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Secrets of the Silk Road (Bowers Museum, Santa Ana): Museum notes and sketches taken 7/17/10

Being a transcription, expansion, and commentary on my notes and sketches taken at the above-mentioned exhibition. I have, I confess, focused only on those display items of particular interest to me, specifically the clothing. There were a number of other textiles in the exhibit that don't get discussed here because they were fragmentary or were furnishings rather than clothing.

The Sketchbook Pages

Catalog #53 - Draped wooden figure, ca. 1800-1500 BC, Xiaohe Cemetery, Charqiliq (Ruoqiang) County
Catalog #61 - "The Beauty of Xiaohe", ca. 1800-1500 BC
Catalog #64 - Woolen cloak, ca. 1800-1500 BC, Xiaohe Cemetery 5, Charqilik
Catalog #49 - Felt hat, ca. 1800-1500 BC, Xiaohe Cemetery 5, Charqilik

Catalog #31-1 - Felt hat, 5-3rd c. BC, Tomb #3, Zaghunluq, Chärchän
Catalog #32 - Pullover skirted dress, 5-3rd c. BC, Tomb #55 of Cemetery #1, Zaghunluq, Chärchän

Catalog #36-2 - Woolen robe, 5-3rd c. BC, Tomb #14, Subeshi Cemetery, Pichan
Catalog #78 - Woman's headdress, 5-3rd c. BC, Subeshi Cemetery, Pichan

Catalog #42 - Wool trousers, 2nd c. BC-2nd c. CE, Tomb #2, Sampul, Lop
Catalog #38 - Tapestry wall hanging used as trouser legs, 2nd c. BC-2nd c. CE, Tomb #2, Sampul, Lop

Catalog #70 - Silk funeral robe, 1-2nd c., Gutai Cemetery, outskirts of Loulan City
Catalog #72 - Half-sleeved silk robe, 2nd-4th c., north of Ancient Loulan City
Catalog #73 - Silk robe, 3-4th c., north of Ancient Loulan City

Catalog #86 - Purse, 2-4th c., Tomb #5 of Cemetery #1, Niya
Catalog #88 - Silk robe, 2-4th c., Tomb #3 of Cemetery #1, Niya
Catalog #89 - Brocade mittens, 2-4th c., Tomb #3 of Cemetery #1, Niya
Catalog #83 - Tapestry boots, 2-3rd c., Tomb #5 of Cemetery #1, Niya

Catalog #2 - "Yingpan Man", 3-4th c. - overview

Catalog #31-2 - Brocade hat, 10-11th c., Alar Cemetery, Rouqiang, Charqilik
Catalog #36-1 - Silk robe with goat design, 10-11th c., Alar Cemetery, Rouqiang, Charqilik

Background Material and Discussion


As most of my visitors and readers know, I have a long-term and wide-ranging project to study the cut and construction of surviving pre-modern garments, especially from Europe and the Mediterranean area. But my interests spread to surviving early garments and textiles in general and I'm more than happy to delve into other regions, especially if there are connections that shed light on general topics in early garment construction or on cultures that might have influenced and been influenced by those of the West.

While occasional chance survivals of individual garments have a great deal to tell us, the richest treasures are assemblages of entire sets of grave goods -- not only complete suits of clothing, but other everyday accessories and tools. These are preserved only when both funerary practices and environmental conditions combine favorably. There are several regions in central Asia that produced the right combination of circumstances. In the Tarim Basin an exceedingly dry climate (combined with very cold winters that helped with a "freeze-drying" effect) and in some locations a high salt content in the soil (due to the region being a dead-end basin for a vast drainage basin, similarly to Utah's Great Salt Lake) not only preserved textiles and other normally perishable goods, but resulted in the accidental mummification of a variety of human remains. (That is, the earliest mummies appear to have been accidental -- some later ones show a few traces of deliberate action to aid mummification.)

In the neighboring Altai Mountains, burials by the Pazyryk culture were preserved purely by the permanent frozen state of the ground. [Phillips 1965] Similarly well-preserved, textile-rich burials in Mongolia are found at Noin Ula in a 1st c. BCE tomb. [ibid, Rudenko 1969] For archaeological purposes, the three aforementioned regions (Tarim Basin, Altai Mountains, Noin Ula) also benefitted from being relatively sparsely populated (in global terms) which reduced the occasions for both chance and deliberate destruction of the remains. They also provide a fascinating set of comparisons for clothing construction ... but here I must draw back from the brink of the much vaster topic of archaeological clothing in Asia in general and will return to it only for brief references for specific garments.

Another garment-rich site I'll be drawing comparisons from is Moščevaja Balka, at one of the western ends of the Silk Road on the north-eastern side of the Black Sea, with material from the 7-9th centuries. [Ierusalimskaya 1996] The connection of this site with those further east along the Silk Road is not merely theoretical. There is significant overlap of the types of fabrics found in both regions (covering both fabrics of Chinese origin and those of Near Eastern origin) as well as the more direct evidence of business documents in Chinese from one of the sites.

And so, back to the Tarim Basin.

On Geography and Copyediting (A Rant)

Trying to pin down and keep track of the geography of the various sites and to label them at the appropriate level of specificity has been frustrating. This is not simply because of pervasive spelling/typographical issues -- both in terms of different transcription systems for the several languages involved, and in terms of some really, really bad proofreading of the display cards and exhibition catalog -- but also because there are problems of consistency in how the locations are indicated.

One set of examples should suffice to point out the issues. Catalog items 36-1 and 31-2 are both from the 10-11th c. Alar Cemetery with the exhibition catalog indicating that the first is located in relation to "Rouqiang (Charqilik) County" and the second to "Rouqiang (Charqilik County)". The exhibit cards, on the other hand, use the spelling "Ruoqiang" which aligns with what the rest of the world seems to use. A little research turns up the information that Ruoqiang and Charqilik (or Chaqiliq, or Charkliq, or Qakilik) are synonymous with respect to the county name, but Ruoqiang can also refer to the town that's the county seat of Ruoqiang County. The exhibition catalog uses "Chaqiliq" on the map showing the various sites but doesn't make clear whether this is the location of the Alar Cemetery. In fact, other than the very brief catalog entries in the exhibition catalog, I haven't been able to find any text referring to the Alar Cemetery at all. (It may simply be hiding -- the introductory matter is rather non-linearly organized.) I'm starting to wonder how accepted/correct the spelling "Charqilik" is at all, given that the only Google hits for it are either sites specifically associated with the "Secrets of the Silk Road" exhibition or pages from my own journal and web site pages about the exhibition. The spelling is certainly in the same ballpark as ones found, for example, in the Wikipedia entry for the county, but I have to wonder if, like Rouqiang, it isn't simply an isolated typo that's being propagated throughout the exhibit publications. I've retained the spelling Charqilik in my notes simply because they are a record of the exhibition, but hopefully this discussion will provide sufficient variety of search terms that more common spellings will find my site.

So, in summary, I apologize for any errors, inconsistencies, and ambiguities in the geographic information on this site. But I decline to take 100% of the blame on myself.

Geography of the Artifacts

The following map shows my best approximation of the location of the various clothing find groups. (This map is an adaptation of an image available at Wikipedia that is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license and is therefore also covered by the same Creative Commons license. Note that this applies only to the image of the map and not to any other part of this article.)

map of archaeological sites

The Clothing Groupings

Group 1: Xiaohe Cemetery, Charqiliq (Ruoqiang) County, 1800-1500 BCE

[I was previously confused and thought the mummy nicknamed "the Beauty of Xiaohe" was an alternate name for the one nicknamed "the Beauty of Loulan". They are two different burials from this same site and era -- this seems simply to be a popular nickname formula.]

There is a collection of Bronze Age cemeteries along the Small River, a seasonal tributary of the Konqi River, just west of Loulan City. It isn't clear to me whether the name Xiaohe refers only to the Cemetery #5 site or to the entire group of cemeteries. In rescue excavations (due to problems with looting) between 2002-2005 a vast array of artifacts were recovered from 167 graves, including 30 well-preserved mummies dating to 2000-1450 BCE. The specific items covered here were more narrowly from 1800-1500 BCE.

Interestingly, the burials with the highest status were for women. Even more curiously, there are a handful of burials containing wooden models rather than an actual body (and all of men) but dressed and accompanied the same as the real burials.

Catalog #53 is a typical example, with the figure dressed in a simple wrap-around garment of white wool, pinned peplos-style on the shoulders with what look to be full-sized wooden dress pins and tied around the waist with a loosely-plied cord of reddish wool. He also wears earrings.

A similar but even simpler carved figure (Catalog #59, not included in sketches) is similarly wrapped in a pinned and belted woolen garment. His garment includes some reddish-brown stripes in the white woolen fabric and his white wool belt is a flat multi-strand braid rather than a plied cord. He also wears a white felt cap, tied under the chin with braided cords. There are several places at the chest where his garment is tied into small "pockets" in the same manner as is used in full-size garments where the pockets contain ephedra and other plant material.

The centerpiece of this display is the mummified woman nicknamed the "Beauty of Xiaohe" (Catalog #61). She has long, loose auburn hair covered with a white felt cap that is tied under her chin and has a tuft of ornamental feathers stuck into it, similarly to the hat that is Catalog #49. She wears somewhat rough fur-lined leather boots that I wasn't able to record in much detail. Her main garment is a full-length rectangular cloak wrapped around her and pinned at the chest with two wooden pins. I don't have enough information to make a guess at whether there's a meaningful difference between the male statuettes with their garments pinned at the shoulders and the female body with the garment pinned at the chest, that is, whether this is a gender distinction or a statue vs. body distinction or free variation. Described in the literature, although not visible in the display, she also wears under her cloak a "string skirt", i.e., a woven belt with a long hanging fringe of red and white woolen cords. This is reminiscent of the "string skirts" found at various 14th c. BCE sites in Denmark. I'm less willing than Elizabeth Barber to conclude that the Danish and Xiaohe garments are part of a single, unified cultural practice (much less her idea that this is some sort of pan-Eurasian practice that can be traced from the Neolithic all the way up through modern folk costume). But the visual resemblance is definitely curious.

A more elaborate hat is displayed as Catalog #49, comprising a slightly truncated cone of white felt, decorated with red cords, weasel skins, and a cockade of feathers and featuring red cords to tie it under the wearer's chin.

The final sketch in this group is another rectangular blanket/wrap-garment (Catalog #64) similar to the one in #61. The discussion of the textiles in the exhibition catalog suggests that the stripes in these two textiles are based on different natural colors of the wool, but they appeared to me to be based entirely on different textures and densities of the thread (i.e., alternations between a band of finer, more tightly spun, more densely packed threads and a band of larger, looser, less dense threads). Item #64 does have a dark warp and white weft, but the stripes in the weft are entirely textural.

Not Included in Sketches: Zaghunluq, Chärchän, 8th c. BCE

Of the group of mummified burials from Zaghunluq that formed the focus of Elizabeth Barber's The Mummies of Ürümchi [Barber 1999], only the infant was included in this exhibition. The earlier publication dates this group and at least some of the items in the following Zaghunluq group to ca. 1000 BCE but they seem to have been more narrowly dated and to somewhat later dates now.

I didn't include the infant in my sketches partially because I knew I already had excellent photographs of it but mainly because there were no construction details that I wanted to record in detail. The textiles consist of a reddish-brown blanket wrapped around the body and tied with a loosely spun two-ply woolen cord of red and blue, and a loosely felted cap of red (underlayer) and blue (overlayer) on the head. The garments of the adults in this assemblage are fascinating, but you can buy the book and as they weren't in the display I have no information to add on construction. (However they are included in the general timeline below.)

Group 2: Zaghunluq, Chärchän, 5th - 3rd c. BCE

The same site as the previous but items dated somewhat later. There was evidently quite an assembly of assorted hats from this site, including the peaked felt style represented by Catalog #31-1. The other item from this site and era is a child's pull-over dress (Catalog #32) that is unparalleled by any of the other garments in the exhibit. The basic structure is a "T-tunic" with a slightly flared skirt, but the upper portion (starting at a somewhat high waistline) is formed by piecing large patches of red, white, and a red and blue check. I don't have enough information on the earlier women's garments from Zaghunluq to know whether it is similar to them in style.

Group 3: Subeshi Cemetery, Pichan, 5th - 3rd c. BCE

Although they were not included in the display, this site included several well-preserved mummies. The catalog mentions men with leather leggings and woolen trousers, and women with tall peaked black hats, fur-lined cloaks, and multi-colored woolen skirts. (There's a sketch of one of the women in Barber 1999.) In addition to one of the tall peaked headdresses for which the site is most famous (Catalog #78) the exhibition includes a front-opening woolen coat or robe with very interesting decorative cording on the seams (Catalog #36-2). Chronologically it seems to represent the tail end of the center-front opening woolen robes (also seen at Zaghunluq), with the caftan-style (overlapping-front) appearing by the start of the Common Era.

Group 4: Sampul, Lop, 2nd c. BCE - 2nd c. CE

Sampul was a major oasis on the southern route around the Tarim Basin with a cemetery dating around the 1st c. BCE. Both items from in the display from this site are trousers: a very plain pair that from which construction details can be discerned (Catalog #42) and a rectangle of tapestry of Near Eastern origin that had been made up into the leg of a pair of trousers of similar construction (Catalog #38).

Group 5: Loulan City area, various dates in the 1st - 4th c. CE

During the Han Dynasty (ca. 2nd c. BCE to 2nd c. CE) the walled city of Loulan, capital of the kingdom of that name, was the first stop when heading west out of China and a junction for the northern and southern routes around the Tarim desert. By the 4th c. the ancient walled city had been functionally abandoned. One set of cemeteries in the vicinity of Loulan dates to the Bronze Age and is discussed in Group 1 above. This present group of artifacts dates from the end of the city's career when Han influences are widespread throughout the culture. The three garments in this group are wildly different in nature, although all fall generally in the category of "caftan-style robe".

Of particular interest is the miniature robe identified as a "funeral robe" (Catalog #70). A similar item was buried with the Yingpan Man and the catalog suggests that it was intended as grave goods for the afterlife. I couldn't help but make a mental connection (whether or not there is any cultural connection) with an assortment of miniature garments found at the 7-9th c. Moščevaja Balka site at a western end of the Silk Road. Ierusalimskaya labels them as "doll clothing" [Ierusalimskaya 1996] Those items were also found in graves (evidently with no actual dolls accompanying them) and follow the same styles and construction (if in simplified form) of the full-size garments from the same site.

The colorful child's robe (Catalog #72) is the item in this exhibit I feel most inspired to try to re-create, simply because of its complexity and unusual details. The third item is a plain white silk caftan with painted designs (Catalog #73).

Group 6: Cemetery #1, Niya, 2nd - 4th c. CE

The city of Niyä lies about midway along the southern side of the Tarim Basin where the Niyä River strikes out into the desert. The archaeological remains include structures as well as cemeteries. The garments here come from two specific graves and like many of the remains show strong Chinese influences.

Mallory & Mair (2000) refer to the two people associated with these graves as a "couple" and imply a common gravesite, but there are two tomb numbers given, so it isn't clear precisely what the physical relationships of the finds were. The display items from Tomb #3 include:

Tomb #5 includes:

Discussions elsewhere in the exhibition catalog indicate that Tomb #3 held a woman and #5 held a man, however Mallory & Mair 2000 described the checkered robe as being worn by the man with the woman wearing something in blue with wavy yellow lines (which description matches the fabric of the face-cloth and mittens from tomb 5). Furthermore, the pair are photographed together as Plate IX of Mallory & Mair 2000, which shows the checkered robe and blue and yellow face cloth on one body and the dogwood-pattern face cloth on the other body. So when it comes down to it, I really have no idea which artifacts go together with which individual.

Group 7: Yingpan, 3rd - 4th c. CE

The "Yingpan Man" is the most complete assemblage of clothing of any of the displayed material, although because the mummy is presented as found, many of the details of the clothing construction are not visible. In addition to being rich in information, this tomb is economically rich in its contents, including gold foil ornaments on some of the clothing (although the lack of wear may indicate that these are special-purpose grave garments rather than everyday ones). The grave goods included a bow and arrows and a cut-glass bowl likely to have come from Syria. The motifs on the fabric of his caftan indicate a western origin for the textile as well. Based on various clues, one theory identifies him as a Sogdian trader (i.e., from slightly farther west along the Silk Road after leaving the Tarim Basin).

Group 8: Alar Cemetery, Ruoqiang Charqiliq, 10-11th c.

Unfortunately, the exhibition catalog fails to discuss this site in any identifiable way (see the rant above). Wikipedia provides information that suggests one possibility, but this is inconsistent with the catalog's identification of the location as Ruoqiang/Charqiliq.

Timeline of the Artifacts

To get a sense of the relative chronology of the material in the various groups described above, here are several timelines. The first shows the approximate time-span of the artifacts from each of the sites.

The next two timelines show the distribution of various fiber and weave types, and of the major color groupings. These are necessarily incomplete and over-simplified.

timeline of fabrics

timeline of colors

Comparative Garment Construction

This is going to be just the barest, most superficial discussion of how the various garments in the exhibition related to other surviving garments of vaguely similar era and vaguely similar geography that I'm aware of.

Three big caveats here:

My focal interest is garments of Europe and the Mediterranean; I am extremely ignorant with respect to historic garments of Asia of pretty much any era. I am ignorant regarding the amount and nature of the surviving material available. I am ignorant regarding how that material fits into visual artistic traditions and the larger cultural and historic picture. All I can do is make a very few connections with the artifacts from a handful of sites that I've stumbled across in the context of my other interests and that caught my interest for one reason or another. The similarities I point out to specific western garments are meant to be typological only and not to imply any specific cultural connection or transmission.

The Tarim Basin material in this particular exhibition -- and even when including the garments mentioned or depicted in other English-language publications on the topic that I've had access to -- are evidently a very small percentage of the artifacts available from this region. Based on various discussions in the exhibition catalog, I'd say that less than 1% of the well-preserved garments (to say nothing of more fragmentary textiles) have been published in even the most cursory fashion in English-language contexts. (I have no way of easily investigating what may have been published in Chinese.) And I don't know to what extent the exhibition and publications have presented a representative selection of material or one that is focused on unusual or particularly striking items or some other focus entirely.

And finally, my occasional snide comments aside, I caution the reader to beware of placing too much weight on specific descriptive details of these artifacts. My own observations are an amateur's take on items seen on the other side of plexiglass. But I also have serious questions about some of the descriptions in the exhibition catalog, as well as being wary of trusting entirely in other published descriptions based on a handful of clearly inaccurate details and interpretations. The definitive analysis of these artifacts has yet to be done.

Bronze Age Garments

(I've included these all together rather than separating them into garment types as I did with the other material.)

The garments from the Bronze Age burials don't have any obvious structural connections with later garments in the region. The large rectangular blanket wrapped around the "Beauty of Xiaohe" should probably be interpreted as serving as a shroud rather than arranged as a garment might have been, but the wrapped and pinned garments on the male figurines provide a suggestions of how the same object might have been worn. The rectangular fabric is folded in half, with the fold running vertically on one side of the body and fringed edges meeting, perhaps overlapping on the other side of the body. The front and back parts are overlapped slightly at the shoulders and two spindle-like wooden pins fasten front and back together on each shoulder. The carved figures don't have arms, so the garments don't need to be arranged around them, but presumably top edge of the folded side fits under the arm. The garment is then tied around the waist with a twisted or braided belt. At the open edge of the upper front part of the garment, the fabric may be tied to form "pockets". The general style of this garment can be compared to the classical Greek chiton in its simplest form.

For the hats, see the general discussion of hats below.

The female burial is wearing shoes of a style I wasn't able to analyze closely.

Although not visible in the display (possibly not present?), the clothing discussion in the exhibition catalog indicates that the female figure in #61 wore a woven woolen belt with a long hanging fringe, described by Barber as a "string skirt". (It isn't clear whether Barber saw this type of garment in person or is describing it from published sketches by Sylwan 1941 and Bergman 1939.) Evidently the woman who wore the weasel hat (Catalog #49) wore a variant of this garment, with the fringe knotted around the belt rather than woven into it. One of the male burials from the same cemetery as Catalog #61 wore a woven belt with long fringed tassels on the knotted ends. Although Barber draws connections with the Bronze Age "string skirts" in Danish burials and the visual similarity is worth noting, I'm not at all convinced by her theory of a vast and causally connected cultural practice.

Closed Tunics

One basic difference in body garments is between those that are closed all around and put on by pulling over the head, and those that are open at the front and put on like a coat.

One of the women accompanying the 8th-7th c. BCE Chärchän Man (from Zaghunluq) wears a long-sleeved, calf-length garment that looks like it may be of the closed-tunic type, but the construction details aren't particularly visible. (Barber 1999, Mallory & Mair 2000)

The exhibition Catalog #32, a 5th-3rd c. BCE girl's tunic from Zaghunluq, is a more elaborately constructed closed tunic, although it's hard to determine how much of the complexity is due to the patchwork piecing and how much to underling design. The basic structure could be two rectangular panels, front and back, with triangular gussets inserted in the side skirts and tubular sleeves added into unshaped armscyes. But the way in which the piecing clearly distinguishes between the skirt and upper "bodice" portion suggests that the idea of waist seams may be starting to appear.

The 5th-3rd c. BCE Subeshi woman pictured in Mallory & Mair (2000) also appears to wear a closed tunic-like garment, although very little of it is visible.

The 3rd-4th c. CE Yingpan Man wears some garment under his outer caftan-style coat that has no visible center opening, but no significant details of its construction are otherwise visible. It's also possible that the item is not a full garment but more of a decorative "dickie" type item, since it is decorated with the same gilded appliqued ornaments as his boots, and the catalog opines that the lack of wear on the boots suggests they were purpose-made funerary garments.

All of the closed tunics from the Moščevaja Balka catalog are identified as female garments, although it isn't explicit whether this is a universal pattern or an accident of the items selected for publication. The garments are of linen with silk trimming the necks, cuffs, and in a lozenze-shaped patch on the breast. The cut appears to be an unshaped rectangle of generous width with very narrow sleeves that taper slightly toward the cuff. (MB #5 & 6) There is also a garment of similar cut and fabric, but lined with sheepskin and with a deep slit opening at the neck (extending about 3/4 of the way down the garment) which is slightly off-set from the center line. (MB #8) And yet one more similar garment to MB #8 is made of silk (piece from several different fabrics) with fragments remaining of a sheepskin lining. This one is cut to flare slightly towards the hem but otherwise is not substantially different in profile. Only the right half of the garment survives and the nature of any closure or opening isn't clear. There is also a miniature closed tunic of linen with silk trimming (MB #29) but the cut is slightly different with a flare to the skirt and relatively short sleeves.

Open Robes

The earliest examples of open-front garments in this exhibition are constructed such that the back and front panels of the garment are essentially identical, except that the front is open along the center line. In this discussion I differentiate between "center-opening" robes or coats and "caftan-style" robes on the basis of how the front panels overlap or not. If the garment is laid flat on its back, with folds at the side seams (or side-seam-equivalents) of the garment, then if the two front panels meet butted together (as if you had simply cut vertically through a pull-over tunic) then I term it a "center-opening coat". If the two front panels overlap -- and especially if they are cut on a diagonal or with added gussets or panels to increase this overlap -- then I term it a caftan-style robe.

Center-Opening Coats

The 7-8th c. BCE "Chärchän Man" who did not appear in this exhibition but was featured extensively in Barber 1999 (chapter 2) was found with several garments of this type. (The descriptions seem to imply there were at least four coat-like garments associated with him, but they aren't all clearly described and distinguished.) One under garment is shown in diagram to be formed from two lengths of fabric, folded over the shoulders and seamed together halfway (at the back), with tubular sleeves, again folded at the upper edge, then seamed along the bottom, continuing down the sides of the garment. There is a decorative (and perhaps functional?) red cord sewn over the seams where the sleeves attach to the body and along edges of the front opening. Based on the various bits of description this appears to have been of a reddish-purple tabby wool. (But another similar garment of his was an undyed white wool?)

One of his over garments is diagrammed in Barber 1999 (fig. 2.12) indicating a slight shaping where the sleeves are set in, and described as having a taper in the sleeves formed by folding the edges under but not actually cutting them to shape. (A similar example of slight shaping of a basically rectangular cut by folding the edges under is seen in the Migration Era German tunic from Thorsbjerg.) The fabric is a reddish-purple twill with red bands at the sleeve cuffs and hem that are part of the original weave, not sewn on from a different fabric. Both the bottom hem and front opening edges evidently are selvedges and these edges are also finished with an applied red and brown braid. But beyond these descriptions the construction isn't indicated -- e.g., whether the body is formed by two panels joined at the back or some other method.

The 8th-6th c. BCE Qizilchoqa site (not included in the exhibition) that yielded the famous tartan-pattern fabrics (not discussed here ... and don't get me started about the whole "Celts in Asia" nonsense) included a fur/fleece coat that probably best fits in the "center-opening coats" category. (Mallory & Mair 2000) It is shown only in a simplified diagram and since skin-based garments have entirely different construction constraints than those from woven fabric, I won't even try to guess at the cut without more information. But its most fascinating feature (in addition to a buttoned front fastening) are the integral gloves at the ends of the sleeves. (From the drawing, it looks as though they may have had a slit at the wrist to free the hands for finer movement, but again I wouldn't put too much weight on this without more information.)

Exhibition catalog #36-2 (5th-3rd c. BCE from Subeshi) is the next stage in elaboration from the Chärchän Man coat with triangular gussets added into the side seams. The back panel doesn't appear to have a center seam, and the center front opening doesn't appear to be a selvedge, so it may be that the front opening is formed by cutting down the center of a compete panel. The sleeves taper slightly but it isn't possible to see whether this is by cutting or folding. As with the Chärchän coat, most seams have a cord sewn onto the line of the seam, although in the present case both the fabric and cord are undyed, so the effect is not as clearly decorative.

The 1st c. BCE Mongolian garments from Noin Ula include a center-opening coat as well as a caftan-style coat discussed below. The differences between the two are subtle but systematic. Both appear to be based on a set of four panels, shaped into a rather stubby-armed T shape. Both have narrow, slightly tapering gussets in the side seam that appear to continue on into the underarm seam of the sleeves. In both cases the sleeves are essentially tubular and relatively loose. The caftan-style coat also has triangular gussets added to the lower half of the front opening, but the slight diagonal of the gussets is continued in a cut-away of the main panel leading to a relatively wide neck opening. It's this resulting overall diagonal opening effect that leads me to put it in the caftan group. The diagram of this garment suggests that there is a squarish falling collar (almost like a "sailor suit collar" in effect) but I can't confirm this in the photographs as only the front of the garment is shown. There appear to be the remnants of ribbons fastened to the edges of the opening as ties. The center-opening coat, in contrast, has an opening that runs vertically, but also has an applied edging (which also extends around the hem of the garment) that continues at the neck opening to form a slightly standing collar. Both garments appear to have been meant to be worn with the fronts overlapped, so the distinction in styles doesn't appear to indicate different garment functions.

The 7-9th c. Moščevaja Balka site includes a miniature front-opening coat that has no parallel in the full-size garments found there. The body of the garment is relatively straight in cut, and the sleeves are quite narrow, similarly to the fur-lined garments found there, but unlike those it is open along the entire front center line. (MB #31)

Caftan-Style Coats

The earliest exhibition item in the caftan group (catalog #70) is one of the miniature "funeral robes" (for which also see the separate discussion below). The miniature garments in this exhibition are somewhat simplified in construction compared to the full size ones (e.g., they aren't lined and cut edges are not always finished) so they shouldn't necessarily be taken as a direct model. Catalog #70 has a plain rectangular front and back (no gussets), but the addition of a very broad front edge band that extends around the neck as a tall standing collar brings it into the "overlapping front" category. There is a broad band of the same material applied at the hem and ends of the sleeves and a pair of fabric belt-ties is also attached.

The exhibition doesn't give a good sense of the chronological development of the caftan style because the second item in this group (catalog #72, 2nd-4th c. CE from north of Loulan City) is extremely elaborate and diverges greatly from the basic caftan cut in its details. But the underlying structure is solidly prototypical: the basic rectangular body panels are extended to overlap at the center front by triangular additions and are similarly extended at the side seams but by cutting in that case. Another prototypical feature is the edging of the front opening extending as a standing collar.

The colorful checkered silk caftan from the 2nd-4th c. CE cemetery at Niya (catalog #88) is a bit more in the mainstream in terms of construction than #72. But in common, it has body panels that are cut into a flare at the sides and overlapped by added triangular gussets at the front edges, plus the front opening edging that extends as a collar. An interesting feature of both #72 and #88 is that the main body panels are pieced using something approximating a waist seam. The checkered pattern of the fabric makes it obvious that there are separate cuffs on the sleeves which are cut on the bias.

The Yingpan Man's miniature caftan (catalog #2, 3rd-4th c. CE) is more complex in structure than the other miniature (#70), having a waist seam and more shaping in the skirts, both by the cut of the main panel and by added gussets (of a different color this time). In addition, the front overlap at the chest starts at the neck opening (which is collarless) and there is an attached set of ties to close the neck.

The full size caftan worn by the Yingpan Man is roughly similar in silhouette to the one from Niya but differs in many details. The main fabric is wool, with a woven-in design similar to Near Eastern silks of a similar era. The garment is lined with white silk. It is 3/4 length with triangular panels added to the edges of the front opening to form the overlap (and, in fact, the visible triangular addition is of a different fabric pattern than the rest of the garment, although the color scheme and general features of the weave are identical). There is no collar and no edging strip on the front edges. The sleeves are long and narrow but consist of an upper portion of the same fabric as the main body, extending to just above the elbow, and then continuing in a different fabric with lengthwise stripes formed by applied ribbons. (The fabric of the lower sleeves looked suspiciously perfect to me and of a sort of crepey-looking weave unlike any of the other textiles in the exhibit -- as if it were part of a modern conservation project and added to form a ground for the applied ribbons. But this is just a wild speculation on my part.)

Another caftan-style coat (#73) of the same era but from the vicinity of Loulan City is again similar in general silhouette but different in details from the previous items. The body is built up of several relatively narrow fabric widths, shaped by cutting to have a flare in the skirts at the sides (which are left open at the seam) and a sharply scooped-in waist. At the neck, the two front panels overlap for the complete width of the neck opening plus a little more, and then flare diagonally to the waist for even more overlap. There is a very small standing collar that is attached primarily to the back edge of the neck opening. (In fact, the collar is most similar in style to that of Catalog #36-2, dating three-quarters of a millennium earlier.) The sleeves are long and tapering. The garment is made of a plain white silk but was painted with Buddhist motifs after it was assembled.

Again showing how certain cutting strategies recur over the centuries, evidently co-existing through the ages (or perhaps being continually re-invented?), the 10-11th c. caftan from the Alar Cemetery (Catalog #36-1) is similar in its basic features to #72 from well over half a millennium earlier. (It lacks that earlier garment's elaborate decoration, however.) That is, the garment is shaped by cutting to flare in a smooth curve from the waist to the skirts at the side seams, but the overlapping front panels have a straight vertical edge rather than a diagonal cut, except at the very top where the top edge of the overlap has an added binding at the edge that continues to form a collar (again, like the construction of #72). The sleeves are long, narrow, and tapered and like #88 have a cuff seam, although in this case the cuff is cut on the straight grain not the bias.

The 1st c. BCE Mongolian garments from Noin Ula also include a silk caftan-style robe which is discussed above for comparison to the center-opening coat from that site. In this item, the gussets that create the front overlap are relatively small.

There are a variety of styles of caftan from the 7-9th c. Moščevaja Balka burials:


There are two basic approaches to making trousers: make them really loose and baggy, using a geometric cut, or try to fit them as closely as possible like a second skin. In terms of surviving material in general, the second method was tried with several intriguing approaches at some early dates (most of the examples I know of being from Migration Era Germany, but artistic depictions suggest that early Persian garments may have been similar in fit, if not construction) and then dropped until re-invented by the gradual creep of hose up the legs.

But loose, geometric-cut trousers are more uniform in approach across many cultures, consisting of two tubes forming the legs that are joined to fit around the crotch and hips either by the use of a folded triangular gusset (i.e., a square, folded into a triangle) or a rectangular gusset (i.e., a long rectangle, folded across the short axis). In the triangular gusset style, the circumference of the waist of the trousers is basically equal to twice the circumference of each leg, while in the rectangular gusset style it is larger, including twice the short axis of the gusset. In both cases, the looseness of the fit means that some sort of belt is required to hold the trousers up.

The 2nd c. BCE - 2nd c. CE trousers from Sampul (Catalog #42) are of the triangular gusset type, as are the trousers from Chärchän described in Barber 1999 (explicitly a different pair than those worn by the 8th-7th c. BCE Chärchän Man) although these are slightly more irregular and more pieced that #42. The embroidered trousers worn by the 3rd-4th c. CE Yingpan Man were not visible enough to identify the cut for certain, but the legs were certainly baggy and cylindrical, which is consistent with the loose, geometric, gusseted-crotch style. It's quite likely that the tapestry re-used as trouser legs (catalog #38, 2nd c. BCE - 2nd c. CE) was also of this style.

One additional refinement in the fit of the gusseted-crotch style of trousers is to reduce the bagginess of the waist slightly by angling the join of the leg-cylinders. (In effect, this starts to resemble the shape of a modern trouser crotch, although it's still built up from pieced geometric shapes.) This style is seen in two pair of trousers from the 1st c. BCE Mongolian tomb at Noin Ula. In both pairs, the legs are gathered into a cuff and appear to be shorter than full-length (possibly short to fit into a boot?). One pair is cut straightforwardly as two tubular legs and a square crotch gusset, but with the leg pieces angled slightly at the top where they meet above the gusset. The other pair is essentially identical in result, but is pieces in an asymmetric fashion.

The simple gusseted-crotch style of trouser is found in several examples from the 7-9th c. burials at Moščevaja Balka, including a half-length linen pair from a woman's grave. (MB #10) A nearly identical garment in miniature is also found (MB #30).


None of the garments that I sketched in the exhibit fall in the category of skirt (there was a fragmentary one I didn't include), however garments of this type were also found among in Tarim Basic sites published elsewhere. In particular, among the 5th-3rd c. BCE female burials at Subeshi (the ones famous for the tall pointed headdresses) at least one was wearing a full-length gathered skirt made of perhaps 3 or 4 horizontally striped panels sewn together. The lighting on the photograph is very yellow, but extrapolating from other photos, it looks like the stripes may be yellow, red, blue, and dark brown. The skirt is belted at the waist with a thick plied cord of blue and red (similar to the plied cords found at Zaghunluq).


The best-known 8th-7th c. BCE Zaghunluq burials (the Chärchän Man and accompanying female burials) wear foot/leg garments that I haven't really seen parallels for: leg wraps up past the knee of multicolored wool, only loosely felted and covered with long boots (almost "hose") of a thin white leather. The colors are very striking: broad bands of blue, red, and yellow. In some pictures it looks like there may be an under-layer where the wool fibers run parallel to the leg, while in the outer layer they run around the circumference.

The 5th-3rd c. BCE Subeshi woman shown in Mallory & Mair 2000 wears low leather shoes (sort of like strapless mary-janes but with a high rise at the back of the heel) sewn to brown felt stockings of unknown height.

The 2nd-3rd c. wool and felt boots from Niya (catalog #83) are vaguely similar in "look and feel" to modern ankle-high slippers, but with the opening at the back.

The boots worn by the 3rd-4th c. CE Yingpan Man (catalog #2) do not appear to have been intended to be walked on. On consideration, they may be fabric leggings of a more sock-like nature rather than boots, as such. There is no hard-wearing sole attached over the silk, and there is an applied gilded ornament that would be impractical for ordinary wear (or under a shoe).

The 1st c. Noin Ula site includes an unusual looking sock/legging/hose item. There is a foot portion made of felt (possibly seamed rather than felted as a whole -- the toe looks like it's gathered) extending to the ankle. This is sewn to a very baggy leg portion made of patterned silk. The leg portion is roughly shaped like a rectangular sack (except that the upper edge is pointed somewhat at the center front) with the foot attached only to the front portion of the bottom edge and the back "corner" of the bottom edge being somewhat rounded. So the circumference of the leg portion is 2-3 times that of what the leg itself would be, although the foot portion is close-fitted.

The Moščevaja Balka burials include knee-length fabric stockings (complete with tied fabric garters) of linen. (MB #11) They are cut in two parts: a tapered tube for the leg extending down to the ankle, and a foot portion seamed along the center line on the bottom of the foot. Possibly from the same grave is a pair of simple one-piece shoes. (MB #12) Another somewhat more elegant ankle-shoe is made of red leather trimmed with silk. It is cut with a seam along the center line of the bottom of the foot rather than with a separate sole. (MB #24) There is also a miniature boot from this site (MB #32) that is different in cut from the full-size items.


Among the 1500-1800 BCE burials, felt hats seem to be universal. The felt is fairly loose and fluffy rather than hard-packed and tight, but it's solid enough that cords are fastened to the lower edge to tie under the chin. Both full-sized hats on display are conical in shape and also decorated (or reinforced?) with cords sewn in very large stitches around the circumference of the hat, as well as with a cockade of feathers and in one case with two weasel pelts. The hat on one of the carved figures is more cap-like, fitting closely to the head, with no additional features beyond the tie cords. But this seems to be a chance matter of the items selected for display. Barber 1999 shows a diagram of the cap worn by the other named female "beauty", the Beauty of Loulan, depicting it as the cap-like style and interpreting it as being sewn from two pieces of woven cloth, although heavily felted. Mallory & Mair 2000 show a male burial (i.e., an actual man, not a carving) from a similar context wearing the conical style.

The 8th-7th c. BCE Zaghunluq burials that are featured in Barber 1999 included a wide variety of hats in various techniques. This include one roughly similar in shape to a tam-o-shanter created in wool using a nalbinding-type technique and another of similar shape but with a pointed peak in the middle of an unspecified "knotting" technique. There was a coif-like had sewn of two pieces of white felt with an ornament on top made of two pieces of rolled felt looking somewhat like horns. (They're vaguely reminiscent in effect of the horn-like ornaments on medieval Japanese helmets, but this is not meant to imply a traceable connection.)

Barber 1999 indicates that the conical sewn felt hat #31-1 also comes from this set of burials, but the Silk Road exhibition dates it several centuries later, so it may be that she was mistaken about whether all the other hats described in the previous paragraph were from a single site and date as well.

The tall pointed headdresses from female burials at Subeshi (5th-3rd c. BCE) seem to have come in several variants: the double-pointed style shown in Barber 1999 and the single-pointed version displayed as catalog #78. Even within the variety of hat styles, this type seems to have been peculiar to the Subeshi region.

The 10-11th c. hat from the Alar Cemetery (Catalog #31-2) again is quite different in style from any of the previous (not surprisingly since we have a large gap in the hat record at this point). The top consists of a sort of small sugar-loaf shaped peak formed by 4 roughly triangular pieces. This appears to be attached to something like a rectangular hood (although the cut is a little more complex than a simple rectangle) of striped silk, edged in fur. There are a pair of silk tapes attached at the forehead and another pair attached at the center back. These may have been used in helping tie the hat on, but the method isn't clear.

There are several hats published from the 1st c. BCE tomb at Noin Ula in Mongolia and they continue the theme of enormous variety in hat styles across the various sites included here. The first is made of two pieces of silk cloth (that is, two outer and a matching two as lining) shaped roughly like the silhouette of a church bell, but with a more rounded bottom edge. There are ribbons fastened on both lower edges, set slightly off the center line, which may have been fasteners or simply decorative. The second is of sable fur, lined with silk and is roughly similar in shape to a pill-box had, but with wide lappets or ear-flaps hanging down on either side as well as decorative hanging ribbons. The front part of the hat has an embroidered panel. There's a third hat sewn of silk fabric in a roughly cylindrical shape (i.e., a rectangle sewn into a tube and then attached to a round top piece).

A woman's grave at Moščevaja Balka includes a curious hat that combines a close-fitting cap-like upper part extending into a bag to contain the hair. (MB #16) This was worn in combination with two sik bands, one tied over the hair under the headdress, one tied over the headdress. (MB #17, 18) The graves also included a variety of simple caps, both hemispherical ones formed by joining triangular pieces, and longer (but still close-fitting) caps that combine a hemispherical cap with an extended portion fitting around the back of the head. (MB # 19-23)


The 5th-3rd c. BCE Subeshi woman pictured in Mallory & Mair 2000 wears a fur (possibly sheepskin?) sleeved cloak with the hair turned to the inside. She wears it in cloak fashion over the shoulders, rather than with her arms in the sleeves. She also wears at least one leather (fleece?) mitten.

The silk mittens from 2nd-4th c. CE Niya (catalog #89) look more decorative than functional for keeping warm.

A half-fingered glove with a very sophisticated cut is found at Moščevaja Balka (MB #26).

One type of garment not seen in the Silk Road exhibition are sleeveless cloaks. However a garment of this type is found at Moščevaja Balka. Somewhat surprisingly, it is made of linen (pieced into a fill-length half circle) but trimmed with silk samite at the neck.


The fine silk chain-stitch embroidery seen on the pillow, wrist guard, and pants of the 3rd-4th c. Yingpan Man is quite similar in technique (although not in motifs) to several embroideries from the 1st c. BCE Noin Ula textiles. In both cases, the published material associates this embroidery style specifically with Chinese culture. However the Noin Ula textiles also include a number of different embroideries in what appears to be a wool stem-stitch technique and with more western-appearing motifs and patterns, as well as a large, elaborate piece combining quilting, applique, and embroidery with zoomorphic designs reminiscent of Scythian metalwork.

Miniature Garments

There is no direct evidence that the miniature garments found at some of the Tarim sites had the same purpose as those found at MošÄ¨evaja Balka. The two from the Tarim basin are both caftans and although roughly similar in construction to corresponding full-sized garments they are not particularly finished in construction or finely sewn. In contrast, the Moščevaja Balka miniatures mostly correspond very closely, both in general form and in the details of construction, to full-size garments from the same site and nearly all the main types of garments are represented. They are also well finished in their details and are sewn fairly carefully.


Barber, Elizabeth Wayland. 1999. The Mummies of Ürümchi. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Bergman, Folke. 1939. Archaeological Researches in Sinkiang. Stockholm: Sino_Swedish Expedition No. 7. (as referenced in Barber 1999)

Ierusalimskaja, Anna A. & Birgitt Borkopp. 1996. Von China nach Byzanz: Frühmittelalterliche Seiden aus der Staatlichen Ermitage Sankt Petersburg. Bayerisches Nationalmuseum un der Staatlichen Ermitage, München.

Mair, Victor (ed). 2010. Secrets of the Silk Road: An Exhibition of Discoveries from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China. Bowers Museum, Santa Ana.

Mallory, J.P. & Victor H. Mair. 2000. The Tarim Mummies. Thames and Hudson, London.

Phillips, E.D.. 1965. Royal Hordes: Nomad Peoples of the Steppes. McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York.

Rudenko, S.I.. 1969. Kultur der Hsiung-Nu und die Hugelgraber von Noin Ula. Rudolf Habelt Verlag GMBH, Bonn. Antiquitas, series 3, vol. 7

Sylwan, Vivi. 1941. Woollen Textiles of the Lou-lan People. Stockholm: Sino-Swedish Expedition No. 15. (as referenced in Barber 1999)

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