book review · history & philosophy

Book Review: The Mummies of Urumchi

Barber, Elizabeth Wayland. The Mummies of Ürümchi. New York: Norton, 1999. {Direct link}

Elizabeth Wayland Barber’s The Mummies of Ürümchi is a fascinating study of ancient textiles and their place in the early migrations of human culture. While it might not seem that a book about mummies has much to do with a faithful ethic of clothing and textiles, I found this book profoundly moving and deeply engaging, with all the intrigue and satisfaction of a good mystery.

Barber details the discovery of Caucasian mummies in the Tarim Basin of western China. Naturally mummified due to the basin’s arid climate and high concentrations of salt, these grave sites were remarkable for a number of reasons: 1) they indicated eastern migrations of  Indo-European tribes far earlier than previously imagined; 2) they provided important cultural clues about ancient Indo-European/proto-Celtic cultures; and 3) they have yielded some of the oldest, best-preserved textiles in the world.

The story begins with the curious discovery of tall, blonde, fair-skinned mummies in western China. The preservation of these mummies makes the photos in the book poignant and striking: many of the men and women simply look asleep. Both men and women were over six feet tall, and decorative elements in their clothing suggest they may have had blue eyes.

Barber, one of the archaeologists commissioned to study the mummies’ clothing, shows how their weaving technology, clothing material, and dye colors indicate their similarity to the Celtic tribes that spread throughout Europe in the centuries before Christ. Barber speculates that the mummies of Ürümchi were part of a proto-Celtic people group, originating on the steppes north of the Black and Caspian Seas. Around 3000 BC, this large group split, with some heading west and some east. The western group settled in what is now southern Germany and become proficient salt miners and weavers of tartans. Around 400 BC, this Celtic group exploded, spreading rapidly throughout Europe and Anatolia (now Turkey).

Barber argues that the mummies of Ürümchi were one of the tribes that headed east, eventually settling in the Tarim Basin. Their style of twill weaving is one of many clues that they shared a common textile tradition with westering Celts. There is even reason to believe that the mummies were speakers of Tokharian, a language preserved for millennia in Buddhist holy texts, but only decoded in the early 20th century. While the script of Tokharian is Indic, phonological evidence places the language closer to the western Celtic language families than to any other Indo-European languages. In other words, these east-moving tribes probably spoke a proto-Celtic language when the lived on the central Eurasian steppes. Their kin headed west and eventually developed Gaelic, Breton, Welsh, and other languages. They headed east, learned to write and converted to Buddhism in India, and carried their language into western China.

There is lots more fascinating material in this book–about the origins of wool production, hints of the proto-Celtic religion, the mingling of eastern and western cultures, as well as lots and lots about ancient weaving practices.

I’m still not entirely sure why this book moved me as it does. In part, it is because I love history — learning how patterns from the past shape and guide our present and future. This story, more than historic, felt primeval, as though I were learning something about the essential aspirations, desires, and designs of my cultural and human ancestors.

If you enjoy cultural/material history, archaeology, and especially textiles, this is a remarkable book. Erudite but also highly readable, it brings science into graceful conversation with legend, myth, and imagination. If you’d like to hear the author give an engaging introduction to the topic, you can listen to this podcast, which is where I first heard of the book.


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