MU­SEUM FO­CUS: Urumqi Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal Mu­seum, Xin­jiang

Ar­chae­ol­o­gist Ma­ree Browne vis­its some of the best pre­served mum­mies in the world from the Tak­la­makan Desert in West­ern China

Timeless Travels Magazine - - CONTENTS -

In far West­ern China is the oa­sis city of Urumqi and its re­gional mu­seum holds some of the most ex­tra­or­di­nary, and amaz­ingly well pre­served, mum­mies yet dis­cov­ered. They are the Tarim Basin mum­mies. The mu­seum it­self is a large and im­pos­ing struc­ture, de­signed and dec­o­rated to cel­e­brate the lo­cal Uyghur style; it holds and dis­plays an ex­ten­sive col­lec­tion of re­gional tex­tiles, gar­ments and rugs.

It is, how­ever, its col­lec­tions of artefacts that were found within the an­cient burial grounds of the Tarim Basin that make this mu­seum well worth an ex­tended visit. The qual­ity of the ex­hibits and their pre­sen­ta­tion is out­stand­ing. There are mul­ti­lin­gual - Chi­nese, Uyghur and English - la­bels on all items as well as in­for­ma­tion boards giv­ing broader con­text. An out­stand­ing fea­ture is the life­size dio­ra­mas that il­lus­trate the uses of the ob­jects in the ad­join­ing cases.

There are sev­eral mum­mies ex­hib­ited in the mu­seum. Th­ese are just a few of the hun­dreds of mum­mies found in the var­i­ous grave­yards sit­u­ated in the Tak­la­makan Desert within the Tarim Basin. Th­ese are nat­u­rally des­ic­cated bod­ies, dried out rapidly in the ex­tremely arid con­di­tions that pre­vail in the Tak­la­makan. The most fa­mous of the mum­mies is the ‘Loulan Beauty’, a fe­male found in the Tiebanhe River Grave­yard. She was buried c.1800 BCE and is about 45 years old. She is wrapped in a woollen cloak and wears a fur-lined leather skirt.

My favourites are the ‘Princess of Xiaohe’, c. 1800 BCE, who is wrapped in a woollen blan­ket and wears a fab­u­lous feather and red plait-dec­o­rated felt hat and the Qiemo Fe­male, a later burial of about 800 BCE. Her hair is plaited and her face painted and she wears a won­der­ful long bright red gown.

Th­ese mum­mies have been the sub­ject of ex­ten­sive re­search, in­clud­ing DNA stud­ies. The re­sults of th­ese stud­ies show just how early this re­gion was for the in­ter­change of goods and peo­ples.

One of the most in­ter­est­ing as­pects of the mu­seum is the dis­play of a wealth of per­ish­able ob­jects, items that rarely sur­vive in an ar­chae­o­log­i­cal con­text. Th­ese artefacts were found within the graves of the mum­mies and are pre­served in al­most per­fect con­di­tion. They in­clude items of cloth­ing from long woollen robes to fur-lined leather shoes. The tex­tiles show a very ad­vanced knowl­edge of weav­ing and dye­ing and are in an ex­tra­or­di­nary state of preser­va­tion. Among the house­hold items found are a num­ber of per­fectly pre­served wooden ob­jects such as a bucket dec­o­rated with rein­deer. Wood rarely sur­vives this long in such fine con­di­tion. There is also an ex­cel­lent range of dy­nas­tic ma­te­rial on dis­play, in­clud­ing ter­ra­cotta fig­ures from the Tang Dy­nasty found in the As­tana ceme­tery in Tur­pan.

This mu­seum is re­ally worth a visit if trav­el­ling in West­ern China and while China has a num­ber of great mu­se­ums, it is the unique­ness of the finds from the Tarim Basin that make the Xin­jiang Re­gional Mu­seum one of the most out­stand­ing I have vis­ited.

One of the most in­ter­est­ing as­pects of the mu­seum is the dis­play of a wealth of per­ish­able ob­jects, items that rarely sur­vive in an ar­chae­o­log­i­cal con­text

deer pat­tern, 2300 BCE, Zh­a­gun­luke Ceme­tery, Qiemo County; Dio­rama of a Silk Road set­tle­ment with map; Preach­ing mural from the Dhar­mago Tem­ple ru­ins in Cele, Tang Dy­nasty; Dis­play of Tang Dy­nasty ter­ra­cot­tas; White robe with short sleeves, 2800 BCE,...

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