“Returning to the Light”

Dao Guang
“Returning to the Light”
By HMNS guild member Jeanene Goza

On an excavation at Tabi, a Yucatan plantation, an old Chinese coin was located with a slogan imprinted on one side: “Dao Guang,” which means “returning to the light.” The poignant message applies to the forgotten people of East Central Asia, now called Xinjiang. Many clues are beginning to emerge about the mummies from China with Caucasoid features. Who were the inhabitants with high cheek bones, deep round eye-sockets, blond or red hair, and men with heavy beards? 

By using their ethnic characteristics, Dr. Victor Mair, professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania, identified the prehistoric mummies in four groups; Charchan, Lopnur, Turpan, and Qumul. The Charchan group included the mummies from Zaghunluq Cemetery in Charchan County, about 250 miles southwest of Lopnur. Their advanced textile technology and vibrant colors set them apart from the other cultures.

 “Baby Blue”
Creative Commons License photo credit: Wang Da-Gang

Beautiful “Baby Blue,” an 8 month old boy, was lovingly placed in a red-purple blanket and wrapped securely with red and blue twisted cord. The baby’s eyes were covered with rectangular blue stones. His blue felt cashmere cap with a red felt lining encircled a tiny face that was covered with paint.  A few strands of brown hair with red highlights escaped from under his bonnet. “Baby Blue” lived during the 8th century BCE.  

In Charchan’s Zaghunluq Cemetery, single or multiple occupant tombs were excavated into a meter-deep layer of salt. The deceased bodies were placed on a mat with their knees in a flexed position. Their hair was braided and geometric designs were placed on their faces with ochre paint. Tomb goods included bundles of sticks tied with red cords, extra felted or woven clothing and saddles. The men wore pants with crotch gussets and high, soft leather boots. Horse parts were buried close to the tomb. Horse hides were used as covering material for the pit tomb. Taken together, this evidence suggests they were horsemen.

 “The Beauty of Xiaohe”
Creative Commons License photo credit: Wang Da-Gang

The “Beauty of Xiaohe” (also known as the “Beauty of Small River”), a 3800-year-old mummy, represents the Lopnur group. The oldest and most diverse of the Tarim Basin mummies were excavated at Xiaohe Mudi, west of Lopnur. A large oval mound contained five layers of mummies. The gender specific gravesites were marked with wooden poles, and they used coffins shaped like bottomless poplar boats with hide-top coverings. The reclining bodies were wrapped in wool cloaks and wore string undergarments, hats and fur lined, ankle high boots. A white milky covering was placed on the hair and body. Tombs included artfully woven baskets with intricate designs, wooden combs, some masks and ephedra or ma-huang. a Chinese stimulant. Six ersatz or surrogate mummies were also discovered at the cemetery. Many of this culture’s basic attributes seem to have come from the West. They were an agro-pastoral society that cultivated wheat, raised sheep and goats, used wheeled vehicles and had metallurgy.

The windswept sandy terraces that overlooked the Tuyuq River gorge were selected by the Turpan group for their cemeteries. The Subeshi mummies from the fifth and fourth century BCE were known for their enormous pointed hats, woolen skirts with red, yellow and brown circular patterns, sprang hairnets, cosmetic kits with whitener and rouge, combs, knives, and black on red handmade ceramic ware. Hats with one or two points may indicate royalty or priestesses. Horse skulls and legs were used in a sacrificial manner. The deceased were placed in low cairns or simple shallow rock covered graves. An animal protein/fat mixture, like ghee (clarified butter), was placed on the bodies.

Xinjiang produced some of the world’s best naturally preserved mummies due to salinity, aridity and freeze drying. Our mummies, “Baby Blue” and “Beauty of Xiaohe”, were wearing winter clothing and were buried in an area with high concentrations of salt and very little moisture. They look as if they are sleeping.

The Qumul mummies from 800-500 BCE were discovered in the Flaming Mountains above Turfan. The ancient people from Yanbuluq Cemetery, like Qawrighul culture near Lopnur, were a very important connection between eastern and western Eurasia. They had interesting textiles with diagonal weave twills and Celtic-style plaids. Grave goods included wheeled carts, footed painted pottery, knives and arrowheads. The tombs were of three types: a vertical shaft with the rectangular lower area lined with mud brick, a simplified vertical shaft with a single chamber and a few bricks or a shallow pit with a mud brick base.

 Yingpan Man

Yingpan Man, one of the tallest Caucasoid mummies, was buried in elaborate silk clothing and white mask with a gold forehead band. He was discovered at Yingpan Cemetery, 120 miles west of Lopnur. His burial was distinctively different from other burials at the same cemetery. Could he have been a highly respected Silk Road Sogdian trader? Masks were used in Kucha. Was that his home? It is difficult to assign a culture so he remains a mystery. 

So many secrets have been lost along the Silk Road. The Bronze Age mummies from Xinjiang are “returning to the light” and additional clues are being uncovered about the fascinating history of their long lost past.

Secrets of the Silk Road opened on August 27, 2010 and runs until January 2, 2011. This exhibition is organized by the Bowers Museum in association with the Archaeological Institution of Xinjiang and the Urumqi Museum.


Barber, Eliazabeth Wayland. The Mummies of Urumchi. New York, London: W.W. Norton and Company, 1999.

Kamberi, Dolkun. Three Thousand Year old Charchan Man Preserved at Zaghunluq. Sino-Platonic Papers 44 1994.

Mair, Victor. “The Archaeology of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.”  In Secrets of the Silk Road (Exhibition Catalogue), 27-52. Santa Ana, CA: Bowers Museum, 2010.

Mair, Victor. The Rediscovery and Complete Excavation of Ordek’s Necropolis.  Journal of Indo-European Studies 34:273-318, 2006.

Mallory, J.P. and Victor Mair, the Tarim Mummies. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 2000.

Meyers, Allan. Lost Hacienda. Archaeology 58:42-45, 2005. 

Shhh… Science in action

This story starts in Italy and will then take us to the Tarim Basin in Northwestern China. It features a well-known mummy (Oetzi) and one of the best preserved mummies in the world (The Beauty of Xiaohe). It contains data from in-depth DNA analysis performed on one mummy and holds the promise of similar date generated in the near future on another set of mummies. Fasten your seatbelts, here we go.

During the month of August 2010, several stories hit the wire that the DNA of Oetzi, the famous Iceman mummy had been sequenced. The Iceman was discovered emerging from a glacier on the border between Austria and Italy. His mitochondrial DNA is now the oldest complete H. sapiens mtDNA genome generated to date.

This is where we segue to the Tarim Basin mummies, discovered thousands of miles away from the Alps. As it turns out, Oetzi’s find spot was very close to Alpine pastures where Dr. Victor Mair’s family once took their animals to graze, and that brings us to the Tarim Basin Mummies, a long term focus of Dr. Mair’s research.

A gratuitous link between these two areas, you say? Not necessarily, if one considers what has just been announced in Italy and the potential of what could happen with the mummies in China. Moreover, one of the reasons Dr. Mair got to be so interested in ancient human remains was the discovery of Oetzi in 1991. This occurred a few years after he had seen the Tarim Basin mummies on display in a museum in Urumqi.

 The Beauty of Xiaohe. Courtesy of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Museum in Urumqi.

Oetzi lived about 5000 years ago; while the Beauty of Xiaohe lived about 1,000 years later, around 2000 BC.  In both cases, DNA research has been carried out on these early human remains. It seems that the Beauty of Xiaohe and her kinfolk had very close links with areas to the west of the Pamir Mountains. (In a previous blog, the Pamirs are mentioned as part of the geography of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region).  Specifically, “Mitochondrial DNA analysis showed that the Xiaohe people carried both the East Eurasian haplogroup (C) and the West Eurasian haplogroups (H and K), whereas chromosomal DNA analysis revealed only the West Eurasian haplogroup R1a1a in the male individuals.”

Oetzi is of European origin; the Tarim Basin Mummies are often referred to as Eurasian, and Caucasian, without much further information about where they may have originated from, other than “west of the Pamir mountains.” This is where the reference made above, to the potential of future research comes in. The techniques exist to investigate the Tarim Basin mummies in much greater detail. The research has not happened yet.

In addition, there are ways to establish where individuals were born and raised, one of the most famous examples being the remains of an archer found close to Stonehenge. Tests showed that he originated in the Alps, probably Switzerland, Austria or Germany. He somehow made his way into what is now the United Kingdom, where he was buried. A similar scientific approach could be applied to the Xiaohe remains. I am sure that one day this will happen.

Currently the Beauty of Xiaohe is receiving visitors at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Oetzi, on the other hand, remains safely ensconced in his refrigerated display unit in Bolzano, Italy. No word yet if he is interested in coming over to visit his long lost relative.

Don’t miss Secrets of the Silk Road, open now at HMNS. See strikingly well-preserved mummies, tall in stature and fair in complexion, that have lain in the parched Tarim Basin of western China for 3,800 years along with 150 objects drawn from the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region Museum and the Xinjiang Institute of Archaeology in Urumqi.