluny 203645 was a complete, well-preserved male skeleton, buried without any personal effects in a Cambridgeshire ditch. A team led by the Francis Crick Institute could tell the remains were clearly ancient. But with no contextual clues to go on, they might have hit a dead end.

Updated forensic technology intervened, and provided the first biological proof of a certain, far-flung immigration pattern during the Roman Empire.

The man was a Sarmatian, and the team’s tests proved he made it from his homeland in what is now the southern Russia/Ukraine area to his final destination in the United Kingdom.

The article explains how the archeologists found where the man came from:

First, they extracted DNA from a tiny bone in his inner ear. This turned out to be his best-preserved body part containing the most complete DNA samples. Dr. Marina Silva, of the Ancient Genomics Laboratory at the Francis Crick Institute, extracted and analyzed the samples for the study.

“This is not like testing the DNA of someone alive,” Silva told The BBC. “The DNA is very fragmented and damaged. However, we were able to [decode] enough of it. The first thing we saw was that genetically he was very different” from the Romano-British individuals they’d previously studied.

That still didn’t connect the dots, though. How could the scientists prove that he was born in Eurasia and immigrated to the place of his death?

For this, they examined his teeth. Even two millennia after his death, the tissue harbored chemicals in varying amounts at different layers. Offord Cluny underwent pronounced dietary changes at ages 5 and 9 and began to level out around 13.

The changes, the team found, followed chemical trends you could expect from a person adapting to available food sources while traveling west across Europe.

Millets and sorghum grains, scientifically called C4 crops, are plentiful in the region where Sarmatians lived. These dissipated in his diet as he matured. Wheat — more common in Western Europe — replaced them.

“The [analysis] tells us that he, and not his ancestors, made the journey to Britain. As he grew up, he migrated west, and these plants disappeared from his diet,” said Janet Montgomery of Durham University.

These results are extremely interesting and important because they show that Offord Cluny made this long trip from the Pontic-Caspian steppes to Britain, not just in one lifetime, but within the period of a few years.

The Iranian-speaking peoples who were present in Britain during the Roman period had a profound impact on many aspects of culture, e.g., the Arthurian story cycles and their associated images.  Some of these men participated in the defense of Hadrian's Wall (begun in AD 122).  

"The Sarmatians in Europe: Gravestone of a Sarmatian Horseman"

The term "Sarmatians" is believed to refer to various horse-riding peoples from the territory of present-day Iran. From the 3rd century BC, they settled in present-day southern Russia and Ukraine, where they displaced the Scythians. From the 3rd century onward, Sarmatian tribes also settled in the Roman Empire, often adopted Roman citizenship and served in Roman legions, having been hired as auxiliary troops. In Britain, for example, the Sarmatians defended Hadrian's Wall against the attacks of the Scottish Picts. The photograph shows the gravestone of a Sarmatian horseman from the Roman settlement of Deva Victrix (in present-day Chester in northern England).

Die Sarmaten in Europa: Grabstein eines sarmatischen Reiters

Gravestone of a Sarmatian horseman who fought for the Romans in Britain, Grosvenor Museum, Chester, England, colour photograph, 2011, photographer: Wolfgang Sauber; image source: Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Some Rights Reserved Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.

For a masterful treatment of the impact of Romano-Iranian forces on English tradition, see:

C. Scott Littleton and Linda A. Malcor, From Scythia to Camelot: A Radical Reassessment of the Legends of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, and the Holy Grail (New York and London: Garland, 1994; rev. pb. 2000). In the British journal, Religion, 28.3 (July, 1998), 294-300, I [VHM] wrote a review in which I pointed out that the celebrated motif of a mighty arm rising up out of the water holding aloft the hero's sword can also be found in a medieval Chinese tale from Dunhuang. That review is available electronically from ScienceDirect, if your library subscribes to it. Otherwise, I think this version on the Web is a fairly faithful copy.


Selected readings

[Thanks to Sunny Jhutti]


  1. Martin Schwartz said,

    July 8, 2024 @ 10:56 pm

    Before the Sarmatians were the Sauromations, etymologically
    related but of unclear ethnological relationship. If the Old Indic
    šarument- ;having spears of arrows/, it could explain Iranian *sarumat-
    as spearbearers, but this is uncertain. Or Av. */sarima-/ > /saruma-/ under influence of labial m? Dunno, just sayin'.
    martin schwartz

  2. martin schwartz said,

    July 8, 2024 @ 10:58 pm

    typo: recte OInd. śarumant-

  3. martin schwartz said,

    July 9, 2024 @ 1:08 am

    My etymological conn. with the Sanskrit necesstiates an adj. *-mata-
    from *-mant-, whic is strained and leaves aside the Av. evidence
    of the ethnonym in question. Rather *Sarima- > *Saruma-
    plus the *tā(t)- pl. (orig. abstract suffix) found in the ethnomyms
    in Greco-Latin sources: Skōlotoi (Royal Scythian tribe), Thisamatae and
    Saudaramatae (mentioned alongside Scyths and Sarmatians.THe Sarmato-Alanic continuum yielded Ossetic, in which the pl. morpheme
    is -tæ. Sogdian has a cognate pl suffix, which shows that this pl.
    formation was not limited to Scythian, Sarmatian, and Sauromatian.
    I assume *Sarima- became *Sarma- alongside *Saruma-.
    Martin Schwartz

  4. martin schwartz said,

    July 9, 2024 @ 1:20 am

    Tarnation, for my misspelling "Sarmation"! also whic(H).
    Hmm, I once had an honorary certificte in Latin, from the Nachlass of an aged Central European pacifist friend, issued in Trieste by
    the Russian exile nobleman intellectual Serge(i) Golitsyn,
    as head of the pacifist(!) organization, The Knights Miiltant of St. Victor,
    in which Golitsyn listed among his titles Princeps Sarmatorum.
    Martin Schwartz

  5. martin schwartz said,

    July 9, 2024 @ 1:35 am

    One more: our chap on the gravestone, with is tunic and cap,
    looks rather like the Roman Mithraic representation of Miithras

  6. martin schwartz said,

    July 9, 2024 @ 1:37 am

    his tunic etc.

  7. Philip Taylor said,

    July 9, 2024 @ 3:38 am

    A naïve question — the text starts by introducing Offord Cluny 203645, but goes on to discuss Offord Cluny with no numeric qualifier. Are there any other "Offord Cluny"s other than 203645 ?

  8. Peter Taylor said,

    July 9, 2024 @ 4:45 am

    @Philip Taylor, it's metonymy. Offord Cluny is actually the Cambridgeshire village where the remains were found. 203645 should be the object identifier. https://www.cambridge-news.co.uk/news/history/ancient-man-whose-skeleton-found-28311347 says the remains were found in 2017 in preparatory work for the A14, so I think https://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archives/view/a14alcon_he_2020/metadata.cfm should be the project, but 204645 doesn't match any of the listed inhumation object identifiers under Downloads / Osteology / Inhumations.

  9. Hiroshi Kumamoto said,

    July 9, 2024 @ 5:59 am

    The classical study of J. Harmatta, Studies in the History and Language of the Sarmatians (Acta Antiqua et Archaeologica, XIII, Szeged 1970), is now available in the HTML format:


    It is classical in the sense that no archaeological results in the past 50 years or no DNA studies are to be expected there. In terms of philology the data collected there seem exhaustive. The above site is also linked to in the Wikipedia article under "Sources | Books | Harmatta".

  10. Philip Taylor said,

    July 9, 2024 @ 6:40 am

    Hallo Peter — Yes, I was aware of what Offord Cluny is, I just wondered whether there were any other attested "Offord Cluny"s other than 203645. Anyhow, as you say, 204645 doesn't match any of the listed inhumation object identifiers, and using the main page's search box for "Offord Cluny" yields zero hits.

  11. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    July 9, 2024 @ 6:49 am

    Is the upshot here that the chivalric concept of "knighthood" was inspired by Scythian/Sarmatian horsemen who scared the kilts off the Britons?

  12. Philip Taylor said,

    July 9, 2024 @ 7:58 am

    "Anyhow, as you say, 204645 doesn't match any of the listed inhumation object identifiers" — nor does 203645, which is the object-ID used in the original paper [ https://explorersweb.com/ancient-sarmatian-skeleton-found-britain/ ] …

  13. Peter B. Golden said,

    July 9, 2024 @ 9:30 am

    In Turkish scholarship (and not limited to the Turks of Turkey) it has now become axiomatic to consider the Scythians and Sarmatians as Turkic. Examples are two recent books: Faith Şengül, "Sakaların v Sarmatların Kökeni" [The Origin/Roots of the Sakas and Sarmatians] (Istanbul: Eğitim, 2023). Emine Sonnur Özcan, "Kültür Tarihi Açısından İskit-Türk Aynılığı" [The Identity of Scythian and Turk from the Perspective of Cultural History], rev. 2nd ed. (Istanbul: Selenge, 2023). Similarly, the Alans (on the Alans that came to the west, see Bernard Bacharach, "A History of the Alans in the West" (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1973 – Bernie was an old classmate of mine in the early 1960s). For possible Sarmatian or Alanic influences on the Arthurian tales, one should also look at the Nart tales from the North Caucasus, associated with the Ossetins, various Circassian peoples and the Turkic Qarachay-Malqar. Among the latter, the word "Alan" is used as an informal form of address. The Qarachay-Malqar speak one of the variants of Qïpchaq (Northwestern Turkic), with a number of terms that show older Christian influences (they are today universally Sunni Muslims). The probability of an Alanic substratum is high. DNA analysis can probably tell us more. Qarachay scholars (I am in contact with a number of them), however, will argue that the Alans were Turkic.

  14. David Marjanović said,

    July 9, 2024 @ 1:33 pm

    Princeps Sarmatorum

    Sarmatarum, I hope. :-)

  15. Peter Erwin said,

    July 10, 2024 @ 3:46 pm

    Benjamin E. Orsetti
    Is the upshot here that the chivalric concept of "knighthood" was inspired by Scythian/Sarmatian horsemen who scared the kilts off the Britons?

    Since "the chivalric concept of 'knighthood'" is basically a creation of the 11th to 13th Centuries, most of all in France, that would be a no.

  16. Philip Anderson said,

    July 10, 2024 @ 5:35 pm

    I think it’s journalistic exaggeration to say that scientists were “surprised” by the results, since long-distance migration within the Roman Empire was well-established by tombstone evidence even before recent scientific advances enabled individual “biographies” to be created, showing that even children could migrate across a continent.
    While the presence of Sarmation soldiers in Roman Britain is attested, it should be noted that most historians reject the theory that they had any connection to the much later stories of Arthur. There’s no evidence for an Iranian-speaking, Sarmatian community here either; the language of the army was Latin of course, and ex-soldiers would tend to marry local women.

  17. Peter Grubtal said,

    July 11, 2024 @ 7:10 am

    @Philip Anderson

    long-distance migration within the Roman Empire was well-established by tombstone evidence

    Indeed, including the remarkable South Shields tombstone, complete with inscription partly in Palmyrene.

    How the levantine merchant (presumably) coped with the north English weather must be left to the imagination.

  18. Pamela said,

    July 11, 2024 @ 10:38 am

    Wonderful article. As for the preceding excerpt, "The stirrup enabled mounted archers to fire (shoot) arrows reasonably accurately while riding." No, stirrups did not do that.

  19. Philip Taylor said,

    July 11, 2024 @ 12:45 pm

    As a horse-owner for some eighteen years, I was willing to take on trust the assertion that "the stirrup enabled mounted archers to fire (shoot) arrows reasonably accurately while riding" until Pamela challenged it. I then remembered that native Americans (the so-called "red Indians" of cowboys-and-Indians fame) of some tribes, who were almost totally reliant on the bow and arrow before the arrival of the white man, used stirrups, and on checking I see that in John C Ewers The Horse in Blackfoot Indian Culture (written in or before 1955) he wrote "Both men and women among the Blackfoot tribes rode with bent knees and short stirrups when riding in the saddle. Short stirrups gave the active rider the necessary leverage to move from side to side and to rise and turn in the saddle as required. They enabled him to use the lance and bow more effectively when mounted, and made it easier for him to weave his body from side to side when under fire in battle". So if it is a myth that "stirrups enabled mounted archers to fire (shoot) arrows reasonably accurately while riding", that myth has been in existence for at least 70 years

  20. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    July 11, 2024 @ 3:19 pm

    The Blackfeet's stirrup use might not mean that it was _necessary_ to bow cavalry; there hadn't been any equines in North America for 10,000 years until the Spanish brought over their Arabians; they probably just copied the Spanish style of riding rather than "reinvent the wheel", er, "reins"…

  21. Pamela said,

    July 11, 2024 @ 11:00 pm

    "So if it is a myth that "stirrups enabled mounted archers to fire (shoot) arrows reasonably accurately while riding", that myth has been in existence for at least 70 years" –oh yes, it has been. The stirrup thesis has had a curiously unchallenged history. Stirrups are not needed by trained riders to rise in the saddle. Stirrups are not needed by trained mounted archers (they can help). Stirrups cannot keep men in the saddle who are countering impacts from the front. Stirrups are for riders to rest their legs, to allow commanders to stand up for a quick look across the battlefield, AND to get more untrained riders into the saddle. They appeared about the same time as closed flank riding that increased the number of mounted archers (not because of the stirrups, but because of saddle design). I've written a bit about it. Stirrups were part of the equipment for getting untrained men into the saddle, but they were always ancillary to changes in saddle configuration.

  22. Philip Taylor said,

    July 12, 2024 @ 2:03 am

    Pamela — "Stirrups are not needed by trained riders to rise in the saddle" — are you able to adduce any evidence in support of that hypothesis ? After having my foot crushed by my horse rolling on it, I was forced to ride without stirrups for some time, but at no point did I then attempt rising trot, nor would I have thought it possible. I assume that by "to rise in the saddle", you are referring to the rider's action when doing rising trot, but I may have misunderstood, in which case apologies.

  23. Pamela said,

    July 12, 2024 @ 1:59 pm

    Hi Philip, sorry to hear of your accidents. Yes, I am thinking of riding at the post, though the same would apply to use of melée weapons. It is among the first hunt-seat things riders are taught (in fact as I recall they didn't even put the leathers and stirrups on for a few weeks). My evidence is that I can do it and most people (you know, riders) I know can do it–unless they ride "western," where they is no posting at all (unless you're James Garner). You need legs. You don't need stirrups.

  24. Pamela said,

    July 12, 2024 @ 1:59 pm

    Oops, I meant accident. One. Crushed foot sounds awful.

  25. Pamela said,

    July 12, 2024 @ 2:02 pm

    Should have included this before, a nice description from Xenophon (5 or 6 centuries before iron stirrups): "As regards range of discharge in shooting we are in favour of the longest possible, as giving more time to rally (12) and transfer the second javelin to the right hand. And here we will state shortly the most effective method of hurling the javelin. The horseman should throw forward his left side, while drawing back his right; then rising bodily from the thighs, he should let fly the missile with the point slightly upwards. The dart so discharged will carry with the greatest force and to the farthest distance; we may add, too, with the truest aim, if at the moment of discharge the lance be directed steadily on the object aimed at."

  26. Philip Taylor said,

    July 12, 2024 @ 3:45 pm

    (Crushed foot) — yes, it was not much fun, but as a friend was coming from Canada specifically to ride with me just one week after the accident, I had little option but to ride without stirrups. As to rising trot without stirrups, I ought to review some of the video recordings of the bareback puissance at Olympia — they may well reveal the technique in operation. Thank you Pamela.

RSS feed for comments on this post

Leave a Comment