Of Chinese mummies, and a relative of a famous German WWI fighter pilot

While I was reading up on the archaeology of the Tarim Basin for our new exhibit, Secrets of the Silk Road, I kept thinking of “the artist formerly known as Prince.” Why? What in the world does he have to do with 4000-year old mummies? The answer is simple. There is one aspect he and the Xinjiang sites have in common: they have an awful lot of names. Over the years, sites have been named in various languages, English, Chinese and Uyghur; occasionally they have also been named after individuals. Anyone interested in this subject matter may at first be very confused by these multiple names.

 Sven Hendin

Let me start out, however, with a much simpler explanation about the origin of the expression Silk Road. The term Silk Road is the English translation of the German “Seidenstrasse,” a term coined in 1877 by Freiherr Ferdinand von Richthofen. This German geologist and uncle of famous World War I fighter ace, Manfred von Richthofen, chose silk to symbolize the trade items that made it from China to the Mediterranean and this term has been used ever since. Ferdinand von Richthofen’s legacy extends beyond contributing the terms Silk Road; one of his students was a Swede named Sven Hedin. Sven became a very accomplished student of the Tarim Basin history, as we shall see below.

Scientists have been able to collect and study to some degree about 500 mummies (Mallory and Mair 2000, pp. 179 – 180). We know that the remains of thousands of people were buried in the desert in the course of several millennia before the arrival of the Han Chinese in the region. Some of these individuals remain at rest, others have been found by looters and their tombs were ransacked in a futile attempt to find treasure.

The mummies have been found in various cemeteries in the Tarim Basin. In the next paragraphs, I will review some of these burial places, concentrating on those where mummies with Caucasian features have been found.

One of the two mummies currently on display at the museum is known as the “Beauty of Xiaohe,” named after the Xiaohe cemetery. The Xiaohe cemetery goes by several names. In 1934, Swedish archaeologist Folke Bergman reached a site in the Lop Nor area; this settlement contained a cemetery on a hill marked by wooden posts. (An example of this burial arrangement is on display at the museum as well.) The site was close to a river bed, which Bergman named Xiaohe, or “Small River.” The cemetery itself got several monikers, starting with “Ördek’s necropolis,” after a Uyhgur guide by that name who had discovered the site in the 1910s, while working for the above mentioned researcher, Sven Hedin. Researchers established that the settlement and the associated cemetery belonged to the Gumugou culture, also known as the Qäwrighul culture. Another “beauty” found in the region, a mummy known as the “Beauty of Loulan,” also belonged to this culture (Romgard, 2008, p. 13).

After its initial discovery, the Xiaohe site drifted back into anonymity. It was rediscovered in 2000. A Chinese translation of Bergman’s book (Bergman, 1939) became available in 1997. It brought the site to the attention of Chinese scientists, who were able to re-discover the site (Romgard, 2008, p. 20, n. 38).

 Hedin with Folke Bergman on Hedin’s final expedition, 1934
© The Sven Hedin Foundation

The Xiaohe cemetery contains the largest number of mummies ever found at a single site (Romgard, 2008, p. 20). A total of 167 tombs were excavated, many of them containing mummies with clear European features. The earliest graves date back to ca. 2000 BC (Romgard, 2008, p. 21). The presence of woolen garments is a good indicator of very early links between West and East, as sheep did not exist in early China (Romgard 2008, pp. 21-22).

Northeast of Lop Nor, near the oasis town of Hami, archaeologists encountered a small number of mummies of Caucasian origin at the Yanbulaq cemetery. Eight out of a total of 29 examined human remains were identified as such (Romgard 2008, p. 22). This cemetery, dated back to the Bronze Age as well, contains further proof of western cultural traits moving from west to east. The presence of people of Caucasian extraction, as well as woolen knit-ware and mud brick architecture spread eastward to the Tarim Basin and then China (Romgard 2008, p. 22).

Qäwrighul Cemetery, located close to Bosten Lake in the Tianshan Mountains, is part of the Chawuhu culture (Romgard, 2008, pp. 15- 16, 23-24). It dates to 1000 – 400 BC. Human remains encountered here display a mix of Caucasian and Mongoloid features. The people who were buried here lived in an area that served as a passageway between the eastern parts of the Tarim Basin and parts further northwest. Similarities in material culture between this culture and areas in Siberia and Kazakhstan imply that migrations occurred in this part well before the official opening of the Silk Road (Romgard, 2008, p. 24).

The idea that some of the basic building stones of civilization came from the west into China did not receive a universal welcome among Chinese scholars. As late as December 1999, Chinese scholars argued that the reverse had happened, that prehistoric cultures from China had gradually advanced to the West (Romgard 2008, pp. 29 – 30). However, the pendulum is now swinging in the opposite direction, and acceptance of western influences on the genesis of Chinese culture is growing (Romgard 2008, pp. 30-32).

Scientists now feel confident enough to state that “the idea of a European entry either directly from the West or from the steppe cultures in the north is [today] the prevailing theory (Romgard 2008, p. 33).

In the course of more than a century, explorers have mapped sites in the Tarim Basin; they published their findings and then there was a long hiatus. Both World Wars impeded research, and the civil war in China following WWII made any scientific efforts in that part of the world impossible to pursue. It was only after China opened to the West, and travel to the Tarim Basin  became easier, that progress was made once again. The translation of research journals from European languages into Chinese rekindled that effort as well. One wonders what the next century will bring.

Sources:

Bergman, Folke, 1939. Archaeological researches in Siankang. (Reports from the Scientific Expedition to the North-Western Provinces of China under the Leadership of Dr. Sven Hedin. The Sino-Swedish Expedition. Publication No. 7), Bokförlags Aktiebolaget Thule – Stockholm.

Mallory, J.P. and Victor H. Mair, 2000
The Tarim Mummies. Ancient China and the Mystery of the Earliest Peoples from the West. Thames and Hudson, London.

Romgard, Jan, 2008. Questions of Ancient Human Settlements in Xinjiang and the Early Silk Road Trade, with an Overview of the Silk Road Research Institutions and Scholars in Beijing, Gansu, and Xinjiang. Sino-Platonic Papers, Nr. 185.  

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>