padThe Mummies of Ürümchi

by Elizabeth Wayland Barber

In the museums of Ürümchi, the wind-swept regional capital of the Uyghur Autonomous Region in Western China—what we know as Chinese Turkestan—a collection of ancient mummies lay at the center of an enormous mystery. Some of Ürümchi’s mummies date back as far as 4,000 years—contemporary to the famous Egyptian mummies, but even more beautifully preserved, especially their clothing. Surprisingly, these prehistoric people are not Asian but Caucasoid—tall and large-nosed and blond with thick beards and round eyes (probably blue). What were these blond Caucasians doing in the heart of Asia? Where did they come from and what language did they speak? Might they be related to a “lost tribe” of Indo-Europeans known from later inscriptions? Few gifts are to be found in the graves of Ürümchi, making it difficult for archaeologists to pinpoint cultural connections from clues offered by pottery and tools. But their clothes—woolens that rarely survive more than a few centuries—have been preserved as brightly hued as the day they were woven.

Elizabeth Wayland Barber, one of the world’s leading scholars on ancient textiles and author of Women’s Work, describes these remarkable mummies, their clothing, their shepherding ways, and their path to this remote, mysterious, and forbidding place. She pieces together their history and peculiar Western connections from both what she saw in Ürümchi and the testimony of explorers who traveled along the Silk Road a century earlier. The result is a book like no other—a fascinating and informative unveiling of an ancient, exotic, and nearly forgotten world.

---from W.W. Norton

Originally published in hardcover in 1999.

Norton, 2000, 240 p., color plates/b&w; photos/illus., paperback

Mummies of Ürümchi, The
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