Archeology and History of the Silk Road



Wednesday, 22 October 2014

The golden burial mask of Shamsi

From the beautiful blog Tibet Archaeology and all things Tibetan by John Vincent Bellaza

Fig. A. Golden funeral mask of a woman with tattoo-like decorations which represent the trees of life. These decorations were created by puncturing on the reverse and covering with white paint on the obverse. Rouran period, 5th–6th century CE. Excavated in 1958 in Shamsi, Chui Province, Kyrgyzstan. Caption and photo courtesy of Dr. Christoph Baumer. Photo credit: National Historical Museum of Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek.
Fig. A. Golden funeral mask of a woman with tattoo-like decorations which represent the trees of life. These decorations were created by puncturing on the reverse and covering with white paint on the obverse. Rouran period, 5th–6th century CE. Excavated in 1958 in Shamsi, Chui Province, Kyrgyzstan. Caption and photo courtesy of Dr. Christoph Baumer. Photo credit: National Historical Museum of Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek.
The above photo and caption are taken from Christoph Baumer’s forthcoming book, History of Central Asia: The Age of the Silk Roads, vol. II. After reading about the golden masks illustrated in last month’s Flight of the Khyung, this author was so kind as to provide me with these materials from his upcoming book due out in July, 2014. I urge anyone with an interest in the history of 1st millennium CE Eurasia to obtain a copy of Dr. Baumer’s book. One will be treated to a rich panoply of cultures, religions, and art, which made the Silk Road one of the greatest chapters in Eurasian civilization.
Courtesy of the publisher, here is the synopsis for Christoph Baumer’s forthcoming book, History of Central Asia: The Age of the Silk Roads, vol. II:
The Age of the Silk Roads (circa 200 BC to circa 900 AD) shaped the course of the future. The foundation by the Han dynasty of an extensive network of interlinking trade routes, collectively known as the Silk Road, led to an explosion of cultural and commercial transactions across Central Asia that had a profound impact on civilization. In this second volume of his authoritative history of the region, Christoph Baumer explores the unique flow of goods, peoples, and ideas along the dusty tracks and wandering caravan routes that brought European and Mediterranean orbits into contact with Asia. The Silk Roads, the author shows, enabled the spread across the known world of Christianity, Manichaeism, Buddhism, and Islam, just as earlier they had caused Roman citizens to crave the exotic silk goods of the mysterious Far East. Tracing the rise and fall of empires, this richly illustrated book charts the ebb and flow of epic history: the bitter rivalry of Rome and Parthia; the lucrative mercantile empire of the Sogdians; the founding of Samarkand; the rise of Turkish Empires in today’s Mongolia; and the Chinese defeat at the Battle of Talas (751 AD) by the forces of Islam.
In style and form, the gold foil mask of Shamsi has certain features of both the Boma Cemetery specimen from northwestern Xinjiang (Ili) and those masks discovered in Tibet and the Himalaya (see last month’s Flight of the Khyung). I invite readers to make their own visual comparisons.
The Shamsi mask is embellished with three tree-like designs created by a series of perforations highlighted with a white pigment. Two of the trees cover the cheeks while the the third one was placed over the entire nose and middle of the forehead.  For the sake of stimulating further discussion, I will offer an alternative interpretation of this motif. It does not seem plausible to me that the ‘tree of life’ would be used to decorate a mask for the dead. Perhaps it should instead be called something to the effect of ‘the tree of regeneration in the afterlife’. In the eastern Altai, coniferous tree trunks were found buried with their roots in some Turk funerary enclosures. The precise function of this ritual object is not known. Given the general proximity in time and space between these Turk funerary sites and the burial at Shamsi, there may be an ideological and/or functional correspondence between the motif on the golden mask and the ritual use of tree trunks. This is one avenue of inquiry worth exploring in more depth.
The archaic funerary tradition of Tibet could also offer valid points of comparison with both the trees of the Shamsi mask and those of early Turkic burials. The old Tibetan death rites were first written down circa the 8th century CE and continued to find literary expression in Bon religious texts until at least the 11th century CE. In the archaic rite, there is a ritual instrument known as the ‘head juniper’ (dbu-shug), which functioned as a vessel to enshrine and protect the the consciousness principle of the dead; it was thus referred to as the ‘soul fortress’ (bla-rdzong). The head juniper, as a kind of miraculous pillar, was employed to orient the soul of the deceased towards the celestial afterlife. Harnessing the Tibetan archaic  funerary tradition as a touchstone, one might speculate that the three levels of branches on the trees of the Shamsi mask, marked the vertical stages in the passage of the soul to the otherworld.
The head juniper is mentioned in evocation rites for the soul of the deceased as part of the Bon funerary collection known as the Muchoi Tromdur. While some of the language of the Muchoi Tromdur passage given below belies Buddhist influence, the ritual itself is fundamentally archaic in character:*
In the beginning, by the sign of perfect accomplishment of the excellent gshen priests, there grew a blue turquoise juniper. Its crown of existence is sharp and hardy. Its roots penetrate the depths of the ocean. Its branches reach all four worlds. Nectar drips from each needle. At its root is the swirling nectar of consummation. At its crown the sun, moon, and stars, these three, circle around. On the branches of white copper (?) and on the conch trunk grows the fruit of perfection. When the excellent gshen were alive, this great precious juniper was a rgyang tree (instrument for securing influence over a wide area?). When the excellent gshen died it was the head juniper. Tonight, deceased dead one, please stay at this great protector head juniper. Make the head juniper, thread cross, and bird wing, these three, the support of the deceased’s body, speech, and mind.
* For a detailed description of the head juniper and a comparison of Tibetan funerary practices with those of the ancient Turks, see the book Zhang Zhung, Part III, Sections 4, 6 and 9 (bibliographic data at:
While very different cultural, ethnic, and historical forces were at play in Shamsi as compared to Tibet, the concept of a tree at the head is given expression. Perhaps in both cases these trees aided the liberation of the dead. If so, this adds to the growing body of evidence indicating the broad dispersal of material and ritualistic elements connected to funerals and burials in Inner Asia over a long period of time. In addition to golden burial masks, these widely distributed features include the erection menhirs, horse burials, horse headdresses, deposition of ephedra and sheep bones in graves, ‘animal style art’, use of effigies, application of substitute body parts on corpses, etc.
Explicit connection between Turkic and Tibetan funerary rites is made in the Dunhuang manuscript Pt 1060 (best attributed to circa the 9th century CE, pending codicological confirmation). This text indicates that Turkic regions north of Tibet shared the same tradition of horses used to ritually transport the dead to the next world. In this text, 12 lineages of psychopomp horses are located in Tibet while a 13th is attributed to Drugu. Drugu seems to refer to the Uighurs, but it could possibly also denote an earlier period in the ethnohistory of the Tarim Basin. In Pt 1060, the gods (Yol, Reg-rgyal hir-kin and Dan-kan) and one of the funerary horses (Hol-tsun) have names of decidedly Turkic origins. The historical placement of this literary reference is not very clear. It likely refers to the period of Tibetan imperial conquest (mid-7th to mid-9th century CE). However, the usage of genealogical terms in the text to denote the male and female sources of lineages (cho and ’brang) may indicate that the psychopomp horses are being enumerated within a deeper historical context.
Did Turkic groups actually have such psychopomp horses, or is the Pt 1060 account merely based on a pretension of Tibetan imperial might? That the Turks and Tibetans did indeed share certain conceptual and procedural structures related to the funeral and afterlife is given credence by some of the archaeological evidence outlined above. While further inquiry into the historical and archaeological dimensions of the horses of Drugu in Pt 1060 is called for, this text  does provide us with an intriguing link, hinting at the widespread diffusion of funerary ritual and eschatological traditions in Inner Asia.
For the Pt 1060 reference discussed above, see Zhang Zhung, pp. 522–524.
I was also able to share a pre-publication version of the above article with another colleague of ours, Sören Stark, Professor of Central Asian Art and Archaeology at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, New York University.  He was kind enough to furnish us with additional comments and observations concerning the burial masks of north Inner Asia and further afield germane to our exploration of the subject. What Professor Sören Stark has written follows next.

An overview of golden masks from Inner Asia: A contribution by Sören Stark

The whole burial complex at Shamsi is discussed by Kožomberdieva, Kožomberdiev, and Kožemjakov (1998). Another example of a golden funerary mask comes from a rich burial at the cemetery of Dzhalpak-dëbë in present-day Kyrgyzstan, dated to the 4th or 5th century CE. (Каниметов et al. 1983, p. 41). For ‘Migration period’ (4-5th century CE) Eurasia a useful (though not exhaustive) overview of the phenomenon of funeral masks during the 4th and 5th centuries CE in Eurasia is given by Benkő (1992-1993). Of course solid metal masks are probably only the preserved ‘tip of the iceberg’ of what once existed, including face-covers made of perishable materials: see the cover made of a hemp fiber mass worn by the famous 4th or 5th century CE burial from Yingpan, or face covers made of precious silks onto which metal appliqués were sewn (for one such appliqué type, which can be traced from Inner Mongolia to Hungary see Stark 2009). We should also not forget the often splendidly painted clay masks from the Tashtyk culture in present-day Khakassia in Southern Siberia, dating roughly to the same period (Вадецкая 2009). And also from further west, i.e. from the northern Black Sea area, golden funerary masks dating to the 2nd-3rd centuries CE have been found (Бутягин 2009). Note also that the kidney-shaped garnet (or almandine?) inlays on the famous Boma mask mentioned above most likely originate from a workshop in Eastern Europe or the Mediterranean, as recently pointed out by A. Koch (Koch 2008). See my review of this article (Stark 2010).
Literature mentioned Benkő, M. 1992-1993. “Burial Masks of Eurasian Mounted Nomad Peoples in the Migration Period” in Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae vol. 46, pp. 113–131.
Koch, A. 2008. “Boma – ein reiternomadisch-hunnischer Fundkomplex in Nordwestchina,” in Hunnen zwischen Asien und Europa. Aktuelle Forschungen zur Archäologie und Kultur der Hunnen, Beiträge zur Ur- und Frühgeschichte Mitteleuropas. Edited by Historisches Museum der Pfalz, Speyer, pp. 57-71. Langenweissbach: Beier & Beran.
Kožomberdieva, E. I., I. V. Kožomberdiev, and P. N. Kožemjakov. 1998. “Ein Katakombengrab aus der Schlucht Šamsi,” Eurasia Antiqua 4:  pp. 451-471. ___Stark, S. 2009. “Central and Inner Asian Parallels to a Find from Kunszentmiklos-Babony (Kunbabony): Some Thoughts on the Early Avar Headdress,” Ancient Civilizations from Scythia to Siberia 15:  pp. 287-305. ___2010. “Review of”Historisches Museum der Pfalz Speyer (Ed.): Hunnen zwischen Asien und Europa. Aktuelle Forschungen zur Archäologie und Kultur der Hunnen,” Journal of Inner Asian Art and Archaeology 5:  pp. 201-208. Бутягин, А. М. Editor. 2009. Тайна золотой маски. Каталог выставки. Санкт-Петербург: Издательство Государственного Эрмитажа. Каниметов, А., Б. И. Маршак, В. М. Плоских, and Я. А. Шер. Editors. 1983. Памятники культуры и искусства Киргизии. Древность и средневековье. Ленинград.

More on the golden mask from Malari

Thanks to the kind regard of Professor R. C. Bhatt of Garwhal University, I now have a copy of the preliminary archaeological report made concerning cut chamber burials in Malari, which was published in Japan:
Bhatt, R. C.;  Kvamme, K. L.; Nautiyal, V.; Nautiyal, K. P.; Juyal, S.; Nautiyal, S. C. 2008-2009. “Archaeological and Geophysical Investigations of the High Mountain Cave Burials in the Uttarakhand Himalaya” in Indo-Kōko-Kenkyū – Studies in South Asian Art and Archaeology, vol. 30, pp. 1–16.
I will now provide a synopsis of materials in this paper pertinent to the golden mask of Malari. In 1986 and 1987, Professor R. C. Bhatt conducted archaeological work in the Garwhal Himalaya in order to excavate and better understand the cultural background of an intact cave burial in Malari. Cut from calcareous rock on a hillside, this burial chamber is 2.4 m deep. Its mouth was sealed by a boulder. The chamber contained grave goods as well as the complete skeleton of what is identified as a yak hybrid (zobamdzo-ba). Additionally, some bones of the dog, sheep, and goat were interred (however, no human remains were detected). Based on a recent analysis of animal skeletal remains, iron and bone artifacts, and glazed pottery from the site, this burial and another of its kind in Malari have been dated to circa 1st century BCE. Among the large quantity of ceramics entombed were intact vessels comprised of dishes, spouted pots, and jars of red and black polished ware, some of which are decorated with incised geometric designs filled in with a white pigment. A variety of trihedral iron arrowheads and spear points were recovered. Also, iron nails inserted into oak twigs and a bronze bowl with a diameter of 16 cm were found. The most remarkable discovery was a mask made of beaten gold weighing 5.23 grams (for photograph, see last month’s Flight of the Khyung).
In 2001, a similarly sized and constructed burial chamber was discovered in Malari by R. C. Bhatt and colleagues. This burial yielded a complete human skeleton with the head pointing  southwest and the feet oriented towards the northeast. A preliminary osteological study indicates that this was the skeleton of a juvenile between 12 and 15 years of age. Among the ceramics were 11 intact vessels red and gray in color, some with incised geometric designs. The most distinctive of these are red-ware vessels with wide, slightly flaring mouths, bulbous bottoms, single lug handles, and long spouts supported by a bridge connecting it to the rim of the pots. One of these pots has a conical pedestal.
Bhatt et al. 2009 consider the burials of Malari in the wider cultural and geographic context of western Tibet and Mustang, noting that cave burials are found in these other regions as well. As regards the yak hybrid burial, the authors write, “Taking into consideration the immense usefulness of the animal, it must have been treated as a member of the family, and therefore it was given a proper burial as a mark of respect as evident from the nature of the burial.” It is reported that one AMS assay of an unspecified bone sample from the cave burials was carried out and yielded a date of circa 100 BCE. The authors note that burials at Mebrak (Mustang valley) and Kharpo (Guge) fall within this general time frame. The authors are inclined to group these burials together, in the sense that they demonstrate “a common cultural trait”. The authors elaborate, stating that these regions “must have shared many common practices and beliefs”.
Using techniques based on magnetic gradiometry and electrical resistivity, Bhatt et al. 2009 have identified several other sites in Malari that probably conceal burial chambers.
My comments
It would be helpful if more organic remains from the two excavated burial chambers of Malari were subjected to chronometric testing. The results would help fix the date of the burial, corroborating results from just one sample that was AMS assayed (the details of which have not been published in Bhatt et al. 2009). A formal study of the ceramics recovered would also be very useful. Of course a number of other kinds of analyses (of a stratigraphic, cultural, and molecular nature) of the bones and grave goods could also be carried out to good effect.
In addition to the presence of the golden mask, the ceramics finds from Malari are directly comparable with those recently unearthed at Gurgyam by Chinese archaeologists. See the round bottom pot with single lug handle and wide flared mouth in October 2010 Flight of the Khyung (fig. 15) and fig. 11 in Bhatt et al. 2009. The general similarities in form between two vessels notwithstanding, there are important typological differences between them (shape of the bottom, width and flare of neck, etc.). More important to a comparative analysis is the method of manufacture, fabric and surface finish of the two vessels. This kind of detailed information is not provided in Bhatt et al. 2009, nor yet by the Chinese. Moreover, little can be discerned from the small b&w photo in in Bhatt et al. Anyhow, there is an even more striking parallel in the ceramic assemblages of Malari and Guge: the existence of similarly made red-ware pots with round bodies, wide flaring mouths and long spouts. See figs. 8 and 9 in Bhatt et al. The Chinese example excavated in 2013 has not yet been published; however, thanks to my Chinese colleagues I was able to see the Gurgyam example. The Gurgyam pot is closest in form to the vessel on the right side of fig. 9, sans the conical pedestal, but with the same type of arched bridge connecting the spout to the body of the vessel (the Gurgyam bridge is decorated with three incised circles or eyes extending across its length). The other two spouted vessels from Malari are also close in form but the neck bridges were made with a double curve.
Hopefully the Indian and Chinese archaeologists will furnish us with more serious studies of ceramic finds in adjoining Himalayan regions than what we have to date. Typological and fabric analysis based on modern archaeological methods is sorely called for if we are to achieve a better understanding of the cultural and technological elements involved. It is  essential that standard scientific techniques such as thermoluminescence (TL) dating, X-ray radiography, X-ray diffraction (XRD), scanning electron microscopy (SEM), and neutron activation analysis (NAA) are brought to bear on the study of the structure and composition of the ceramics discovered in Guge and Malari. It is only by undertaking these lines of inquiry that the method of firing, mineralogical composition of the clay and ceramic petrology (among other empirical parameters) can be known.
Despite the infancy of our field of study, some preliminary observations are in order. The masks and ceramic vessels underline a cultural relationship between Guge and Malari in the 100 BCE to 400 CE time frame. These two regions possessed similar technological skills (also encompassing iron implements and bronzeware) applied to the world of funerary rites and burial. My hunch is that the ceramics of Malari and Gurgyam were produced locally, as they exhibit significant differences as well as similarities. It is also inherently difficult to transport large numbers of ceramics over the Himalaya. As noted in last month’s newsletter, the evidence generally indicates that these regions shared certain cultural customs and traditions in common.
As for the burial of a yak hybrid in Malari, this is liable to be a constituent part of funerary rites carried out for the dead. The Dunhuang text Pt 1068 furnishes a fairly extensive account of the origins of the yak hybrid used to transport deceased women to the afterlife (see Zhang Zhung, pp. 538–542). In this colorful origins tale, composed circa the 9th century CE, a hybrid yak named Dzomo Drangma (Mdzo-mo drang-ma) is appointed by the funerary priest Durshen Mada (Dur-gshen rma-da) to assist a young girl who died under the most wretched of circumstances. Although this tale is explicitly set in “ancient times”, one should not conflate the older Malari burial with the contents of the text; significant ideological differences in these burial rites may possibly be indicated. Nevertheless, the custom of employing a yak hybrid as a funerary appliance extends to both spheres, strongly suggesting a Tibetic cultural orientation for the Malari burial.
The Malari and Chuthak golden masks are supposedly around 2000 or 2100 years old. If those dates hold up to further scrutiny, they suggest that these masks of sophisticated manufacture predate the cruder Samdzong and Gurgyam examples by three to five centuries (for descriptions and images of these masks, see last month’s newsletter). Continuing in this vein, it may be that the tradition of Himalayan and Tibetan golden burial masks was in decline by the 3rd to 5th centuries CE. In addition to cultural and technological transmissions from the west that appear to have informed the creation of the Shamsi and Boma masks touched upon by Sören Stark in the above article, provided the dates for the Malari and Chuthak masks are confirmed, it is worth pondering that a vector of cultural and artistic influence coming from Tibet and the Himalaya may also have had an impact on the development of north Inner Asian burial masks (one possible carrier northward from the Plateau were the Huns). Furthermore, the provisional chronology for the Malari and Chuthak masks could possibly be indicative of an earlier (Iron Age) Eurasian diffusion of golden burial masks, which also encompassed those of ancient Illyria, Thrace, and Greece. Enough of that now. I think readers will see there are many intriguing angles on the ancient burials of western Tibet and the Himalaya to explore in the years ahead.
Finally, it is worth mentioning Tibetan miniature copper alloy masks classed as thokcha (thog-lcags). The faces represented on this very rare group of artifacts are somewhat different in form from the golden burial masks but probably of comparable age. The thokcha masks appear to be talismanic in function but they may have had other uses as well, such as receptacles (rten) for personal protective spirits. For an image of one of these miniature masks, see the July 2010 Flight of the Khyung.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Some Qing Dynasty frescoes in a temple near Jia Xian

Helen Wang found a very interesting blog on the internet, called 

She made a selection of her own and I liked the following article from October 2013 very much...

Some Qing Dynasty frescoes in a temple near Jia Xian

I’ve been poking through a lot of temples lately, as every village in this area seems to have one or more small shrines, and they’re usually unlocked. I’d break down the contents of these temples as follows: 50% of it is recent trash, and not interesting. Another 40% is still recent trash, but zany, interesting trash. Another 9% is recent, but not trash, and well done. And a final 1% is old stuff, half-ruined, and gemlike. The following are from a small village temple in a valley near Jia Xian, Shaanxi (陕西佳县). To be honest I’m not going to say exactly which village, because old frescoes like this are quite valuable, and you could take them off the wall pretty easily with an exacto-knife. Also the gallery function on the blog seems to have turned into a gallery malfunction so until I can straighten that out I’m just going to post photos directly.
An inscription outside the temple says that it was renovated in the twenty-fourth year of the Guangxu reign, or 1899, which may or may not have been the year in which these frescoes were painted. Some of these drawings put me in mind of the Yuan dynasty depictions of Chingghis Khaghan, or, weirdly, Darius in the Pompeiian frescoes of Issus
The first set come from a chapel of the Jade Emperor, and contains his assorted ministers flanking him on three sides.
The second set are from the adjacent chapel, dedicated to the Guansheng Lord Emperor, or to give his full title from the spirit tablet, the Dark Thunderbolt King Respected Jade Emperor ‘Sage of the Passes’ Lord Emperor (玄雷王玉皇尊关圣帝君). The walls contain lively comic-book style illustrations.

Peshawar from the time of Aurel Stein and earlier

Ghanta Ghar (Cunningham Clock Tower), PeshawarIt was built in 1900 in commemoration of the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria. The clock tower was named the Cunningham Clock Tower after Sir George Cunningham, former British governor and political agent in the province.
Pic of Ghanta Ghar (Clock Tower), Peshawar - Old and rare photos of Peshawar
Peshawar Zoological Gardens, 1920s  
 Peshawar Photos - Rare Old image of Peshawar Zoological Gardens, 1920s
Caravan Serai, Peshawar, 1920
Old and rare Pictures of Peshawar; Caravan Serai, Peshawar, 1920 - Old and rare Photos of Peshawar, Rare Images of Peshawar
Edwards Gate, Peshawar – 1920
Photo of Edwards Gate, Peshawar - 1920, Old and rare photos of Peshawar
 British Infantry Lines Peshawar, 1910s
  Peshawar Photos - Rare Old image of British Infantry Lines Peshawar, 1910s
Saddar Bazaar Peshawar, 1910s
  Peshawar Photos - Rare Old image of Saddar Bazaar Peshawar, 1910s
Kissa (Qissa) Khawani Bazar, Peshawar – 1910
Photo of Kissa (Qissa) Khawani Bazar, Peshawar - 1910, Old and rare photos of Peshawa
The Duchess of Connaught Hospital, Peshawar, 1906 
The Duchess of Connaught Hospital, Peshawar, 1906 - Historical Old Pictures of Peshawar
A Caravan Arrived in Peshawar from Kabul – 1905
Photo of a caravan arrived in Peshawar from Kabul - 1905,  old and rare photos of Peshawar
Peshawar Zoo – 1890
Photo of Peshawar Zoo - 1890, Old and rare photos of Peshawar
North Entrance Gate of Peshawar City, 1880s
Extremely rare Pictures of Peshawar: North Entrance Gate of Peshawar City, 1880s - Old and rare Photos, Images of Peshawar
The Elephants Battery in Peshawar, 1880s 
Extremely rare Pictures of Peshawar: The Elephants Battery in Peshawar, 1880s - Old and rare Photos, Images of Peshawa
Jamrud Fort, at the Entrance of Khyber Pass, 1880s
Extremely rare Pictures of Peshawar: Jamrud Fort, at the entrance of Khyber Pass, 1880s - Old and rare Photos, Images of Peshawar
Kuki Khels Native Regiment, Peshawar, 1880s 
Extremely rare Pictures of Peshawar: Kuki Khels native Regiment, Peshawar, 1880s - Old and rare Photos, Images of Peshawar
Afridi Soldiers from Khyber Pass, 1887
Extremely rare Pictures of Peshawar: Afridi Soldiers from Khyber Pass, 1887 - Old and rare Photos, Images of Peshawar
Principal Street of Peshawar, 1886
Extremely rare Pictures of Peshawar: Principal Street of Peshawar, 1886 - Old and rare Photos, Images of Peshawar
The Tent of an Officer with Servants and Horses at Peshawar, 1883 
Extremely rare Pictures of Peshawar: The tent of an officer with servants and horses at Peshawar, 1883 - Old and rare Photos, Images of Peshawa
Pashtun Men with Governor and Deputy Governor, Outside Governor’s Compound, Peshawar, 1880
Extremely rare Pictures of Peshawar: Pashtun men with Governor and Deputy Governor, outside Governor's Compound, Peshawar, 1880 - Old and rare Photos, Images of Peshawar
View of Peshawar and St. John’s Church, 1878. Photograph of Peshawar, with a view across the cantonment towards St. John’s Church and the distant mountains of the Khyber Pass, taken in 1878 by John Burke.
Peshawar Photos - Rare Old image of Peshawar and St. Johns Church, 1878
Khyber Chiefs with a British Political Officer at Jamrud Fort, 1878. Extremely rare Photos of Khyber Chiefs with a British Political Officer, Captain Tucker, at Jamrud Fort, at the mouth of Khyber Pass
Extremely rare Pictures of Peshawar:  Khyber Chiefs with a British Political Officer at Jamrud Fort, 1878 - Old and rare Photos, Images of Peshawar.
Peshawar Fort – 1878GT (Grand Trunk) Road is in the foreground.
Photo of Peshawar Fort - 1878, old and rare photos of Peshawar
A Market in Peshawar, Photo taken between 1860s to 1880s 
Extremely rare Pictures of Peshawar: A Market in Peshawar, Photo taken between 1860s to 1880s - Old and rare Photos, Images of Peshawa
Peshawar Bazar – 1865
Photo of Peshawar Bazar - 1865, old and rare photos of Peshawar

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Buried in Sands: Environmental Analysis at the Archaeological Site of Xiaohe Cemetery, Xinjiang, China July 22, 2013


Palynomorphs extracted from the mud coffins and plant remains preserved at the archaeological site of Xiaohe Cemetery (Cal. 3980 to 3540 years BP) in Lop Nur Desert of Xinjiang, China were investigated for the reconstruction of the ancient environments at the site. The results demonstrate that the Xiaohe People lived at a well-developed oasis, which was surrounded by extensive desert. The vegetation in the oasis consisted of PopulusPhragmites, Typha and probably of Gramineae, while the desert surrounding the oasis had some common drought-resistant plants dominated by EphedraTamarixArtemisia and Chenopodiaceae. This present work provides the first data of the environmental background at this site for further archaeological investigation.


Ethics Statement

All necessary permits were obtained for the described field studies and were granted by the Xinjiang Cultural Relics and Archaeology Institute.


In the past Xinjiang formed an important bridge connecting the Eastern and Western races of Eurasian continents and became famous for the ancient Silk Road going to Central Asia and Eastern Europe from China.
Consequently, the archaeological discoveries in this area are always of great interest (e.g. Loulan City). Signs of human activities can be traced in Xinjiang for 10,000 years [1]. Stone tools discovered at the site of Astana are nearly 5000 years old [2]. Many cemeteries were discovered since the 1970s, such as the Gumugou Cemetery (around 3800 B.P.) [3], Wufu Cemetery in the Hami District with an age of nearly 3300-3000 years old [4]. During the period from 3000 to 2000 B.P., a group of people lived in the Turpan Basin and adjacent area, and their different cemeteries, such as the Yanghai Tombs (ca. 2800 B.P.) [5], Yuergou Site (2400-2300 B.P.) [1], as well as many much younger sites, reveal much about the lives and beliefs of these peoples.
Many mummies were found well-preserved in this area, owing to the dryness of the desert and the desiccation of the corpses [6]. The fantastic mummies and the delicate relics from the archaeological sites in Xinjiang, including the artifacts and crops, can tell us amazing stories: what the world looked like at any given point in time and space [7]. The plant remains found at these sites provided an opportunity to study the ancient plants and their utilization by local people, as well as their bearing on environmental changes in the past. Some archaeobotanical researches have been done in Xinjiang in the past few years, mainly focusing on the relationship between plants and people [5,810] and also on the environmental data extracted from artifacts [11,12]. In the present contribution, the palynomorphs extracted from the mud coffins and plant remains found at Xiaohe Cemetery are investigated comprehensively for the reconstruction of the historical environments in Xiaohe.

Site description

The Xiaohe (“Small River”) Cemetery was first discovered in 1911 by an aboriginal hunter named Ördek who played a part in Dr. Sven Hedin’s discovery of the Loulan ruins around 1910-1911 [13]. Two decades later, a Swedish archaeologist Folke Bergman, coined the name for this graveyard, and excavated 12 burials guided by Ördek in 1934 [13]. After that, the cemetery was forgotten for more than sixty years until the Relics and Archaeology Institute of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region excavated this graveyard in detail in 2002 [14]. The rediscovery of Xiaohe Cemetery was considered to be one of the top ten archaeological discoveries in 2004 in China. About 170 tombs have been excavated since then, but unfortunately many of them were destroyed by treasure hunters.
The Xiaohe Cemetery, with an area of about 2500 m2, is some 4 km away from the Small River (Xiaohe, in Chinese), a downstream branch of Kongque River in Lop Desert (Figure 1) [15], and also about 175 km east of the Loulan ancient city in Xinjiang [14]. With its hillock shape the Xiaohe Cemetery forms a well-defined landmark on the flat desert. The top of the cemetery possesses many upright wild poplar poles and more fallen ones [13] (Figure 2). These poles were thought to be the remains of a house which had lost its roof a long time ago [13]. Two main kinds of trunks stood in the cemetery, i.e. the multi-prismatic shaped poles (= pole monuments in Bergman, 1939 [13]) are all placed in front of females’ tombs and the oar-shaped ones (= oar-like monuments in Bergman, 1939 [13]) in front of those of males. Some archaeologists inferred that these poles were the symbols of fertility worship of Xiaohe People [13]. The multi-prismatic shaped poles represent the phallus and the oar-shaped ones represent a vulva.
Figure 1.  Map showing the Lop Region and the location of Xiaohe Cemetery (modified from [13]).
Figure 2.  Plan diagram of the Xiaohe Cemetery.
(a) mud coffin BM28; (b) mud coffin BM 1; (c) mud coffin M100; (d) mud coffin M75 (plan in top left corner revised from [14]).
Most of the coffins, which are made from the wood of Populus euphratica Oliv., have an elliptical shape. However, some coffins are rectangular in shape and covered by a layer of mud. These are called “mud coffins” (Figure 3a). The result of 14C dating revealed that the age of the lowest layer of Xiaohe Cemetery is 3980 ± 40 yr BP [16], which is the oldest archaeological dating record in Xinjiang. Desiccated wheat grains from the cemetery were dated to approximately 3760–3540 yr BP [17]. Hence, the currently known age of Xiaohe Cemetery is about 3980 to 3540 yr BP, which was between early Xia (2070–1600 BC) to early Shang Dynasty (1600–1046 BC) in China, i.e. early Bronze Age. Many well-preserved mummies were found in this cemetery. Bergman described a lady with very strong European characters (e.g. brown hair, fine aquiline nose). DNA analysis from 30 mummies found here also demonstrated that the Xiaohe People were a West-East admixed population, which constitutes the earliest genetic evidence for an admixed population settled in the Tarim Basin [16].
Figure 3.  The mud coffin M75 (a); sample collected from the coffin (b); and the leaves of Populus euphratica found in the grave (c to f).

Materials and Methods

In 2003, we completed our archaeological research at the site of the Xiaohe Cemetery and collected four mud samples from each of the mud coffins (BM-1, BM-28, BM-75 and M-100) (Figure 2, 3 b) for laboratory study. Meanwhile, we also collected many leaves of Peuphraticain one of the tombs with poplar remains (Figure 3 c–f).
In the laboratory, we first weighed 30 grams of each sample and put them into beakers with distilled water containing 1 milliliter of a suspension of Lycopodium spores (ca. 83,500 grains per milliliter). After immersion for 48 hours, the samples were sieved using a mesh with the pore size of 1 mm2. The residue was mainly composed of macrobotanical remains and livestock hairs (Figure 4 c). The screenings were prepared for a palynological study using the heavy liquid method [18]. We counted the contents of three slides from each specimen to obtain a representative sample of the palynomorphs (Table 1).
Figure 4.  Other materials found from the samples. (a) straws; (b) piece of sheep manure; (c) livestock hairs.
Sample No.ChenopodiaceaeArtermisiaEphedraCorylusAlnusTyphaGramineaeUnknownLycopodium spores
Table 1.  Pollen counting data of the samples.

Results and Discussion

Palynological analysis

Totally, 96 pollen grains, belonging to nine types of palynomorphs, were found in the four palynological samples (Table 1) and all taxa were identified applying single-grain technique [19] (Figure 5Figure 6; the only pollen grain of Alnus was lost during the preparation for the scanning electronic microscope). Most of the taxa are common in arid areas (e.g. ChenopodiaceaeArtemisiaEphedraTamarix and Gramineae). Chenopodiaceae is well-adapted to dry and saline environments. Artemisia normally grows in arid or semi-arid habitats. Ephedra is a common shrub of dry, open sites and is predominantly a warm desert-steppe plant restricted to both meteorologically and physiologically dry areas [20]. Tamarix is one of the most common woody plants in Xinjiang [21]. Gramineae pollen grains are often used as an indicator of openness. However, these grass pollen are one of the most ubiquitous and readily recognized pollen types found in terrestrial sediments. Although these monoporate grains differ in size, surface texture and annular width, these features do not permit reliable recognition at the subfamily level [22]. Moreover, the pollen wall of Gramineae is thin, and is low in sporopollenin, hence has a poor preservational potential [23]. These factors suggest that the pollen cannot be transported far and are easily damaged when buried in soil. However, based on the number of reeds (Phragmites sp.) found in the graves, it seems reasonable to believe that most of the Gramineae pollen in our samples belong to PhragmitesCorylus and Alnus, as wind-pollinated taxa very readily overproduce airborne pollen grains, and are the normal elements found in lake sediments and soil. The grains of these two taxa may come from the forests on the mountains surrounding the study areas.
Figure 5.  Palynomorphs found from the samples collected from the mud coffin.
The first column shows pollen grains under light microscope; the middle column shows the previous grains under the scanning electronic microscope; and the last column shows the surface details under scanning electronic microscope. (a) Ephedra; (b) Typha; (c) Artemisia; (d) Chenopodiaceae.
Figure 6.  Palynomorphs found in the samples collected from the mud coffin.
The first column shows pollen grains under light microscope; the middle column shows the previous grains under the scanning electronic microscope; and the last column shows the surface details under scanning electronic microscope. (a) Gramineae; (b) Corylus; (c) Tamarix.
Compared with the taxa mentioned above, the presence of Typha pollen in the assemblage is more interesting. As an aquatic, Typha can normally live in a variety of wetland habitats, and their pollen grains can be frequently found in peat and lignite beds [24]. Hence the occurrence of Typha pollen illustrates that there was surface water close to the Xiaohe People’s residence. The mud which covered the coffins may have been obtained from the habitat of the Typha.

Plant remains

At a traditional funeral in China, people always put something precious into the coffin and/or grave, in the hope that the dead person can live better with these objects in another world. Those relics found in tombs provide us with an opportunity to learn about the culture of the ancient people and the environment in which they lived.
Several kinds of plant remains were found during the first excavation of the cemetery by Bergman, i.e. the poles made of Populus euphraticaEphedra twigs, Tamarix twigs, grains of bread wheat (Triticum aestivum) [17], Jiji grass (Achnatherum splendens), reed (Phragmitessp.) and grains of broomcorn millet (Panicum miliaceum) [13,14,17]. DNA analysis of the wheat grains confirms that the grains found here are similar to hexaploid bread wheat [17]. As broomcorn millet grains always show up together with wheat grains in the graves [14,17], we can presume that broomcorn millet was also cultivated by then. Populus euphratica is the characteristic element of the common desert riparian forest in Northwest China [25]. As a common shrub with medicinal function, Ephedra was considered as a magic plant by the Lop people. Also, it is very common to find Ephedra branches in most of the graves of the ancient Lop people in the Lop Nur area, such as LF, LS and LD graveyards [26], Cemetery 36 [26], Gumugou cemetery [27] and graveyards around Loulan ancient city [28]. Some Chinese archaeologists suggest that this phenomenon is a kind of plant worship and call it ephedra worship [27,28]. The medical use of Ephedra has been known for several thousand years in China. As a central nervous excitant, ephedra was also used in ceremonies to produce feelings of exhilaration by various religious groups including Hindus [29]. As an ingredient of Haoma or Soma, ephedra has been used for millennia in both Iran and India [30] as a beverage to achieve longevity and immortality [31]. The intention of putting tamarisk twigs in the burials has never been studied yet. The grains of wheat (Triticum aestivum) were normally found together with the ephedra twigs (or fragments) in graves [28]. Moreover, some dried porridge of millet was also preserved in some graves [13]. These plant remains indicate that wheat and millet were also very precious for the ancient people.

Other plant and animal matter

The straws (Figure 4 a) found in the mud samples were used to reinforce the mud for construction purposes. This technique is still widely used in the countryside of China. These straws may have originated from wheat and/or millet. The appearance of the livestock hairs (Figure 4 b) and the sheep manure (Figure 4 c) in the samples illustrates that the earth used to make the covering layer of the coffins must have been obtained from a place frequented by the animals. The occurrence of many/numerous bones and furs in the Xiaohe Cemetery [13,14], suggests that some of the Xiaohe People were living as herdsmen.

Environmental analysis

Based on the plant analyses presented above, the presence of both xerophytic and hydrophytic plants (e.g. Typha) demonstrate that there was enough water in the Small River at that time though it lies in the expansive Lop Desert.
In the surrounding desert, there were many EphedraTamarixArtemisia and some members of the Chenopodiaceae plants. The people apparently collected the ephedra and Tamarix for medicinal or religious use from the neighboring arid terrains. However when the people lived there the site was a well-watered wetland along the Small River. There the rich alluvial soils of the flooded areas served to support the growth of their crops, and provide areas where livestock could be sustained/raised. Moreover, this location was the habitat of the common Populus euphratica which served in the construction of their houses and coffins. So although the regional natural environment was very dry, the hydrological living conditions were good enough along the small river for the Xiaohe People to survive.


Much research has shown that the climate in the Lop Nur region has been very dry since the Early Holocene [3234]. However, the so-called dry climate is actually a kind of meteorological myth. Fed by melt-water from the Tianshan Mountain, the runoffs of the rivers into the Tarim Basin are actually quite considerable, especially in summer time. Many oases depend on such seasonal rivers. During 3600-3000 a BP, the lake of Lop Nur was very large and there were many deltas around it. Fishing and hunting were very common at that time [35]. According to historical documents, the water area of Lop Nur was still very large during the Jin Dynasty (AD 226-420) [36].
Based on this work, the living environment of the Xiaohe People was a very well developed oasis of deltas, which was surrounded by extensive desert. The main taxa of the vegetation in the oasis were Populus euphraticaPhragmites, Typha and maybe other weedy Gramineae. However, outside the oasis, drought-resistant taxa dominated the vegetation, e.g. EphedraTamarixArtemisia and members of the Chenopodiaceae.
The Xiaohe People mainly lived on animal husbandry. However, they also attempted to cultivate cereals such as bread wheat and broomcorn millet. Most of the coffins in the cemetery are canoe-shaped, which may suggest that the Xiaohe People spent some of their lives on water. Bergman [13] inferred that because there are no known settlements near the cemetery, the people probably lived somewhere else along the river and reached the cemetery by boats.


We are grateful to the colleagues from Xinjiang Cultural Relics and Archaeology Institute for their kind help during the fieldwork. The authors thank Senior Engineer Nai-qiu Du for her help with laboratory work. Thanks also due to Prof. David Ferguson (University of Vienna) and Dr. Hong-En Jiang (University of Chinese Academy of Sciences) for their constructive suggestions. We are greatly indebted to the editor and the two anonymous reviewers for their critical revision of an earlier version of this manuscript.

Author Contributions

Conceived and designed the experiments: JFL CSL IA. Performed the experiments: JFL. Analyzed the data: JFL FMH WYL XJH YZL. Contributed reagents/materials/analysis tools: IA WYL CSL. Wrote the manuscript: JFL CSL. 


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