Mummies of Urumchi by Elizabeth Wayland Barber. Specifically, it will contain a book report on the book, including the author's thesis, evidence she uses to prove her thesis, and how convincing a case she makes. Did ancient civilizations of Asia and Europe expand from common places of origin? Where did these Caucasians come from? Elizabeth Wayland Barber, an archaeologist at Occidental College, asks herself those questions and begins a fascinating journey along the silk-road into prehistoric time. Is there strong circumstantial evidence to prove there was expansion from common places of origin for these mummies? Barber was well prepared to piece together all of the diverse and overwhelming textiles, linguistic, and anatomical clues that makes up this amazing case.
The Mummies of Urumchi
Barber's book chronicles the mummies found in and around the Urumchi area of Eurasia. The mummies are quite interesting for several reasons, including the vivid and beautiful clothing they wore, and the fact that they appeared to be distinctly Caucasian, rather than Asian or Mongoloid, which one would expect from the area they were found. Early in the book she raises many questions about these fascinating mummies, including where they came from, why they were entombed where they were, and even speculatively, what language they may have spoken. While Barber's archeological specialty is textiles, which she does cover extensively, she takes the study of the mummies much further in this book, as one reviewer noted. "In the process, she takes us through the entire process of modern archeology -- comparative linguistics, tracking down ancient original sources, studying the climate of the time, carbon dating, following artifacts as they move through different cultures..." (St. Philip). Clearly, Barber hopes to solve the mystery of these tantalizing mummies, and take the reader along with her as she makes her own voyage of discovery. What she finds is both fascinating and amazing.
Barber's descriptions of the textiles and weaving techniques throughout the book are engaging and attractive. The full-color plates help the reader become fully aware of the vivid colors used in making cloth, and how important cloth, weaving, and beauty were to these people. The authors also shows the great investigation that goes into the study of these textile techniques as she and her colleague study the textiles in China, and then bring their studies back home for more introspection and detailed analysis. This short passage shows how much Barber and her co-worker could discern from just a small piece of fabric found on one of the mummies. "This tells us still more about the loom in use. Closed edges at both ends mean that the warp was wound around two transverse elements to achieve the necessary tension" (Barber 77). The book continually brings in these details that are discerned by the archeologists, and shows how their knowledge and experience can tell them many things that would be totally lost on the nonprofessional simply looking at the mummies and their clothing. The archaeologists go through a series of steps to decide who, what, when, where, and how, and they are all clearly labeled here. The book is certainly a chronology of the mummies and the work surrounding them, but it is also a compelling glimpse into just how the archeologist works, and that is even more interesting than the mummies at times.
Undoubtedly, archeology is about history and as the book progresses, the author records the history of the area and some of the first early explorers to find the area, along with some of their discoveries and digs. These mummies turned up at the turn of the century, but they really lay undiscovered in Urumchi for decades. As the author notes, "Unlettered and unvisited, they left almost no trace in written history. So if we are to identify these forgotten people, we must use other means at our disposal" (Barber 108). At the turn of each page, the reader is tantalized to find out more, and it is clear so was the author. These fascinating people compelled her to discover more about them, and she recreates this need to know so the reader can follow along and share in the discovery. Perhaps that is one of the most compelling things about this book. It could have been dry, boring, and quite academic, and yet, it has its own charm, and casts a spell around the reader, making them want to turn the pages and want to learn more.
Barber's book is more than a dry and thorough treatise on these remarkable mummies and where they came from. She skillfully weaves details and anecdotes throughout the pages, keeping the reader glued to the book, and waiting for more of her rye sense of humor. For example, she notes, "Outside of Egypt, you find a presentable piece of cloth in a prehistoric dig about as often as you find a ruby in your oatmeal" (Barber 20). The book is filled with little gems like these, which help make the topic a bit lighter.
So, where did these Caucasian people with distinctive features and equally distinctive clothing come from? How did they end up in Eurasia, when many of their weaving techniques, cloth, and everyday objects seem related to those from Europe and the Mediterranean? The author believes the peoples of Urumchi came from the west as settlers. She does not know why, or why these chose this desolate desert as their home. She believes the settlers came from modern-day Russia, Hungary, and Romania, and beyond (Barber 155-156). She also uses evidence of ephedra in the culture to tie them to Indo-European tribes - the only others recorded who knew about the medicinal and narcotic effects of the plant. So, what is her conclusion? She writes, "The herder-cultivators of Loulan and Cherchen, for their part, would then represent older "indigenes" with a simpler technology, the descendents of intrepid oasis hoppers from the west" (Barber 167). There is indeed then, strong evidence that these mummies all had a rather central place of origin, and they brought accepted techniques for weaving, cloth decoration, and lifestyle from the west, incorporating it into their new lifestyle on the Tarim Basin of Eurasia. It must be noted that much of this is conjecture, and the author ends the book noting that fact, as she quotes another earlier archeologist trying to solve the puzzle of the mummies of Urumchi. " So, before the eyes of history has come a nation, from whence is unknown; not is it know how it scattered and disappeared without a trace'" (Barber 214). This is true of many races around the globe, but there are very few who have left such complete and compelling evidence of their lives and their culture, and that is one of the things that makes these mummies so fascinating. Will we ever know the real truth about the mummies of Urumchi? Perhaps we will, but perhaps we will never know. However, the conjectures that archeologists have made about the mummies all seem to ring true, especially when their culture and especially their clothing and weaving techniques are compared with those of other Indo-Europeans, such as the Celts.
Another question is; why were the mummies found here? Why did these particular mummies survive for thousands of years, and in such good shape? Barber explains that the salty sand where they were buried, combined with the dry desert air helped preserve the mummies and their clothing, making it possible to study them today, and make conclusions about their lives, their lifestyle, and their culture. The conditions here were just right, but the area is so desolate and difficult to reach that it is still quite amazing these mummies were discovered at all. As time goes on, Barber notes the mummies features did indeed change, and there is evidence…