Mummies Around the World @ Mummy Tombs


Xinjiang Mummies

also called Ürümchi mummies, Tarim mummies, Tarim Basin mummies, Cherchen mummies, Loulan mummies, Taklimakan Desert mummies, Lopnur mummies, Qumul mummies, Turpan mummies


Where they were found

The mummies of the Xinjiang region were found in the driest, saltiest part of Central Asia--in Chinese Turkestan (wedged between Kazakhstan and Mongolia)--around the towns of Cherchen and Loulan. They have many names, depending on the specific geographic area of Xinjiang in which they were found. But all come from the region of Xinjiang

When they were made

Dating as far back as 4,000 years, they were made by accident--naturally--by the dry climate in the salty Tarim basin. The oldest mummies from Cherchen found so far died about 3,000 years ago, while the oldest mummies found near Loulan died about 4,000 years ago.

How they were made

Bodies buried in the sandy desert (most likely in winter) froze (or at least got very cold quite quickly) and dried out before they could begin to rot.  By the time summer (and high temperatures) arrived, the bodies had become mummified. Because they were already dried, the summer's heat would not cause them to deteriorate.

These bodies were placed in bottomless coffins which allowed good air circulation--this enabled the body to dry out completely.  (Other nearby bodies, most likely buried when the temperature wasn't cold, turned into skeletons.)

The composition of the soil (high in salt) speeded the drying out process, since the salt sucked the moisture from the atmosphere (and the bodies).


How many were made

The Cherchen mummies include Cherchen Man (called the man with ten hats by Elizabeth Wayland Barber), Cherchen Woman, two other women, and an infant wrapped in a beautiful brown cloth tied with red and blue cord. The infant was buried with a "baby bottle" made from a sheep's udder; each of its eyes was covered with a blue stone.

The Loulan mummies (actually from Qäwrighul near the town of Loulan) include the Beauty of Loulan and a few other mummies including an eight-year-old child wrapped in a piece of patterned wool cloth and closed with bone pegs. The wool clothing from Loulan seems to be much less colorful (in much more neutral, earth-tone colors--though fading could have occurred), but it is no less impressive in its patterns and weaves.

Scientists believe that many more naturally mummified bodies may be found in the area.


What's special about them

The Cherchen mummies are known for their degree of preservation (far better than most Egyptian mummies), their colorful clothing, and their Caucasian features. Their burial fabrics (in unusual patterns and woven in unusual ways) and their Caucasian features suggest that they (and/or their ancestors) had come from  Celtic tribes in Central Europe. Why had they ended up in China?   Were they nomads? Were they adventurers? Were they raiders and robbers?

Where to see them

The Cherchen and Loulan mummies are exhibited at the Provincial Museum of Ürümchi.

Where to find more information

The Ancient Corpses of Xinjiang: The Peoples of Ancient Xinjiang and Their Cultureis the latest book about the Silk Road mummies.

The Mummies of Ürümchi by Elizabeth Barber is a thorough investigation of the mummies and their clothing (the Cherchen cloth is especially colorful after so many years). It's also a great read.  Many b&w photos and illustrations, including 16 color plates. Many of the stunning photos come from those shown in Discover (April 1994). 

The Tarim Mummies expands on Barber's work and presents four "groups" of mummies found in the general area of Turkestan (including those from Ürümchi). Though not as eloquent, this book covers more territory and includes new information (as well as photos and illustrations).

The Mummy Congress also discusses the mummies in a chapter that includes an interview with Victor Mair. Includes three photos (the same as in Barber), but the text clearly presents the political implications of the discovery.

Also worth a look are Archaeology (March/April 1995), Discover (April 1994), and National Geographic (March 1996).