Tuesday, July 7, 2009

What can get lost in Ürümchi

War is hell on history. Destroying places in order to save them has a long, sad, dirty tradition. One of the great shames of Bush 43 is Donald Rumsfeld’s blowing off the Baghdad looting with the idle words, “Stuff happens.

Which is why I am all the sadder to hear of mob violence in the ancient Silk Road city of Urumqi. There are treasures there — not, perhaps, fabulous treasures of the sort that vanished from Baghdad, but treasures of culture, treasures of human industry.

Treasures of fabric, woven treasure of wool is what quite amazingly has been found in [then spelled] Ürümchi. One of humanity’s earliest manufactures, woven, dyed, ornamented clothing has been found in desert caves, preserved for thousands of years. At left: Mummified three-month-old baby in elaborately made, brightly-colored clothes. The nursing bottle is manufactured from a sheep's udder. The robe on the man (below right) is also woven, but is a less sophisticated weave than that of the child's swaddling. You can't see it here, but the edges of his robe are carefully piped in a brighter red.

Just as startling as what was in those caves wearing the clothing: blue-eyed, blonde, Caucasian mummies, mummies of Turkic peoples whose descendants are still seen among the Uighur people in the region. In 2000, Occidental College archaeologist and weaver Elizabeth Wayland Barber published The Mummies of Ürümchi, about the people, the mummies, and their manufactures, dated to 1500 BCE. They are 3500 years old.

Ürümchi has long boasted of being the world’s major city farthest from the sea. For eons it was protected by that desert distance. The discovery of its mummies was the first time anyone other than China hands ever heard of the place. However, in the past decade, the Chinese government has been building up industry in Ürümchi and moving in whole communities of Han Chinese.

Inevitably there’s bad feeling between the Han from the east and south, and the Muslim natives. It’s reasonable, I think, to fear that ethnic hatred and rivalry could lead to the destruction of the materials that have been recovered from the desert’s caves, and ending their continuing exploration.

Barber hooked me on her explorations with her book Women’s Work, the First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times. She examined the history of textiles and the wealth they created in early societies, not only as an archaeologist but as someone whose avocation is weaving. Because of that and her other writing, I felt partnership and immediacy. I seemed to be in the room she entered in Ürümchi, examining the garments on the mummies. Noting their dyes, noting how the brightly striped socks were not woven or felted but simply carefully wrapped inside the white boots. Barber is a terrific teacher and the care and love with which she examined the mummies, their clothing, and other tomb textiles came right through her pages. Above: 3500-year-old plaid from Ürümchi mummy tomb.

So she made me her ally in wanting to find more caves in China’s western desert, and learn more about these out-of-place, out-of-time people and their manufactures. I dread the idea that ethnic jealousies could destroy these fragile relics. And unless there are bodies of outsiders paying attention to them, that is probably just what will happen.

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