Archive for New York Times

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

The News That Fits

Posted in Liz Hager, Politics, Pop Culture Miscellany, Words & Symbols with tags , , on November 13, 2008 by Liz Hager


Yesterday on the streets of New York pedestrians were surprised to receive a special edition of The New York Times, free of charge.  The news on its pages seemed almost too good to be true. . . and it was. At least for now. 

Dated July 4, 2009, the front page of this New York Times blared out in four-column headlines an end to the Iraq War; reported on an apology by Condoleeza Rice for WMD scare; and announced that oil companies had been nationalized to fund climate initiatives.  Inside was coverage of the passage of the National Health Care Act, as well as the end of tortue and Gitmo. On the Editorial page Thomas Friedman came forth with his own mea culpa and a vow to put down his pen (and take up a screwdriver).  

Though humorous, this special edition doesn’t quite qualify as parody. Its independent editors were not mocking the Times, only imitating its content and style, to make a serious point. Stay involved.   A few paragraphs from embedded in their Editorial elaborate on this: 

The dozens of volunteer citizens who produced this paper spent the last eight years dreaming of a better world for themselves, their friends, and any descendants they might end up having. Today, that better world, though still very far away, is finally possible — but only if millions of us demand it, and finally force our government to do its job.

It certainly won’t be easy. Even now, corporate representatives are swarming over Washington to get their agendas passed. The energy giants are demanding “clean coal,” nuclear power and offshore drilling. Military contractors are pushing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. H.M.O.s and insurance companies are promoting bogus “reforms” so they can forestall universal health care. And they’re not about to take no for an answer.

But things are different this time. This time, we can hold accountable the politicians we put into office. And because everyone can now see that the “free market” has nothing to do with freedom, there is a huge opening to pass policies that can benefit all Americans, and that can make us truly free — free to pursue an education without debt, go on vacation every once in a while, keep healthy, and live without the crushing guilt of knowing what our tax dollars are doing abroad.

While the news reported in the 7/4/2009 edition may not qualify as “fit to print” in the legit paper, it is the news that fits the nation’s present mood. “Too good to be true, but not impossible to imagine” was one woman’s response to the paper. She reflected the majority sentiment of those who received the paper and, dare I say, of a lot of us who did not. 

The audacity of hope is still riding high. 


Leisurely Morning Read

PDF file

Online version


Cut to the chase—Venetian Red recommends

Court Indicts Bush on High Treason

Congress Passes Maximum Wage Law

Thomas Friedman op-ed

McCain Leads Charge to Humanize Corporations

Harvard Closes its Business School Doors

Out on the Street (videos)


Work for Change  The Fine Print

Links Beyond

The Gothamist—behind the Scenes at the Hoax

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