Cover image for The mummies of Ürümchi
The mummies of Ürümchi
Barber, E. J. W., 1940-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : W.W. Norton & Company, [1999]

Physical Description:
240 pages : illustrations (some color) ; 25 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
GN778.32.C5 B37 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
GN778.32.C5 B37 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

On Order



In the museums of Urumchi, the windswept regional capital of the Uyghur Autonomous Region in Western China -- what we know as Chinese Turkestan -- a collection of ancient mummies lay at the center of an enormous mystery. Some of Urumchi's mummies date back as far as 2,000 years -- contemporary to the famous Egyptian mummies, but even more beautifully preserved, especially their clothing. Surprisingly, these prehistoric people are not Oriental but Caucasian -- tall and large-nosed and blond with round eyes (probably blue). Where did they come from? What were these blonds doing in the foothills of the Himalayas? Few gifts are put into the graves of the dead, making it difficult for archaeologists to pinpoint any cultural connections, from clues offered by their pottery and tools. But their clothing -- woolens that rarely survive more than a fear centuries -- has been preserved as brightly hued as the day each was made.

Elizabeth Wayland Barber describes these remarkable mummies, their clothing, and the world to which they so mysteriously belonged, piecing together their history and peculiar Western connections both from what she saw in Urumchi and from the testimony of those who explored along the Silk Road centuries earlier. The result is an entertaining and informative unveiling of an ancient and exotic world.

Author Notes

Elizabeth Wayland Barber, archaeologist, linguist, and a world authority on ancient textiles, teaches at Occidental College in California

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

In 1994, a most astonishing discovery was made in Western China. Incredibly well-preserved mummies dating back 2000 years were unearthed in this remote region‘mummies with large, colorful wardrobes, mummies that were distinctively Caucasian. The mystery of what six-foot-tall, fair-haired people were doing in China at the time took Barber, an expert on ancient textiles at Occidental College in L.A., to the desert city of Ürümchi in 1995, where archeologists at the site hoped that her expertise might help them understand what these unlikely people were doing there. She had excellent material to work with: the mummies were in such remarkable condition that they still had full heads of hair and beards, and their skin was only slightly weathered. Most had been buried with plenty of brightly colored clothes to wear (one man was buried with 10 hats, each a different style), which gave Barber a treasure-trove of textiles with which to work. Barber structures her tale as a mystery, revealing information piecemeal until she presents her conclusions about the origin of the mummies. In the process, she treats readers to a lively story about the ebb and flow of ancient cultures, a story largely deduced from the development of weaving, dyeing, embroidery and fashion. Barber's hypothesis about how Caucasian mummies wound up in Ürümchi, which has something to do with the Silk Road, is so clear and logical that readers will be satisfied that all relevant possibilities have been thoroughly examined. The only thing lacking is information on how to pronounce Ürümchi. 16 pages of color photos; 50 b&w drawings. (Jan.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

Barber, an internationally recognized authority on Eurasian archaeological textiles and an anthropological linguist, is the author of Prehistoric Textiles (CH, Nov'91) and Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years (CH, Nov'94). Here she describes a remarkable museum collection of desiccated mummies recovered from the Tarim Basin that are currently housed in Urumchi, the regional capital of the Uyghur Autonomous Region in western China (Chinese Turkestan). Some specimens date to the Central Asian Bronze Age, c. 2000 BCE., but a majority are from the first millennium BCE. Few grave goods were found with the well-preserved human remains, so that Barber's description of the mummies (tall, blond Caucasoids), their brightly colored woolen and leather garments, and inferences about their lives as nomadic shepherds, provide a compelling analysis of an exotic, little known culture and regional ethnic diversity. She documents the preservation of organic remains, textiles and garments, similar finds made by pioneering explorers, connections with Tokharian peoples, comparative linguistics, Bronze Age migrations, and oasis nomadism. The ten chapters are well documented and illustrated with 29 superb color photographs. Barber's delightful narrative is well written, highly absorbing, scientifically accurate, and an eloquent assessment of materials as valuable to archaeology as King Tutankhamen, Otzi (the Alpine "Ice Man"), and the 480-430 BCE Pazyryk Siberian burials. All levels. C. C. Kolb National Endowment for the Humanities

Table of Contents

Prefacep. 11
1. Mystery Mummiesp. 17
2. A Man with Ten Hatsp. 23
3. Plus Three Women and a Babyp. 47
4. The "Beauty of Loulan"p. 71
5. The Early Explorersp. 89
6. Tokharians and Other Hairy Barbariansp. 111
7. Hami and Hallstattp. 131
8. The Oasis Hoppers and Their Kinp. 149
9. Pulses in the Heart of a Continentp. 169
10. Sands of the Silk Road, Sands of Timep. 197
Notes on Sourcesp. 215
Bibliographyp. 227
Indexp. 233