Silk Road Q&A with Curator Dirk

September 17, 2010

Last month we did an online Q&A with our curator Dirk Van Tuerenhout on our new exhibition, Secrets of the Silk Road. Visitors to this free event were able to ask Dirk questions about the mummies and other unique artifacts currently on display at HMNS. The questions and answers are listed below (the subject is bolded, the questions are italicized, and the answers are in plain text.)

Details of Mummies
How many mummies are in the show? How many mummies were found in this area?

A close up photograph of Xiaohe.

Photo courtesy of Mu Xinhui.

There are two mummies in the exhibit. One is that of an adult woman. She lived around 1,800 – 1,500 BC and her remains were found in the Xiaohe (Small River) cemetery. The second mummy is that of an infant, sex unknown, who lived during the 8th century BC. This infant was found in Zaghunluq, several hundreds of miles removed from the Xiaohe location.

In their book, The Tarim Mummies, Mallory and Mair estimate that the number of known mummies is “on the order of 500” (pages 179-180).

What are the average length, height and weight of the mummies discovered?

This is a hard question to answer. A good example as to why this is so can be found at the museum: we have an adult woman and a child less than a year old. There is quite a difference in height in these two individuals. In terms of weight, I do not know if anyone has weighed them.

Life of Mummies
What languages do you think they might have spoken?

Interesting question, and difficult to answer. We should take note of the great number of languages that at one point were spoken and written in the Tarim and Turpan Basins. For example, when the Berlin Ethnological Museum unpacked the materials that they had excavated in the years 1902 – 1914 in the Tarim and Turpan Basins, they announced that they had evidence of 17 languages recorded in 24 different scripts (Mallory and Mair, The Tarim Mummies, p. 102).

Who first found the mummies, was any “looting” involved, and how many have been found so far?

Knowledge of the cemeteries containing mummies goes back many centuries, as does evidence of looting. The latter activity has continued until today, sad to say. In terms of who first alerted the outside world to the existence of these mummies, there are European and American researchers who worked in the last decade of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th. People like Aurel Stein of the Smithsonian, and the Swedes Sven Hedin and Folke Bergman, just to name a few, explored these remote areas and encountered mummies. While they made note of their existence, they did not undertake scientific studies, partly because their initial research focus was a different one, and partly because of the logistics involved. Most often the mummies were excavated, photographed and then re-buried. In all we know of about 500 mummies. There must have been many thousands more that once lived and were buried.

What is the fortification-looking area in the slide show, and where is it located? Are those the remains of boats around it?

A decaying grave site from the Silk road.

Photo courtesy of Mu Xinhui.

The fortification-looking area is in fact a cemetery. What looks like a palisade is a series of wooden poles found marking the cemetery. A coffin often used in this cemetery is one called a “boat coffin,’ because of its apparent similarity with a small boat. They never served as a boat, as one can easily observe when looking at a boat coffin currently on display at the museum.

Were there writings in tomb objects? Tokens of religious or religion?

Texts were found in the tombs dating to the period when the Silk Road was in existence ( 138 BC – 1368 AD). We now of 17 languages written in 24 different scripts; most of the evidence for these comes from funerary contexts. However, the mummies on display at the museum are prehistoric, date to the period before the Silk Road opened up. They were not found with “letters in their pockets.”

What weapons were found?  Composite bows?

The period covered by the exhibit is quite extensive, going from 1,800 BC through the 14th century. References to and information about weapons abound during these three millennia. For example, arrows and arrow heads have been found in various cemeteries, including Xiaohe and Kucha. As far as the presence of composite bows is concerned, I came across a paper by Andrew Hall and Jack Farrell originally published in The Society of Archer-Antiquaries, #51, 2008, pp. 89-98. It discusses composite bows found in the Tarim basin. (You can find an online version of this paper here). Composite bows have also been linked with Subeshi.

Anthropologists and archaeologists have uncovered and restored clothing from the Silk road.

Photo courtesy of Mu Xinhui.

What are the materials of the clothing and ropes made of?

Clothing ranges from woolen cloaks, fur boots, to silk robes. I do not have reliable information on the ropes.

How close is the clothing to Celtic clothing of the same period?

Here is a passage from Mallory and Mair, The Tarim Mummies, that you will find interesting (pp. 217 – 219):

“Although dating to the same period as Zaghunluq, the cemetery at Qizilchoqa to the northeast near Hami yielded different weaves for which far-reaching historical connections have been suggested. The precise date of the Qizilchoqa cemetery is problematic: the initial dates place it at about 1200 BC, contemporary with the later period of the Yanbulaq culture, but a new radiocarbon date of c. 800 – 530 BC suggests that it belongs to the later Tort Erik (Sidaogou) culture. The abundant evidence for dress here revealed a variety of clothes, including woolen robes with colored belt bands and fur coats (the fur turned inside) with integrated gloves, which fastened with wooden buttons. But our main story lies with the woolen textiles.

Irene Good made a detailed examination of a textile fragment (15 cm by 19 cm – 6 in by 4 in) from the site. The main here was normal diagonal twill, but the decoration involved the production of plaid, the same type of decorative technique one might expect on a Scottish tartan. This involved the wide and narrow color strips on both the warp and the weft and here the colors employed were threads of blue, white and brown, each thread made up of some 30 to 40 fibers. The white and brown thread are natural the blue thread is dyed. This small strip of cloth has been invested with heavy historical implications.

The earliest twills known derive from the region between Turkey and the Caucasus where they were dated to the late 4th – 3rd millennium BC, and they are found in abundance from the late 2nd millennium BC in Europe, particularly at the site of Hallstatt. Here miners left residues of their clothing (and, occasionally, themselves) in the protective environment of Austrian salt mines. As the Hallstatt culture occupied a territory which classical authors would associate with Celts only a few centuries later, it is generally presumed that the miners here (and the warriors and others buried in the neighboring cemetery) were also Celts or proto-Celts. The easternmost finds of twill, dating from the centuries around 1000 BC (or somewhat later), are the fragment from Qizilchoqa and many others like it from the same cemetery (some very Scottish looking); true twills are unknown in China until well into the 1st millennium AD. The Qizilchoqa twill is virtually identical to the textile fragments recovered from Hallstatt with respect to both style and technique (hence one of the arguments employed by the tabloid press for placing kilted Celts in the Tarim Basin). We are not talking simply of the diffusion of a particular weaving and color pattern. As Elizabeth barber writes: “the regular combination of plaids and twills n the same cloth and the similar play of wides and narrows in the plaids moves us into a border zone where it’s harder to imagine the sum total as accidental.” There is also a similarity in the weight of the cloth. Of course there are differences between the Hallstatt and the Qizilchoqa materials, for example, Hallstatt employed only two colors while the Qizilchoqa plaids used from three to six colors. In addition, there are even differences among the Tarim plaids. Irene Good has noted that the weaving traditions of Zaghunluq and Qizilchoqa are themselves considerably different even though they both ate to the period before the middle of the first millennium BC. The Qizilchoqa (Hami) fragment appears to derive from a hairy rather than a wooly fleece and would seem to come from a different breed of sheep than that found at Zaghunluq; there are also differences in the crafting of the cloth, e.g. the Zaghunluq twill involved hopping over three stems of the warp rather than the more typical two as found at Qizilchoqa. In weighing the similarities between the European and East Central Asian material, Barber concludes that the two are related yet also makes it clear that neither is derived from the other. How do we connect the two textile traditions?

Elizabeth Barber has deduced that the twill plaid recovered from the northern Tarim may be placed within the context of Indo-European migrations. As we have already recounted, one of the most popular theories of Indo-European origins would locate their homeland in the steppelands encompassing Ukraine and southern Russia, a region which would have been in direct contact with the Caucasus whence we obtain some of our earliest evidence for twills. In this model, the earliest Indo-Europeans would have known plaid and carried it west into central and western Europe where it would later emerge among the Celts of the Hallstatt culture; it would also have been carried eastward across the steppe where it would have been introduced by Indo-Europeans, here identified as the Tocharians, into the Tarim Basin.”

How do you keep the mummies preserved while they are on display?

We maintain a constant temperature and humidity within the museum and the exhibit hall.

Are these mummies considered to be the best preserved in the world?  Even better than the Egyptian mummies?

They are among the best preserved mummies in the world. This makes them stand out, not only for this reason, but also because these individuals were mummified by nature rather than by human agency.

What role did the climate play in preservation?

Climate and the environment were the main reasons some of the remains became mummies. The best preserved mummies tend to be dressed very warmly. This has led archaeologists to suggest that these individuals died in the winter. Their bodies would then have been freeze-dried first, then cooked and parched during the summer. If any moisture was left in the bodies, that would have been removed by the minerals present in the desert. The rivers descending from the mountains carry lots of minerals.

Were both the Y chromosome and Mitochondrial DNA analyses done on the male mummies?

My understanding is that they were not. mtDNA analysis allows one to retrace the lineage of the individual studied through the maternal line. While it would connect a male to his female ancestors, it would not provide a link with his descendants, since none would have inherited his mtDNA.

 Creative Commons License Photo credit: Wang Da-Gang

Is the baby linked by DNA to the woman?

The baby is about 1000 years younger and was buried in a cemetery about 250 – 300 miles away from that where the woman was found. They were not immediate family. They could be distant relatives like you and I would be.

Have studies been done to determine where the mummies were born or grew up? Are they all considered to have been born and raised where they were found?

That type of study is referred to as isotopic analysis and it can tell us where a person grew up. To the best of my knowledge this has not been done yet on these mummies.

Has any testing been done in the region to determine if the Y chromosome markers from the male mummies are present in the living population?

In paper published in early 2010, we find that Y chromosome research was carried out of seven male individuals from the Xiaohe cemetery. The paper is available online in open access format at the time of writing this reply. (Go here.)

The researchers state (p. 6): “The Y chromosome haplogroup of the seven males were all assigned to haplogroup R1a1a through screening the Y-SNPs at M89, M9, M45, M173 and M198 successively. Haplogroup R1a1a is widely distributed in Eurasia: it is mainly found in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, South Asia, Siberia, ancient Siberia, but rare in East Asia.”

In other words, the Y chromosomes found in the Xiaohe mummies were compared with those found in contemporary male populations world-wide. I do not know if in that sample, males from the Tarim Basin were included.

Authored By Dirk Van Tuerenhout

As curator of anthropology, Dirk is responsible for the museum’s artifact collection and is involved in its temporary and permanent anthropology exhibits. Dirk is an expert in human cultures; he curates the Museum’s Hall of the Americas and specializes in native American cultures like the Aztec and Maya.

2 responses to “Silk Road Q&A with Curator Dirk”

  1. Kyle Scarborough says:

    Thank you for your reply to my question about the display of the female mummy. Could I respectfully challenge your reply? To keep her enshrouded because that is the way she was buried suggests that, taken to a further end, she should have been displayed in container in which she was found. Or for that matter, she should not have been removed at all, but modern curators should have built a shrine over the cemetary, leaving it undisurbed and protected from looters and elements.
    But here she is, being displayed accross the country for voyeurs at every level, from sophisticated caretakers such as yourself to simpler anthropological enthusiasts like me, to every schoolchild with eight dollars and in interest in mummies.
    I suspect there is more to it. The way the lighting on the postcards and bookcovers highlight her features in the most lifelike and attractive manner, and the reference to her beauty over a half a dozen times in the audio tour suggests a marketing angle to maximize public interest through mystery.
    I suspect that you must find ways to titillate the public and educate us at the same time. You must tell the story in an exciting way and at the same time maintain respect for the culture and historical accuracy expected by your peers.
    I am sure I could not perform such a balancing act as you do so well.
    Perhaps I am reading more into it than I should. But getting her here from China was the hard part. To then show her wrapped up, with only her face peeking out, hiding the stick she carried and the woven belt and the way the rest of her skin was preserved,is somehow a letdown for me. I felt that I was guided away from her reality and toward her eyelashes.
    Thank you for your time. Kyle S

  2. Dirk says:

    Hello Kyle,

    Thanks for your follow up message. You bring up several points, related to the display of the mummy and the museum’s mission. I will address these two aspects below, and will end with a brief comment about word choices.

    Let me start with the way we display the mummy. In general, both here in the US as well as in China, the Tarim Basin mummies are displayed the way they were encountered, in this case, with their cloak closed. This applies to the Cherchen mummies, some of whom can be seen in situ, in a museum built on top of the tomb. Follow this link to see images.

    When you access this link, you will also be able to read the following statement, made by someone who visited the museum and saw its display:

    “On the vast, empty salt plateau, a tiny pink building stands alone. It was built over one of the hundreds of tombs at this site, excavated only a decade ago but dating back thousands of years. In this 2,600 year old tomb, you can see, a few meters down through the plexiglass cover, fourteen naturally mummified bodies, in their bright clothes with their variety of funerary offerings in excellent condition, looking as if they had been placed quite recently.” (The bolded emphasis is mine).

    Other Tarim Basin mummies were moved to the Urumqi museum, where they are currently displayed. Visitors to that museum have posted photos for all to see here and here. These images show the mummies with their cloaks wrapped around their body.

    Over here in the US, we follow this way of displaying the mummies, as did the Bowers Museum. One can clearly see this in this clip from MSNBC.

    We know from written sources that people have known about these cemeteries for centuries. As a result, for an equally long period, these locations have been subject to looting. Given that some of the cemeteries are in very remote locations, protecting them is a very challenging undertaking. I can see this being a reason why they were moved to the museum in Urumqi. The other option would have been to risk losing them forever, which no one wants to see happen.

    Secondly, the museum’s mission is to educate, rather than titillate. We leave the latter to others. As such, it is our job to share with the public information about a mummy’s condition, the way in which it was buried, and what grave goods were recovered in the tomb. In addition to archaeology, we also bring in genetics to clarify the presence of European-looking individuals in a place this far in the east. We do so by presenting what we know and indicating where future research will shed additional light on this question. In other words, we do not “cover up” this aspect of the story either. It is all presented through our text panels, audio tour and docent-provided context information.

    I would like to end with a few comments about word choices. I would prefer to refer to our visitors as interested lay people, or even specialists in the subject matter. I would not want to identify them as voyeurs. Moreover, the fact that the Xiaohe mummy is incredibly well preserved is plain for all to see; there is no mystery here and no need to display her au naturel either.

    I hope I have been able to address some of your concerns and allay some of your fears. I hope to see you at future exhibits.


    Dirk Van Tuerenhout

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