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
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,...