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The Egyptians took their gold, the Scythian’s their horses, these people took tons of clothes. The first thing you notice about Cherchen Woman is that her chin strap failed to hold her jaw shut. When a mummy’s mouth is open like this it is called a mummy gape. She and the others were all painted with a yellow substances that is believed to help preserve them. Like the Cherchen Man, she has multiple tattoos on her face, and red yarn through her ear lobes. She is over six foot tall, has braided hair and took lots of clothes with her to the grave. She and the other mummies that were found with her are on display at the Museum in Urumchi where she is displayed in her long red dress and deerskin boots.


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The Cherchen Man continues to remain a fascinating figure. The slides of the body were absolutely incredible, showing, as Kamberi said, a man that looked as if he could have died very recently. The body is extremely tall, even by today�s standards, at 2 meters (over six feet). The body was clothed in a complete set of garments made of felt and he wore knee-high deerskin boots with colorful socks. His beard and thinning dark blonde hair were plainly visible. Cherchen Man possesses definite Caucasoid features, and his temple is adorned with a decorative painted red motif in the form of a sun (a round circle surrounded by rays).

See also Lady of Tarim


CREDIT: This transcript is researched and contributed by Katherine Kuhns.


The Mummies of Xinjiang and the Archeology of the Tarim Basin in Western China

Dr. Dolkun Kamberi

Thursday, February 27, 1997


Dr. Dolkun Kamberi, Visiting Scholar with the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, presented an extraordinary slide-illustrated lecture at Stanford University on 27 February 1997. Dr. Kamberi�s presentation on his archaeological work in the Xinjiang Region of China was attended by over 80 people who eagerly listened, watched, and questioned.

Dr. Kamberi began by giving the audience a brief background of his education and work in this area. Kamberi has worked for more than 10 years in China pursuing Bronze and Iron Age art and culture of the Xinjiang region. The inspiration for his work has come from his desire to search for the history of his native Uighur culture.

For his talk, Kamberi began by showing maps of the Xinjiang region and outlined the sites of all of his archeological digs. Xinjiang is today known as the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of the People�s Republic of China, one of six territorial regions of China. In the past, however, it has been known by a variety of different names such as Inner Asia, Chinese Turkestan, East Turkestan, Uighurstan, many of which conjure up images of the silk road. On the south, Xinjiang is bordered by Tibet, to the north and west is Russia, Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tadjikistan and Afghanistan. The region possesses an historical culture and history all its own, as proven by the remarkable discoveries made by Kamberi and his colleagues in ancient cemeteries.

Throughout its history, Xinjiang has been the meeting ground for the civilizations of the east and west; Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity were all practiced in the region; Indo-Iranian languages, and Greek, Ural-Altaic, Tibetan, were all spoken here. During the 19th century up until 1935, the region experienced much archaeological activity from representatives of England, France, Japan, Sweden and Germany, primarily concentrated along the silk road and edge of the desert. However these early explorers found the conditions too arduous for full scale digs, and resorted to hiring local people to find artifacts. Thus, while much was found during this period, careful records were not kept and many of the artifacts have found themselves in foreign museums. In some cases, artifacts are thought to have been lost during WWII. One such artifact, the Bezeklik murals were thought to have been destroyed through the bombing of Berlin, but may actually be in St. Petersburg.


Kamberi described the location of Cherchan, where his world-famous discovery of beautifully-preserved Caucasian mummies took place. Kamberi showed a picture of the landscape to give the viewers an appreciation for the harsh conditions which have hampered past and modern-day explorers. But these same dry, inhospitable conditions actually helped to preserve the ancient cemeteries and Buddhist temples of which he showed numerous slides. Transportation is still difficult, much of it conducted by camel. However, the large quantities of cane and rushes found in the burial sites indicate that once this region was well-watered.

Kamberi presented slides of numerous archaeological sites, textiles, pottery and statues. The most pertinent slides and discussions are summarized below:

In the Turfan region of Xinjiang, the best known archeological site is Yarghol (Chinese Jiaohe). The city was founded in the 7th century , but by 76 AD had begun to decline. Last year UNESCO agreed to fund $1 million for the city.

Another well-known site, Kroraina (Chinese Lou-lan), located very near Lop Nur Lake and the nuclear test site in southern Xinjiang, was excavated in 1979 and yielded 40 tombs. One of the tombs was constructed in the form of a round kurgan (burial mound) with rays constructed of wood extending from its perimeter. This gave archaeologists the impression that these people worshipped the sun god. Dated to 2000 BC, this is the earliest Bronze-age site in the Uighur Autonomous Region. In the center of the burial tomb a grave was found that contained a mummy originally carbon-dated to 6500 BC. However, this spawned an argument between the archaeologists excavating the site and Beijing. Subsequently, Beijing carbon-dated the mummy to 3,000 BC.

Cherchen Man was discovered near the small town of Zogholuk which is mostly populated by Uighurs. The cemetery near this village measures one kilometer from north to south and 750 meters from east to west, and contains approximately 800 known tombs. Kamberi and his group have only been able to excavate five thus far, due in part to financial constraints. In one of the tombs was found a horse skull and its forelegs. The bones from the forelegs had been removed and replaced with cane indicating a ritual practice. Horse skulls and forelegs have been found in other tombs in different regions, but none displayed this same ritual practice of replacing bone with cane.

The tombs themselves are interesting. A vertical trench is dug into the earth. In the bottom of the trench is a smaller ditch, on top of which is placed wooden slats and reeds. The body is placed on top of intricately woven reed mats alongside felt articles, pottery, or even leather saddles. These items are then covered with more reeds, another layer of wooden slats, and then earth. The fact that the body did not touch the ground directly, and that there was a small ditch underneath which allowed for air flow, greatly helped with the natural preservation of the body. Also, the salt had been used to line the walls, another factor which helped with the natural preservation.

The Cherchen Man continues to remain a fascinating figure. The slides of the body were absolutely incredible, showing, as Kamberi said, a man that looked as if he could have died very recently. The body is extremely tall, even by today�s standards, at 2 meters (over six feet). The body was clothed in a complete set of garments made of felt and he wore knee-high deerskin boots with colorful socks. His beard and thinning dark blonde hair were plainly visible. Cherchen Man possesses definite Caucasoid features, and his temple is adorned with a decorative painted red motif in the form of a sun (a round circle surrounded by rays). This could be another sign that these people worshipped the sun god. Spoons were found in the graves with a similar paint on them, which suggests that the facial paint was applied after death. Cherchen Man�s hands were covered with black tattoos and Kamberi postured that they could be some from of ancient script. In addition, small wooden rods with the ends bound in red wool yarn were found in the tomb. This may have also been a fire symbol, and may indicate that the ancient religion of the Cherchen people was related to Zoroastrianism.

Similarly, the Charchan Lady was a remarkable find. She is also extremely tall - 1.96 meters. She was wearing tall boots, and wore garments of a designed woolen fabric. After the body and cloth were cleaned, the brilliant red of the dress shown through despite having been underground for almost 3,000 years. In addition, one tomb unearthed a baby, probably 3-4 months old, which was perfectly preserved wrapped in its colorful blankets. Small black stones were placed over his eyes at the time of burial.

Kamberi�s group was only able to take a few of the mummies to the Urumqi Museum due to lack of storage space. Other mummies that were excavated were re-buried in the cemetery.

Kamberi then proceeded to display slides of different pieces of fabric that have been carbon dated to 1,000 BC by Beijing. These pieces show intricate geometric patterns. The textiles are important because they show a high woven quality that was not found in other areas of the world at this time.

Other slides revealed several types of felt hats, including one with a high point, found in the Taklamakan, similar to those of the Saka nomads displayed on the Persepolis reliefs in southern Iran. A bronze statue from the Altai mountains, dating to the 5th century BC was illustrated wearing a similar hat. The statue had Caucasoid features, and showed similarities in dress. Thus, different regions of Xinjiang show a consistent tie to each other across various time periods - a theme that Kamberi repeated throughout his presentation.

An interesting slide showed a woman�s make-up bag, which held a bronze mirror in one side and a comb in the other. According to Kamberi, this showed that the people were beginning to be concerned with their appearance. Another slide shows an ancient envelope (300 AD) - the earliest envelope in the world The text is placed inside what looks like a wooden box, with a sliding lid, and the envelope is then sealed with clay.

Next, Kamberi showed illustrations of two wool carpet fragments dating to around 300 BC. One illustrates a centaur and the other was that of a face. Both demonstrate the close ties with the Greek world at this time. These two fragments had been made into a pair of pants, the centaur on one leg, and the face on the other. Kamberi also showed one of three complete carpets that also date back to 300 BC. The tomb which contained this complete carpet also contained cookies and nan, a round flat bread, which are still found today throughout Central Asia. Some nan from difference sites has been dated to 600 AD, and it still looks the same today.

Kamberi then began discussing the famous Buddhist temples at Bezeklik, near Turfan, which was built from the 4th century on. The site consists of 83 different caves, which contain early medieval art, and Uighur, Sanskrit, Chinese, and Tacharian scripts. In 1981 further excavation uncovered some new sites lower down the cliff.

Kamberi presented a slide of an illustrated Manichaean scroll, in Sogdian language. Work is currently being undertaken to translate the document by a Japanese scholar knowledgeable of Sogdian, Yoshida-san. As an aside, Kamberi told the audience that someone from Columbia University claims that there are still people speaking this ancient language in the mountains of Tadjikistan.

Slides of Beshbaliq were shown, Beshbaliq was one of the Uighur capitals. Mahmud Al-Kasghari said it was built by Alexander the Great in 300 BC. It is currently only 50 percent excavated. The Buddhist temple near the city has produced Uighur paintings. A very important painting was found there in 1981 which depicts an Uighur King and Queen leading their troops on a journey and which contains medieval Uighur script along the edge of the piece. The painting is a prime example showing medieval Uighur language, culture and art.

Lastly, Kamberi displayed a slide of a stone statute on which is a Sogdian inscription. Unfortunately, no steps have been taken to preserve the statue from erosion or other damage.


Kamberi is primarily interested in the Bronze and Iron Ages of the Taklamakian desert region. Prior to 1980, archeologists only hypothesized that Bronze and Iron-age civilizations occupied the Tarim Basin. Now they have proof that they actually did exist in the form of iron tools, bronze ornaments, painted pottery, and dwellings found in over 100 sites in the Tarim and Turfan Basins. Radio carbon-dating and comparison of Bronze age culture has yielded the following timeline for the Uighur civilization:

2,000 BC - 1,000 BC Bronze Age

1,000 BC - 100 AD Iron Age

These people were basically farmers who lived in permanent structures. They were involved in some animal husbandry which was independent from agriculture. Today�s Uighurs still possess many of the Caucasian features of their ancestors - dark blond hair, long noses, deep-set eyes.

Even before the Han Dynasty, the Silkroad was already providing a medium for cultural exchange between east and west. The tombs that Kamberi have excavated provide information on history, culture and technology of the ancient inhabitants of Xinjiang, China. What is fascinating about Kamberi�s work is that he shows that the Uighurs were entering the Iron Age approximately 300 years earlier than mainland China. Kamberi�s work also indicates that the Bronze and Iron Age cultures in Xinjiang have distinctive elements as well as many common features with neighboring cultures of the same period.

According to Kamberi, the Xinjiang region will remain an archeologist�s dream well into the 21st century and will begin to play a role on the global stage. Oil from the Tarim Basin will effect world oil markets, and nuclear bases will pose new threats. �To summarize in the words of Kamberi, �Without Uighur history there can be no Central Asian history. Without Central Asian history, there can be no Asian history. Without Asian history, there can be no world history.