The New York Times
Mummies of Ürümchiby Elizabeth Wayland Barber
In the museums of Ürümchi, the windswept regional capital of the Uyghur Autonomous Region (also known as Chinese Turkestan), a collection of ancient mummies lies at the center of an enormous mystery.See more details below
In the museums of Ürümchi, the windswept regional capital of the Uyghur Autonomous Region (also known as Chinese Turkestan), a collection of ancient mummies lies at the center of an enormous mystery.
The New York Times
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"Calf-length A-line dresses with contrastive piping lead the ladies' fashions, in this year of the great burial. While red and blue with dashes of turmeric yellow continue to dominate the color palette, the stunning effect of bright red trim on maroon suits along with striped leggings remains popular among the gentlemen...."
SO MIGHT the fashion page of the Tarim Times have read, around 1000 B.C., if anyone in the Tarim Basin of Central Asia (map 1.1) had known how to read or write. The story, however, had to wait three thousand years, till Easter of A.D. 1994.
In April of that year Discover Magazine published a cover article laying out picture after spectacular picture of ancient mummies clothed in vivid hues of red, yellow, and blue: colorfully swaddled babies, a bearded man clad in maroon shirt and pants with white boots over polychrome leggings, women with high-peaked "witches' hats" and death grins to match. It looked more like Halloween than Easter.
This was the first dazzling notice afforded most Westerners that well-preserved mummies existed along the ancient caravan route through the heart of Asia at a time contemporary with the much more famous Egyptian mummies. When the earliest of these Central Asian corpses nestled into the sands of the Tarim Basin, about 2000 B.C. or a little after, the pyramids of Egypt had already stood for half a millennium, but the best-known pharaohs, Ramesses II and "King Tut" (Tutankhamon), were rather more than fivehundred years into the future. Next door in Mesopotamia, the Sumeriansfirst inventors of the art of writingwere already dying out and Hammurabi was soon to set up his famous law code; the Greeks and Romans had not yet even arrived in Greece and Italy from the northeast. On the other hand, "Ice Man," the Late Stone Age body found in 1991 by hikers in the Alps, had died well over a thousand years before. Europe and the Near East were living in the Bronze Age, a period characterized by the use of soft metals. To the east the Chinese had not yet learned to use metal but were already busy domesticating the precious silkworm that would one day lend its name to the most famous caravan route of Inner Asia, the Silk Road, along whose stretches the mummies have been found.
The colorful clothes and appealing faces of these Central Asian mummies produced an immediate response in America: people wanted to know and see more. Exactly one year after the Discover article featuring Jeffery Newbury's colorful photographs, Archaeology printed its own cover story on the "mystery mummies," and soon photographers and textile buffs were trekking out to a city their travel agents had never heard of: Ürümchi, current home of the mummies. A year later, in March 1996, National Geographic joined the caravan. Meanwhile, in the fall of 1995, Scientific American Frontiers had aired about ten minutes of Asian mummy footage on TV, the culmination of a one-hour program on Alan Alda's adventures in China.
No one who has made the arduous trip to the remote Chinese-administered Uyghur Autonomous Region, where the mummies are coming to light, would wonder that Alda himself did not go there, sending only his film crew to its capital city of Ürümchi, some sixteen hundred miles west of Beijing. The flight of sixteen hundred miles is not quite so far as jetting to Hawaii from Los Angeles, but it feels farther: flights are few and a lot more hazardous, thanks in part to killer windstorms that frequently shut down the few Central Asian airports. Flying from Beijing, one sees the countryside below soon shifting from the lush green of northern China to orange mountainous deserts as far as the eye can see, which is a long way at thirty thousand feet. An artist with only ocher and burnt umber left in his paintbox might create such a scene. In color and terrain as well as vast extent, it reminds an American of the high red deserts of Utah and Arizona and of the Great Basin in Nevada with its dry rocky crags protruding above a deep, choking porridge of sandy-looking fill. Foreigners tend to be unaware that most of the huge territory that China governs is not fit for agriculture, being either mountain or desert or both at once.
The editors of Archaeology had commissioned their article from someone who had traveled to the Uyghur region several times, Dr. Victor Mair, a professor of Chinese studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Mair had first seen the mummies in 1987 while guiding a group of diehard travelers through the Ürümchi Museumthe sort of people not daunted by mere dust- and gravel-storms. At that time the bodies lay in oblivion in a room so ill lit that well-equipped visitors would pull out their pocket flashlights to get a better view.
What Professor Mair recognized there stunned him. The mummies appeared to be neither Chinese nor Mongoloid in facial type; they looked, in fact, distinctively "Caucasian," with high-bridged noses, deep, round eye sockets, fair hair, andon the menheavy beards. According to Chinese historical documents, the Han Chinese themselves began to move into Central Asia only around 120 B.C., struggling to open up regular trade with the West. So historians would not particularly expect Chinese mummies in Central Asia in the second millennium B.C. But why not Mongoloid? Archaeologists and linguists alike had assumed that the Mongol-type peoples had "always" inhabited this entire area, ever since the spread of Homo sapiens sapiens around the globe at the end of the Ice Age forty thousand years ago. They also assumed central and northern Asia to be the general homeland of the Altaic linguistic group, which today includes Mongol and the various Turkic and Tungusic languages (see fig. 9-7). (Northern Central Asia was of course the heartland from which emanated the great invasions of Turks and Mongols during our own millennium; see map 9.9.) To find Caucasians was a surprise.
Returning home, Mair could not forget those strange mummies moldering in the galleries and storerooms in Ürümchi. On the immediate level, something needed to be done to help the museum protect its priceless archaeological treasure from the depredations of fungi, vermin, and microbes. Once people have removed such mummies from the ultradry desert sands that preserve them so splendidly, any dampness at all, even that exhaled by the live human beings now working around the bodies, inevitably restarts the processes of decomposition and decay. And to a family of moths, a well-preserved mummy constitutes an edible palace, as tasty to them as the witch's hut to Hansel and Gretel. The museum sorely needed stout Plexiglas cases in which to seal the mummies with a cargo of disinfectants and bug killers, set up so that scholars and other members of the public might still see and study these important finds.
But Mair also recognized that the very existence of the mummies and the history they represented would revolutionize academic thinking in a number of fields. To tease out of these now-silent witnesses the stories of their lifestyles, customs, origins, and even perhaps languages would require experts from many different disciplines. A tireless worker, Mair set about collecting such a team from around the globe, to pick up where excavation left off.
To begin with, the corpses themselves needed expert study. How old were they at death and why did they die? The famous mummies of Egypt appear dry and shriveled, blackened like discarded walnut husks, compared with these lifelike remains. Had the survivors specially treated these bodies to mummify them, or did their remarkable condition result only from natural desiccation? Anatomists, pathologists, geologists, and experts on burial could presumably answer such questions.
What about their genetics? Could the new methods of DNA analysis tell us about the nearest relatives of these ancient people elsewhere on the Eurasian continent? Could one manage to extract usable DNA samples from these remarkable corpses? Films like Jurassic Park make the processing of DNA appear much easier than it actually is, and the results much glitzier. Nonetheless, for scientists to build up an accurate picture of humanity's spread across the globe, the DNA spectrum from even a single ancient mummy is invaluable, as the work on Ice Man is showing. Perhaps such data could help solve the puzzle of where these early desert dwellers came from when they wandered into Chinese Turkestan so long ago. Professor Mair began contacting specialists in the field, such as Dr. Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza of Stanford University and Dr. Paolo Francalacci at the University of Sassari in Italy.
Even more difficult to determine: what language or languages might these people have spoken? Nearly a century before, scholars had discovered in this same area a variety of documents dating from the first millennium A.D. and written in a now-extinct language known as Tokharian. To everyone's surprise, Tokharian turned out to be related to the Indo-European tongues spoken in most of Europe (including English, Latin, and Greek) and in parts of the Near East (including Persian and Sanskrit). These far-flung Tokharian speakers therefore must have penetrated into Central Asia from the west, but when or how they got there no one knew. The finding of groups of Caucasoid mummies in the Tarim Basin that clearly antedated the Tokharian inscriptions thus held out hope to the linguists that their puzzle too might finally be solved.
Then there were the objects accompanying the dead: mats, baskets, a few tools and vessels, offerings of food, and masses of clothing both on and off the bodies. These form the more usual materials of archaeological investigation, from which we can derive fairly secure dates as well as cultural inferences.
Usual, that is, except for the textiles. Outside of Egypt, you find a presentable piece of cloth in a prehistoric dig about as often as you find a ruby in your oatmeal. Yet here, and for the same reason as in Egypt, ancient textiles come out of the ground by the armload. The steady dryness of the desert in both countries preserves all sorts of otherwise perishable artifacts. Just because most archaeological sites worldwide produce no textiles doesn't mean that cloth wasn't important back then. In fact, once cloth became common late in the New Stone Age, about 4000 B.C., textile production soon swallowed more labor hours than even the production and processing of food, becoming the most important ancient industry. But whereas the sophisticated Egyptians labored to produce masses of plain white linen, the countryfolk of the Tarim Basin wove and bedecked themselves in garments of vivid color that has survived with astounding brightness. No one expected to encounter peacocks and popinjays in the gray sands of Central Asia.
Furthermore, the textiles from at least one of these Inner Asian sites look astonishingly like the peculiar plaid twill cloths found in the only place in Europe where ancient perishables have survived well, the Bronze Age salt mines at Hallstatt and Hallein, in the Alps above Salzburg in Upper Austria. The Austrian plaid twills had been woven by ancestors of the Celts, another Indo-European group linguistically related to the Tokharians (see fig. 6.3). The parallelism of the language and textile links forms another strange tie between the Central Asian mummies and the West. What, if anything, might the prehistoric Celts have had to do with Chinese Turkestan?
To analyze this unusual but highly informative type of material, Mair called upon Irene Good, a specialist at the University of Pennsylvania in the laboratory analysis of ancient fibers and textile fabrics, and me. Together we traveled to Ürümchi in 1995 to study the finds, aided by Mair and by Dr. Dolkun Kamberi, an archaeologist formerly with the Ürümchi Museum and one of the excavators of its most spectacular mummies.
The mummies in the Ürümchi Museum are not the first prehistoric Caucasian bodies found in Chinese Turkestan. Nearly a century earlier Sir Aurel Stein (working for the British government) and Sven Hedin and Folke Bergman (working together for Sweden) had found and published details about several such mummies from the wastes of Loulan, at the east end of the Tarim Basin, whence the earliest of the Ürümchi mummies came. Amid the many crates of artifacts that these savants sent by pack animal and railway across the vast continent, some black-and-white photographs of the burials and a few specimens of prehistoric clothing had made their way back to England and Sweden, butunderstandablyno mummies. The ancient bodies remained where those explorers found them, left to decay or disappear into the shifting sands once more. The possibility of studying similar mummies by modern scientific methods thus caused much excitement in the scholarly world.
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