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THE MUMMIES OF öRöMCHI by Elizabeth Wayland Barber

THE MUMMIES OF öRöMCHI

By Elizabeth Wayland Barber

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-393-04521-8
Publisher: Norton

In an often fascinating glimpse of an exotic lost world, textile expert Barber (Occidental Coll.; Women’s Work, The First 20,000 Years, 1994, etc.) unravels the mysteries of the beautifully preserved mummies of örÅmchi, a city in western China. In1994 the West learned of dazzlingly appareled ancient mummies, discovered buried in the deserts of China’s remote Uyghur Autonomous Region. Astonishingly, these mummified remains, the most venerable of which were approximately 2,000 years old, evoked the specter of tall, blond Caucasian people, wearing magnificently colored clothing, including polychrome leggings and high-peaked “witches’ hats.” The following year, as part of a team of US scholars, Barber was able to observe these finds in the museum of örÅmchi. Although the graves contained few artifacts besides garments, Barber gleans what she can of the origins, life, and culture of these people from their brightly hued textiles, preserved from decay by the dry desert climate. Afforded a rare glimpse of prehistoric fabrics, the author draws parallels with the weaving techniques of Japan and the Middle East, particularly Persia—but also, more provocatively, with those of the Celtic peoples of Ireland and Scotland. She speculates that these mysterious people were peripatetic herders and oasis-hoppers of Indo-European origin, possibly Turkic-speaking, and she establishes links between the Caucasian people of this remote Chinese region and the ancient Celts. Other evidence may link the mummies with the ancient Iranians. Barber attempts to visualize the primeval landscape: She concludes that today’s desert was then lush and inviting, moisturized by runoffs of glacial rainwater. The trove of mummies points to a vital prehistoric culture, nourished by contacts with both European and Chinese societies, and shows an ancient commerce between East and West, the legacy of which lives on in the Caucasian features of Chinese-speaking modern inhabitants of the region. A haunting archaeological excursion. (16 pages color, 50 b&w illustrations)