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.


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.  

Silk Road Q&A with Curator Dirk

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?

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?

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.

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.

“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. 

Mummies of the Tarim Basin

Mummies of the Tarim Basin
Who Were They?
by Bob and Rima Blanc – HMNS Guild Members

Explorers have been studying several sites in the Tarim Basin in northwestern China along the route of the Silk Road since the middle of the 19th century. The most important sites were at Ǘrümchi, Chärchän, and Turfan to the east of the basin. Numerous Bronze Age sites contained burials of more than 2,500 people, many of them interred with magnificent textiles of non-Asian origin. The great surprise was the European features of the mummies, and in the case of Chärchän man, his 6’6” height. What could they have been doing there, more than 1,000 miles from settlements of similar-looking people?

In 1934, Swedish archaeologist Folke Bergman explored the lost Xiaohe cemetery in the Tarim Basin of the Taklimakan desert of northwest China. He reported his findings in 1939. Due to the onset of World War II and the subsequent closing of China to Western scientists, Xiaohe was not studied again until 2000, when the Xinjiang Archaeological Institute “rediscovered” it. The burial site consists of 167 graves, many of them intact, from the late Bronze Age nearly 4,000 years ago. The Europoid mummies found at the site exhibit blond hair, long noses, and slender bodies and are in many cases completely preserved and appear lifelike. This preservation is due to the arid, saline conditions in the desert.

The Xiaohe cemetery is the oldest archaeological site with human remains discovered in the Tarim Basin. Genetic analysis, performed by Chinese scientists in 2009, revealed that the maternal lineages of the Xiaohe people originated in both the East and the West, whereas paternal lineages originated solely in the West. Because the genetic data showed that the mixed lineages were much older than the settlement of the Tarim Basin, it seems likely that the Xiaohe people migrated from northern steppe cultures. Genetic markers suggest even older origins, perhaps from eastern European Mesolithic or Neolithic cultures.

Like other northern Tarim sites, the Xiaohe people exhibit features of both the Afanasevo culture (3500-2500 BCE) and the Andronovo or Sintashta-Petrovka culture (ca. 2300-1000 BCE) on the steppe and in Siberia. These high, broad inter-mountain valleys of the Tangri Tagh, known in Chinese as the Tian Shan (Celestial Mountains), were home to nomadic cultures quite like those on the steppe.

Of the fifteen burial sites uncovered thus far, Xiaohe remains the oldest. The 167 excavated graves yielded more than a thousand artifacts from the period 2000 to 1450 BCE. Victor Mair notes:

There were five levels of burials in coffins in the shape of overturned boats. Live oxen were slaughtered at the site and their still-wet hides were used to wrap the coffins. After they had dried, the hides sealed the coffin tight as a drum, so that not even a speck of sand could enter the burial (Mair 2010, 47).

At the surface, large wooden obelisks were driven into the ground. Those accompanying the tombs of females are pointed in angular fashion, while those over male graves are shaped like paddles. Speculation based on similar grave decorations in northern Europe suggests the possibility that each obelisk is a sexual symbol, perhaps to demonstrate the individual’s virility or fertility.

 Xiaohe Cemetery Obelisk

The most famous of the mummies from Xiaohe is the Beauty of Small River. She is 1.52 meters in height (about 5 feet) and wears a fine felt hat and fashionable leather boots. Around her waist is a white woolen string skirt, and she is shrouded in a bulky woolen cloak with tassels. She was covered with ephedra branches and grains of wheat. The presence of ephedra, a mildly psychoactive medicinal plant used by numerous Central Eurasian peoples, suggests that she was being conveyed to the spirit world.

Beauty of Xiaohe 
© Wang Da-Gang

Archaeologists have not been able to find any trace of settlements within several kilometers of the cemetery, adding to the mysteries of who these people were, where they came from, and what happened to them. The 2008 discovery of the Northern Cemetery, about fifteen kilometers to the southwest of Xiaohe cemetery, revealed such close similarities between its occupants and those of Xiaohe that archaeologists believe that the peoples were of the same or similar cultures. Had they both been located near oases or tributaries of now-dry branches of a river? Only future excavations and analysis will shed light on these mysteries.

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.


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.

Li, Chunxiang et al. “Evidence that a West-East admixed population lived in the Tarim Basin as early as the early Bronze Age.” BMC Biology 2010, 8:15 (February 17, 2010).
http://www.biomedcentral.com/1741-7007/8/15/ (accessed May 1, 2010).

Nicholas Wade, “A Host of Mummies, a Forest of Secrets,” New York Times, March 15, 2010.
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/16/science/16archeo.html (accessed May 1, 2010).