Clothes make the man, but very seldom they can survive the millennia. Due to the extremely dry climate of western China, intact trousers, skirts and caftans as well as boots and leather coats are frequently brought to light during archaeological excavations. With this project, a joint research group of five German project partners in cooperation with the Chinese Academy of Cultural Heritage and the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region Bureau of Cultural Heritage (PR China) aims at reconstructing the knowledge about ancient techniques and body, social structures, availability of resources and trade networks in Eastern Central Asia approximately from 1200 BC to 300 AD. Methods from various disciplines will be utilized to reach this goal, including archaeology, textile- and leather research, dyestuff analysis, ornament studies, cut analysis, paleopathology, vegetation and climate research, cultural anthropology as well as linguistics.
The oldest discoveries of clothing originate from the less well known indigenous people from the Turfan and Hami regions. As to the clothes dating from the 7th to 3rd centuries BC, these might be identified as remnants of local people as well as of immigrated groups of mobile pastoralists. Traces of the nomadic Xiongnu are to be expected among the finds from the 3rd to the 1st century BC. With regard to the most recent finds from the 1st century BC to the 3rd century AD, influences exerted by immigrants and travellers from China, the Greco-Roman Empire, Parthia, Sogdiana, and the Saka city states of the Kushan Empire at the southern edge of the Tarim Basin can be identified.
Material analyses and the documentation of the archaeological finds contribute to the development of sustainable practices for the physical conservation of cultural heritage in Xinjiang and their virtual availability worldwide. The training of Chinese conservators and the production of related teaching material are of especially high value in the project.
Geography and climate in the research area
The geographical relief of this region is dominated by basins enclosed by two mountain chains stretching from west to east. The Kunlun Mountains (max. 7,723 m above sea level) form the natural southern boundary of the Tarim Basin which is filled with a vast area of desert dunes. The desert has a linear expansion of ca. 600 km and is enclosed to its north by the Tian Shan (max. 7,439 m above sea level). The meltwater from the mountains forms the primary water source. The entire region has a continental climate characterized by high temperature differences between day and night as well as summer and winter. The average temperature in the Turfan Depression measures -9,5°C in January and 32,7°C in July. The low annual amount of rainfall measuring 16 mm in Turfan and less than 50 mm in the Taklamakan (e.g. Wagner et al. 2011 and references within) is a reason for the exceptionally good preservation of organic material and natural mummification. Favored areas for settlement were the source regions between the foothills and the dry and hot basin as well as the river oases. From there, people had access to the lower agricultural lands, the mountain pastures located at the forest and snow line, and the hunting grounds in the mountain areas. As indicated by paleoclimatic studies and modelling, the scenery and, closely related to it, the possibility of settlement in Eastern Central Asia in the 1st Millennium BC, changed sustainably (e.g. Tarasov et al. 2006). A weakening summer monsoon led to a decrease of atmospheric precipitation down to the modern level. Also the progressive melting of mountain glaciers decreased the water downflow into the basin, the irrigated oasis areas became smaller and sand and gravel deserts expanded. Finally, intensive desertification forced the people to abandon their large settlements in the Taklamakan (e.g. Debaine-Francfort and Idriss 2001).
The times the different sites of which the study material was selected from were occupied vary in length and can be divided into several phases from the end of the 2nd millennium BC to the early 1st century AD.
According to present knowledge, the Yanghai cemetery which is located in the Turfan Basin and extends over an area of approximately 54,000 m² experienced the longest time of occupancy reaching ca. 1,400 years. 3,000 tombs were documented during prospection works. Among them, 531 were excavated since 2003. Based on typological studies, the excavators divided the burials into the four phases A-D. Accordingly, phases A and B date from the 12th to the 8th century BC, phase C from the 7th to the 3rd century BC and phase D from the 2nd century BC to the 2nd century AD (Academia 2011). Located in close distance to the north of the Yanghai site is Subeixi. Since 1980, several excavations were carried out at this site, revealing architectural remains of a settlement and 75 tombs scattered over three burial fields. A time of occupancy for this site from 500 to 300 BC could be stated based on radiocarbon dates (Gong et al. 2011). This time corresponds to parts of Yanghai phase C. Having an estimated time of occupancy from the 15th to the 8th century BC, the Wupu cemetery in the Hami region is as old as the oldest Yanghai phase, possibly even older. In total, 114 tombs were excavated at this site in several campaigns, the latest one in 1991 (Wang 1999). The burial field Zaghunluq close to Qiemo at the southern rim of the Tarim Basin was discovered in 1983. Until 1998 approximately 160 tombs were prospected by archaeologists in the course of several campaigns. According to the archaeologists, this site correlates in general with Yanghai phase C. During the two excavation campaigns 1984 and 1992, 68 tomb complexes from the Sampula cemetery close to Khotan were investigated. Among them, four revealed mass burials of more than 100 individuals (Wang and Xiao 2001). Basically relying on typological studies, the excavators dated the finds from Sampula from approximately 100 BC to 300 AD (Wagner et al. 2009). The Niya site belongs to the fortified oasis-states established at the meltwater streams of the Kunlun Mountains. The site is known as the residency of the Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) king of Jingjue from the “Book of Han” (Hulsewé 1979). Niya was discovered in 1901 by Aurel Stein and visited by him in 1906, 1913 and 1931. The Xinjiang Museum and the Khotan Bureau of Cultural Heritage have carried out several test excavations. Besides burial fields, the excavators identified dwellings, Buddhist monastery and temple sites, stupas, roads, handicraft workshops, irrigation systems, city walls as well as gardens and agricultural fields. Between 1988 and 1997, a Sino-Japanese team carried out a joint excavation (Zhong Ri 1999). The best preserved finds of clothes approximately date between the 1st and the 4th centuries AD.
Textile finds from Xinjiang have been investigated internationally especially in terms of material and manufacturing techniques (e.g. Beck et al. 2014, Kramell et al. 2014, Zhao 2007, Wang and Wang 2010, Li 2006, Schorta 2001, Stauffer 2007), dyestuff (e.g. Liu et al. 2011) and ornamentations/motifs (e.g. Wagner et al. 2009, Bunker 2001). Published in Chinese language are recent technical reports on conservation and restoration measures (e.g. CACH 2009).
Unprecedented primary data are gained from the investigation of the apparel of individuals, their climatic environment and texts written in local languages both in quality and quantity, and they will add to the history of knowledge in central and eastern Central Asia. Some of the innovations which we will uncover (e.g. the invention of trousers) are of global importance and are up-to-date still today. They emphasize how important it is to analyze archaeological data on a global scale and to make them accessible in a digital database to all interested for further research.
For our Chinese partners, the practical goal aspired from the research lies in the development of sustainable practices for the physical conservation of cultural heritage in Xinjiang. In cooperation with German specialists, the Chinese Academy of Cultural Heritage organizes the training of conservators in safeguarding the find material from China (compare the project “Conservation and restoration of archaeological leather”).
- German Archaeological Institute, Eurasia Department, Beijing Branch Office; Natural Sciences Department of the Head Office
- State Office for Heritage Management and Archaeology Saxony-Anhalt – State Museum of Prehistory
- Martin-Luther-University Halle-Wittenberg, Institute for Organic Chemistry
- Free University Berlin, Department for East Asian Art History
- Free University Berlin, Institute of Geological Sciences, Palaeontology
- Leibnitz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in the Forschungsverbund Berlin e.V.
- Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities, Turfan Studies
- Chinese Academy for Cultural Heritage
- Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region Bureau of Cultural Heritage
Patrick Wertmann, M.A. (patrick [dot] wertmann [at] dainst [dot] de), Project manager
Dominic Hosner, M.A. (dominic [dot] hosner [at] dainst [dot] de), Data management
- Clothes of the 1st millennium BC in Xinjiang – Cut development between functionality, aesthetics and communication
- Conservation and restoration of archaeological leather
Wagner M., Wang B., Tarasov P., Westh-Hansen S.M., Völling E., Heller J., The ornamental trousers from Sampula (Xinjiang, China): their origins and biography. Antiquity 2009, 83: 1065-1075.
Wang B., Wang M.F., Zagunluke mao xiu [Wolltextilien aus Zaghunluq]. Wenbo 2010, 3: 77-85.
Zhao F., Sichou zhi lu: yi shu yu sheng huo [Silk Road: Arts and Life]. Shanghai 2007.