The Mummies of Ürümchi: Textiles in Time

Recorded at the 2007 Maiwa Textile Symposium on October 12, 2007. As the lecture incorporated a slide show, we have selected these excerpts to stand alone. The listener may wish to consult an atlas to find locations mentioned in the lecture.

Local archaeologists working in Chinese Turkestan have uncovered numerous naturally mummified and spectacularly clothed bodies of Caucasians dating to the Bronze Age, 3000 - 4000 years ago. Since little besides clothing was put into the graves, Dr. Elizabeth Barber (one of the few experts on prehistoric textiles) was invited to accompany an expedition from the University of Pennsylvania to Western China to help determine facts about these displaced westerners. Just why, when, and from where did these folk enter the Tarim Basin of the Taklamakan Desert to become the area’s first permanent inhabitants, more than 1500 years before the Chinese established the famed Silk Road from the east? Her talk is richly illustrated with photographs taken when she was there, and with the wide variety of scientific methods used to unravel the mysteries.

Elizabeth Barber is a riveting speaker. Her strength lies in the perfect blending of many disciplines, whether discussing archeology, anthropology, linguistics, history, or her own speciality, textiles and clothing, she is always captivating.

Dr. Elizabeth Barber

Dr. Elizabeth Wayland Barber is Professor of Archaeology and Linguistics and co-chair of the Classics Program at Occidental College in Los Angeles. She holds degrees in archaeology, Greek, and linguistics from Bryn Mawr College and Yale University.

Nearly 30 years of research on the origin and development of textiles and clothing in Europe and western Eurasia have resulted in three books. All have been awarded book prizes by the Costume Society of America, and one by the American Historical Association. Two were selected by Book of the Month Club. She has also written a book on archaeological decipherment (1974) as well as numerous articles. Most recently, she and her husband Paul Barber co-authored a book on mythology, titled When They Severed Earth from Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth (Princeton, 2005).


  • Prehistoric Textiles: The Development of Cloth in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, with Special Reference to the Aegean
  • Women’s Work­The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times
  • The Mummies of Ürümchi
  • When They Severed Earth from Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth (with Paul Barber)

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