Mums who like to wear tartan

The Mummies of Ürümchi
July 21, 2000

Remarkably preserved mummies of men, women and children with distinct Caucasoid features were first discovered in the Tarim Basin in Chinese Turkestan at the beginning of the 20th century, but it was not until the 1990s, with their rediscovery in the museum of urumchi by Victor Mair of the University of Pennsylvania, that the historical significance of the Tarim mummies was fully appreciated. Application of radiocarbon dating gave a remarkably early date of about 2000 BC for the earliest specimens. The latest ones were dated at about 1000 BC. Who were these westerners buried where we would normally expect to find the Mongol-type populations? This is the question that Elizabeth Barber tries to answer.

It is the second time in the past 100 years that the Tarim Basin has become the focus of scholarly attention. At the beginning of the century, texts in a previously unknown language were discovered in the northern part of the region. The language or, to be more precise, two closely related languages, labelled "Tokharian" by scholars, proved to belong to the Indo-European family. The discovery of an Indo-European language so far east caused considerable excitement among linguists, the more so as Tokharian was more akin to the western branch of Indo-European (Greek, Latin, the Germanic and the Celtic languages) than to its eastern branch (Armenian, Indo-Iranian, the Slavic and the Baltic languages). A link between the 2nd-millennium BC Caucasoid population of the Tarim Basin and the Indo-European-speaking Tokharians who inhabited this region in the 1st millennium AD obviously suggested itself.

By analysing Chinese sources about the so-called Yuezhi, Caucasoid populations met by the Chinese upon their establishing contacts with Central Asia in the 2nd century BC, Barber builds a plausible case for identification of the Tarim mummies as early Tokharians.

Linguistics is, however, neither the only nor the main tool applied by Barber in her reconstruction. She is an expert in prehistoric textiles who showed in her earlier work that dispersion of the technologies of textile production can serve as no less reliable a criterion for the study of population movements than the dispersion of languages. It was in fact the textiles that brought her to Chinese Turkestan in the first place.

Thanks to the dryness of the desert, the colourful woollen clothes of the mummies have been preserved in a remarkably good condition. The designs of those unearthed at Hami in the north-eastern corner of the region are strongly reminiscent of Scottish tartans, whereas the technology of their production points in the direction of another great deposit of ancient textiles: the Bronze Age salt mines of Hallstadtt in the Austrian Alps. The latter belong to the period when Hallstadtt was inhabited by the Celts,an Indo-European tribe to which the Gaelic-speaking Scots also belong. Significantly, Celtic and Tokharian share the same linguistic archaisms, which indicates that they separated from the proto-Indo-European unity and started migrating in opposite directions at approximately the same date. The technology of textile production was probably yet another feature that the Celts and the Tokharians shared at the moment of their departure.

While the twills of Hami (c. 1200 BC) allow us to associate the prehistoric population of the region with the Tokharians, those discovered farther south at Loulan are much earlier (c. 2000 BC) and the technology of their production is different. Barber interprets some of the funeral gifts as pointing in the direction of another Indo-European tribe, the Indo-Iranians. It seems, however, that the wheat basket and the winnowing fan that often accompanies the females suggest a somewhat different identification. In the 1st millennium BC, the winnowing fan, or mystica vannus , was an integral part of the mysteries of the Great Goddess all over the eastern Mediterranean, including both Demeter at Eleusis and Hipta, the Phrygian goddess of the earth. The latter seems to fit well with the characteristic Phrygian form of caps found in the graves of males in nearby Cherchen. The Phrygians and the Indo-Iranians are, however, not too distant from each other, and in any case this cannot affect the fact that, thanks to Barber, the Indo-European provenance of the mummies of urumchi can be seen as firmly established.

Written as an adventure story, this eminently readable book is also an excellent guide to the history of the region and recent developments in archaeology and linguistics.

Margalit Finkelberg is professor of classics, Tel Aviv University, Israel.

The Mummies of Ürümchi

Author - Elizabeth Wayland Barber
ISBN - 0 330 36897 4
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £7.99
Pages - 240

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