Archive for Elizabeth Barber

Takla Makan Tartan

Posted in Central Asia, Fashion, Liz Hager, Textiles with tags , , , , , , , on November 20, 2008 by Liz Hager



Assorted Scottish Tartans, digital illustration (©2008 Liz Hager)

Yesterday, under the headline “The Dead Tell a Tale China Doesn’t Care to Listen To,” The New York Times offered an unusually long article on the subject of the Tarim Basin mummies. Although the mummies aren’t a new discovery, periodically they are revived author Edward Wong noted, “as protagonists in a very contemporary political dispute over who should control the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.”  (For more on the conflict between ethnic minority Uighers and majority Han Chinese, see What’s in a Vowel?)

Sven Hedin was the first to unearth (although un-sand might be a better description) Tarim Basin mummies in the early 1900s near the oasis town of Loulan on the northern fringes of the Takla Makan desert. Without proper excavation equipment or transportation, Hedin had to leave the bodies in situ. They were largely forgotten until 1978, when Chinese archeologist Wang Binghua uncovered 113 bodies, while excavating a hillside.

In 1987 Chinese culture expert Victor Mair was one of the first Westerners to see them. He was astounded: “The Chinese said they were 3,000 years old, yet the bodies looked as if they were buried yesterday.” Ironically, it was the harsh conditions of the desert—the extreme temperatures and arid climate—which preserved the bodies in near pristine condition. Unfortunately, the altered condition of the “Loulan Beauty” (as evidenced in attached video) might cause one to wonder whether their above-ground environment has been a tad toxic for them.

The “Loulan Beauty”  (photo ©Gilles Sabrie)

Other than their condition, what really intrigued Mair (as a wider audience now knows thanks to the Times) was the mummies’ distinct Indo-European (i.e. Caucasoid) features and traces of reddish-blond hair. Could these people be Europeans? DNA marker testing hasn’t settled the matter definitively, and experts continue to debate all manner of topics relating to the origin and culture of these mysterious people.  One thing is clear, however: the mummies would seem to refute the claim, long-held by the Chinese, that they were the first people to settle the area.

For textile lovers there was one additional intriguing detail in the story—microscopic examination of their clothes revealed fibers not of wool, but of the outer hair of goat, which had been elaborately dyed green, blue, and brown, and woven in a twill pattern, otherwise known as tartan.

Generally speaking, twill weaves are produced by crossing the weft (horizontal) threads over and under multiple warp (vertical) threads. It yields a softer and more wrinkle-resist cloth than plain weave (over on, under one). In tartans, the pattern of colored threads is repeated through both the weft (vertical) and warp threads to form a cloth of interlocking squares.


Various Twills (illustration ©Christina Martin)

Tartan is an ancient weave, dating back at least 5,000 years. In addition to the Tarim graves, it has been found in the salt-mine graves of Hallstatt peoples in the Austrian Salzkammergut, where it has been dated to 1200 BCE. After making a detailed study of the Tarim basin mummy fabric, Elizabeth Barber concluded that it was strikingly similar to Celtic tartans in weave structure. She conjectured that the two shared a common origin in the Caucasus Mountains of Southern Russia and that quite possibly peoples had migrated out of the Caucasus in two waves, one west to Europe, the other east to Central Asia.

In the contemporary world tartan is most closely connected with the Highland clans of Scotland, although It is often mistakenly referred to as plaid. Plaide, from the Gaelic word for “blanket,”  is used specifically in the Scottish context to refer to a large length of material.  The original kilt was known as the “belted plaid” and consisted of a length of cloth (basically a large blanket) that was gathered and belted at the waist. But this is perhaps a subject for a later post.

Wider Connections

Elizabeth Wayland Barber — The Mummies of Ürümchi

JH Mallory and Victor Mair—The Tarim Mummies

Aurel Stein’s 1910 photo of a Tarim Basin mummy

More mummies: Ötzi the Iceman

Matthew Newsom—Who Says Tartan is Just for Scots?

History of Scottish Tartan

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