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The Mummies of Urumchi Paperback – April 17, 2000

4.5 out of 5 stars 30 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

The 2000-year-old mummies of Ürümchi, found in central Asia along the famed Silk Road trading route, are so well preserved as to show clearly that they seem to be of Caucasoid origin. Where did these people come from? Where did they go? You can find their pale-skinned, light-haired descendents among the people of the region, but the story of their presence in this forbidding land leaves more mysteries than it answers. Mass migrations during the Bronze Age scattered many peoples across Europe and Asia, and these startlingly lively-looking mummies may help answer some questions about this period of human history. Their intact, fantastically colored and patterned clothing captures much of author Elizabeth Wayland Barber's attention--she is an expert on prehistoric textiles. Her enthusiastic descriptions of the sewing skills of these migrant people, while focusing on details, lend an immediacy to this fascinating tale. Black-and-white as well as color photos, maps, and diagrams illustrate Barber's colorful tale of anthropology. --Therese Littleton --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

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.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1St Edition edition (April 17, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393320197
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393320190
  • Product Dimensions: 7 x 0.7 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (30 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #437,708 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Ms. Barber has given me exactly what I hoped for with this incredible book: a plausible suggestion for the origins of these fascinating people. My first contact with the mummies of the Tarim Basin was through an article published by Discover magazine, which I have kept. After reading that piece, my imagination took off, and I found myself hauling out atlases and everything I own on the pre-history of humans. It was not until reading this excellent book that I found support for some of my inexperienced suspicions of the mummies' origins. I have learned so much from this book, from the dispersion of Indo-European languages to the role of textiles in our human development. I love Ms. Barber's writing style; she doesn't go over the head of the layperson. She uses humor and a friendly tone, as if you were at her elbow, studying the clothing of the Cherchen man. Her manner of explaining new pieces of information was very clear. It was easy to understand a previously unknown textile term, for instance, through her simple illustrations and analogies. I highly recommend this book. I eagerly await more news from the continuing excavations, and more publications from Elizabeth!
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Format: Hardcover
A rather good look at a very interesting mystery of pre-historic European migrations. Central to this has been the discovery of mummies some three to four-thousand years old who posses what is termed a "Caucasian" appearance, both biologically and culturally. Elizabeth Barber is an expert on ancient textiles and the first part of this book, involved in a description of mummies' textiles (from observations made on a visit there) is in her element and makes what could have been a dreadfully tedious description quite lively. It ends up being the best discussion in the book. In fact I give this book an additional star over other scholarly books of this sort - rather bland usually - for causing me to read with deep interest page after page about what is really an analysis of textile stitching. After describing the better-preserved mummies and analyzing their goods and textile weaves and patterns, she then approaches the whole question of their origins and especially in whether one can link this culture to the theoretical proto Indo-European language-speakers. At this point there is an interesting but rather plainly-written collection of a good deal of information provided by explorers into the region, and comparisons to other cultures such as the Celts, and some linguistic analysis. Although it kept my interest, the jumping between time, place and peoples could sometimes be confusing. And I kept having to search through the maps to remember where we were in relation to where, as these parts of Asia are not very familiar to us. It lacks at the end a good tie-up of loose ends or a summary, that seems required after such a lengthy heaping of theories.
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By Atheen on August 12, 2000
Format: Hardcover
This was an impressive text. I am not personally knowledgeable about textiles, although my mother an artist who is a consumate spinner and weaver is, and so I have come to have an appreciation for the weaver's art through my association with her. I was especially impressed by the authors' thorough knowledge of the craft and of the archaeological implications of the textiles preserved with the famous Urumchi mummies of the Tarim Basin of the Taklimakan Desert. These naturally preserved bodies, like the freeze dried mummies of the Andean mountains and the Early Bronze age body found frozen in an Alpine glacier, provide archaeologists with direct information about the health, genetic relationships, and cultural affinities of the people in these regions. In particular the Urumchi mummies are unique in that the population appears to have been caucasian rather than oriental, suggesting early settlement of the area from the West. Prior to the discovery of these bodies, it had always been assumed that the cultures of the East and the West had developed in relative isolation with respect to one another. Now it is clearer that the human populations of both areas were in far greater contact and that there was significant potential for both genetic and cultural exchange, with ultimate implications for the later civilizations that developed in each. With their intensive evaluation of the fiber crafted cultural remains entered with the bodies, the Barbers' add fine points of detail to what is known about the people of the area and of their likely origins. The book clearly illustrates the value of textiles in the approach to archaeological problems.
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Format: Hardcover
When most people think of mummies, they think of ancient Egypt, or maybe South America. In truth, mummification can occur whenever the conditions are right, and the arid Tarim River basin in Western China has revealed a large number of mummified bodies, thousands of years old.
What sets these mummies out from others is their probable ethinicity. The author displays with great lucidity the thesis that these people were not Asian at all, but rather were closely related to the Celts.
She does this by covering a wide range of available evidence, such as funeral practices, cloth, and language, as well as looking at the geography of the region and exptraploating as to how it may have affected the patterns of settlement three thousand years ago or more. At the end, I was convinced by her arguments, and in the process gained a better appreciation of the Celts, whom I had assumed I understood reasonably well. This is only possible because of the author's breadth of knowledge and research, well presented in a sparsely worded style.
This book is a great combination of popular science and academic sholarship. I like it the more as the author has the intellectual honesty to admit the points on which her thesis may be lacking in evidence. This does much to inspire confidence in the work as a whole.
Having just finished reading Tournament of Shadows, I prefer this book for its coverage of the Tarim River basin by far.
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