Tarim mummies

“The Mummies of Urumchi” by Elizabeth Wayland Barber. Archaeologist Barber reports on her examination of Caucasian-looking mummies, up to four thousand years old, exhumed from the deserts of north-western China. Her main focus is on the textiles buried with the mummies. (Had to happen, I guess: a female archaeologist examines the remains of an ancient people and spends most of her book talking about what they wore.) I’m amazed at the ingenuity and skill of this ancient people and moved by their love and care for their dead.

I’ve already bought the thicker and denser “The Tarim Mummies” by J.P. Mallory and Victor H. Mair and plan to delve into it after I’ve finished Barber. I want to examine their arguments for why they think the mummies were descended from proto-Celts. I’d like to believe their theory, but I want to test it first. The more I read, the more I’m drifting towards the idea that the mummies were descended from Iranian and Altaic peoples.

Pre-emptive strike: care to reconsider that judgement, before lightning strikes you dead? Besides, I imagine that textiles reveal an enormous amount of knowledge about ancient people, from their weaving methods to the kinds of animals or plants raised, quality of terrain and climate, and even whether or not males were allowed to make careless comments?

PS to Maria and Alexandria: breathe.

Oh marvelous, I’m exempt!


Oh, I long ago gave up getting worked up about such comments. For all I know, AJ is a female and commenting on something she finds humorous at the expense of her own gender. If not, well, it reveals more about the author of such comments than it does about me. My husband had to teach me how to dress!


Thankyou, Alexandria, for a breath of calm.

Yes, howarth, Elizabeth Barber does go into exhaustive detail on the weaving methods, materials, environment, and possible social structures that went into making the ancient shirts, pants, boots, hats, shawls, etc, she examines.

Here’s the opening paragraph of chapter 1, titled “Mystery Mummies”:

(Any typos are mine, not Barber’s.)

The skill and detail that went into the manufacture of the clothing Barber analyses make my own attempts at knitting and sewing look positively primitive.

howarth, I’m sure you think you’re doing good, defending the honour of women the way you did. On the other hand, I don’t like you using aggressive language to me, such as “pre-emptive strike” and picturing me struck dead. I also don’t like you characterising my comments as “careless” in relation to a text I’m reading that you haven’t read. Please don’t do these things again; I would like to be able to have conversations with you.

It seems to me that all of archaeology is largely concerned with examining the remains of ancient people and talking about what they wore, how they decorated their homes and persons, what they ate, and whatever other details of ancient housekeeping the archaeologist can glean. So I’m not sure why AJ felt compelled to comment on a female archaeologist’s emphasis on textiles. How would one expect a male archaeologist to handle the same material?

From the brief excerpt posted, Dr. Barber’s engaging writing about a potentially dull subject is at least as noteworthy as her gender.


It’s a major area of her expertise. Her website lists her three books:

A quick flick through Mallory and Mair’s book, which I mentioned in my original post, seems to show a focus on linguistics, genetics, and bladed tools (hoes and swords).

Quite late to the discussion, but I have to add a story:

I “did” pottery for my doctoral dissertation. One day when I washed some thousand sherds in the countryside of a beautiful island in the south, elder ladies with round backs and twisted legs returned from their paddy fields, chatting, laughing at me and saying: “Washing the dishes? It’s a woman’s job!”

Maria :wink: [/u]

:wink: Nice story. What did you say to them, Maria?

Whenever guests offer to help with the dishes, my wife says, “It’s okay, I have a dishwasher. His name is AJ.”

Hmmm, I think I did what I always do if I do not know what to do: I laughed. But I am quite sure that later in the evening when I went to the place where I really belong (the kitchen!) I took one of these excellent larger Japanese kitchen knifes, sat down on the floor and tried to stab it into my hungry stomach. Somehow I survived, coward that I am…


Sounds serious. Are you having thoughts of stabbing yourself now?


My guess is, you survived for very good reasons.


Besides, it’s been some time since I consulted my “protocol book”, but as I recall women are supposed to cut the neck arteries instead of the belly—more gracious, you see. And you were wearing a white kimono weren’t you? And shouldn’t you have been using a tonto instead of a sashimi hocho?

Thank heavens you restrained yourself, it just wouldn’t have been correct. And . . . we wouldn’t be graced with your presence.


O no, all my preparations were wrong I am afraid. The time I study was governed by the rule: Kill everybody who might get into your way before they do, not so much: Kill yourself whenever you like, as long as you follow the rules. So, I did not know about it. And I did not know how nice the people in Chicago can be. Never too old to learn.


Sorry, AJ, you haven’t been around here very long. It’s a writer’s forum and we tend to use certain literary devices, like IRONY and also go in for a bit of heavy teasing amongst friends. There once was a wondrous chap named Eiron who blasted us all now and then for our silly, pompous, and ill-considered remarks. Alas, he has been missing for many months. He would have skewered you in a thousand ways. If you think I was serious about wishing you dead, for heaven’s sake, lighten up!

To AmberV: mea culpa, goddess of code :blush:

howarth, I’ve objected to your remarks, to no avail it seems. Harrassment is no joke. I want you to stop.

O, somehow I missed this important remark. But anyway, I miss most of the meaning in this discussion, not knowing who is angry or not and why or where the irony is.

As for stabbing: Never! I am born close to the River Rhine, and if I should ever think of something like dying before the scheduled day, I should jump into the river singing “If the water of the Rhine was golden wine, how much would I like to be a little fish…”.

missing the River Rhine and some good wine…

Thanks for putting my mind to rest, Maria. I was concerned.

Here is a picture of the “Beauty of Loulan”, the mummified body of a woman that was found at Loulan on the edge of the Tarim basin, and an artist’s reconstruction of what she would have looked like.
“Cherchen man” from nearby, several hundred years younger, was 6’6" tall and at least one of the women buried with him was 6’.
Red hair, probably blue eyes … and definitely the twill weave (and yes, she is an expert on textiles) sound pretty convincing to me that these were (proto-)Celts.


PS I don’t know how to get these to display in the thread … is it because they are PDFs?
loulan 3.pdf (144 KB)
loulan 1.pdf (246 KB)

They sounded pretty convincing to me too. I was all ready to reimagine my proto-Celtic ancestors on the border of prehistoric China. Maybe not quite Conan the Barbarian, perhaps more Donal the Nomad. (My apologies to any barbarians and/or nomads reading this. Gypsies, you’re on your own.)

Then I did some digging.

Red hair is found mainly in Western European populations, of course. I was surprised to find, though, that red hair is also common among Iranians - a people closely related geographically to the Tarim basin.

The Kalash people of Pakistan also, to my mind, resemble the Tarim mummies in the colour of their skin, hair, and eyes, and in their facial features. Yet the Kalash are a genetically distinct group, barely related to any other people, and possibly indigenous.

What the relationship is, if any, between the Kalash and/or the Iranians and the Tarim mummies is not clear to me yet, but it convinced me that a Celtic connection was unnecessary to explain the Tarim mummies’ looks. I would still be glad to find a Celtic connection in which I could believe, but looks just aren’t enough for me any more, I’m afraid.

Then there’s the twill. Barber mentions in her book that twill originated in Anatolia. To my mind, that suggests the possibility that the Tarim twills and the Celtic twills are parallel developments of the same Anatolian original without the need for contact between the Tarim basin and, say, Hallstatt. Barber also relates at least one other Tarim item to the Anatolians, whose influence, if it came to the Tarim basin, would have had to have come via Iran. I still have more than half the book to go though, so I’ll see what else she has to say on the matter.

Haha, funny! I’m glad you didn’t commit ‘seppuku’ over the whole affair! :slight_smile: