cover image The Mummies of Urumchi

The Mummies of Urumchi

Elizabeth Wayland Barber. W. W. Norton & Company, $35 (240pp) ISBN 978-0-393-04521-5

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 Urumchi 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 Urumchi, 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 Urumchi. 16 pages of color photos; 50 b&w drawings. (Jan.)