Flickr Photo of the Month: Trappings of Yingpan Man [Dec. 2010]

Trappings of Yingpan Man. 3rd - 4th century
Trappings of Yingpan Man. 3rd – 4th century by cybertoad, on Flickr.
Posted here with permission.

There are some amazing photographers that wander the halls of HMNS, and when we’re lucky, they share what they capture in our HMNS Flickr pool. This month, we’re re-starting a series where we’ll share one of these photos on the blog each month.

Elaine (cybertoad on Flickr) took this photo during a Flickr meetup in our current Secrets of the Silk Road exhibition. From the photographer:

The Beauty of Xioahe may have been the exhibit’s celebrity but the Yingpan Man still captured me. His simple funerary mask with the delicately painted eyebrows and the gold leaf evoke a sense of elegance and peace that I hope he carried with him into the after life.

Inspired? Most of the Museum’s galleries are open for photography, and we’d love for you to share your shots with us on Flickr, Facebook or Twitter. Check out the HMNS photo policy for guidelines.

Photography is prohibited in this exhibition during general hours. If you’d like to join one of our Flickr meetups, check out our Flickr group Discussions page for updates on upcoming events.

Want to see Yingpan Man for yourself? Secrets of the Silk Road is only on display for a few more weeks!

Secrets of the Silk Road: Trade

Silk Road Object38
A rectangular piece of tapestry
identified as coming from Sampul, in
the Xingjian Uyghur Autonomous
Region of China.

When an archaeologist is asked what he or she does, a short answer might be: “we try to reconstruct past behavior using evidence coming from the material record.” In plain English, we look at a culture in the past and ask basic questions such as “How did they live? What did they eat?” Sometimes, we can go beyond asking these basic questions and investigate how people interacted. As we shall see below, there are many forms of human interaction, some violent, and some of a more commercial nature. In the following paragraphs, I will review evidence of both categories.

First this general observation: when we compare the answers against our own behavior, we end up realizing that throughout history we humans have faced similar problems, and we have come up with a multitude of answers to these challenges.

I will start with a simple observation: all humans require food, shelter, and clothing. Material evidence related to these needs goes back tens of thousands of years, sometimes even more. For example, we have evidence for hunting behavior going back half a million years. A fortuitous discovery of well-preserved wooden spears in Germany, and the identification of a spear wound in a fossilized horse shoulder blade in the UK point to humans pursuing these animals. We have evidence of shelter and clothing of great antiquity as well.

Archaeologists like to start with the observable facts and come up with an initial statement “people were hunting so many years ago in this place.” Then the bigger picture – often referred to as “context” kicks in. Context allows us to amplify our statement about people hunting, by saying something about the kinds of spears that were used, or how the spears may have been made (with a fire hardened point, or fitted with a stone tip). Every answer we come up with inevitably leads to more questions. Sometimes we are lucky and can answer those additional questions, and sometimes we are not.

Our current Secrets of the Silk Road exhibit has a good example of the latter. It involves a tapestry found in Sampul, and the inclusion of a part of it in someone’s trousers.

Can’t see the video?
Click here: Secrets of the Silk Road: Trade.

In the first section of the Silk Road exhibit visitors will see a rectangular piece of tapestry, with decorative elements displayed in two different registers. The tapestry is identified as coming from Sampul, in the Xingjian Uyghur Autonomous Region of China.

The bottom section of the tapestry displays a face of a man, looking to his left, wearing a headband of some sort. Resting on his proper right shoulder is a spear. The very tip of the spear point protrudes into the upper register. This upper portion is decorated with floral designs and a centaur playing what looks like a flute.

The two registers were recovered separately and sewn into the pants of a male individual who had been buried in a mass grave.  They were removed from the surrounding pants fabric (which must have looked very bland in comparison with these fragments) and stitched back together. This is the condition in which they are on display.  This tapestry fragment raises several questions.

Who was the individual that sowed these tapestry fragments into his pants?

We can only guess where the tapestry came from: the abode of a well-off individual. Where might this house have been located? The imagery of a centaur and the male face seem to point to a locale west of the Pamir Mountains, rather than further east.

Who was the original owner of this tapestry and where did he live?

The tapestry itself, dating to the period between the 2nd century BC and the 2nd century AD symbolizes wealth; very likely generated through trade related to the Silk Road. Settlements attract those who want part of that wealth that accumulates in shops and houses. Very likely we are looking at a decorative element that was taken from the house of a trader who made his fortune by tapping into the Silk Road trade. As to where the community was located, we can only make the most general observations and suggestions. The art forms and the physical appearance of the individual in the tapestry point to a location west of the Pamir mountain range. More we cannot say.

Who stole the tapestry? What happened to him?

Given that the individual’s body was retrieved from a mass grave, he may have died a violent death, or else have been the victim of disease. There are straightforward physical anthropology techniques that would allow us to answer these questions. However, at the time of writing, none of these tests have been applied; we do not know how he died.

The field of archaeology is full of these mysterious discoveries, where items are found in places where we would not expect them. No doubt, that is one of the reasons why people love archaeology so much.

Coins are another clear indicator of trade along the Silk Road. Several of these are on display in the exhibit. In contrast to our society, where each country has its own currency and where one needs to buy foreign currency when traveling abroad, the ancient travelers up and down the Silk Road did not have such worries. One coin tells an interesting story.

Silk Road Object21-1
This coin dates to the late 7th – early 8th
century AD. The obverse shows the bust of
a Sasanian ruler, either Kushro II or
Yazdgerd III, while the reverse side has an
image of a Zoroastrian fire altar.

This coin dates to the late 7th – early 8th century AD. The obverse shows the bust of a Sasanian ruler, either Kushro II or Yazdgerd III, while the reverse side has an image of a Zoroastrian fire altar. Around the edge of the coin one can also see an Arabic inscription, “Bismillah,” or “In the name of Allah.” The latter is a clue that the coin was struck in the years following the demise of the Sasanian Empire, when it was replaced by an Arabian empire. It appears that the new rulers kept minting the same coins, adding the Arabic writing as a finishing and identifying touch. The coin on display was found in Ulugchat (Wuqia) county in Xinjiang. The Sasanian Empire and the Arabian Empire that replaced it were located well to the west and southwest of the Tarim Basin.

Sasanian empire
Location of the Sasanian empire

Finally, the clothing and grave goods associated with the Yingpan man are another good indication of the extensive trade contacts that existed between east and west. It is said that among the grave goods encountered in the tomb, there was one piece of Late Roman Glass, likely of Syrian manufacture. Although no image of this item seems to exist, one can form a good idea of what Late Roman glass looked like by accessing the Corning Museum’s website on the subject matter.

With these three examples, fragments of a tapestry sewn into someone’s pants, coins that continued being minted long after the empire they belonged to was gone, and the presence of fragile glass in a tomb we have prime examples of how past human behavior can be quite confusing to us.

In the end, however, I would suggest that there is one common denominator to all of these examples: trade. The tapestry was a luxury in someone’s house; a luxury afforded perhaps through success in trade. Coins were the preferred medium to acquire goods with and the Roman glass was on its way east.

I cannot wait to read about the next discovery from the Tarim Basin.

“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.