Wednesday, 24 March 2010

A Host of Mummies, a Forest of Secrets

SYMBOLISM Archaeologists believe the hundreds of 13-foot poles at the Small River Cemetery in a desert in Xinjiang Province, China, were mostly phallic symbols.

From The New York Times
Published: March 15, 2010
In the middle of a terrifying desert north of Tibet, Chinese archaeologists have excavated an extraordinary cemetery. Its inhabitants died almost 4,000 years ago, yet their bodies have been well preserved by the dry air.

The cemetery lies in what is now China’s northwest autonomous region of Xinjiang, yet the people have European features, with brown hair and long noses. Their remains, though lying in one of the world’s largest deserts, are buried in upside-down boats. And where tombstones might stand, declaring pious hope for some god’s mercy in the afterlife, their cemetery sports instead a vigorous forest of phallic symbols, signaling an intense interest in the pleasures or utility of procreation.

The long-vanished people have no name, because their origin and identity are still unknown. But many clues are now emerging about their ancestry, their way of life and even the language they spoke.

Their graveyard, known as Small River Cemetery No. 5, lies near a dried-up riverbed in the Tarim Basin, a region encircled by forbidding mountain ranges. Most of the basin is occupied by the Taklimakan Desert, a wilderness so inhospitable that later travelers along the Silk Road would edge along its northern or southern borders.

In modern times the region has been occupied by Turkish-speaking Uighurs, joined in the last 50 years by Han settlers from China. Ethnic tensions have recently arisen between the two groups, with riots in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. A large number of ancient mummies, really desiccated corpses, have emerged from the sands, only to become pawns between the Uighurs and the Han.

Wang Da-Gang
WELL PRESERVED The mummy of an infant was one of about 200 corpses with European features that were excavated from the cemetery.

The 200 or so mummies have a distinctively Western appearance, and the Uighurs, even though they did not arrive in the region until the 10th century, have cited them to claim that the autonomous region was always theirs. Some of the mummies, including a well-preserved woman known as the Beauty of Loulan, were analyzed by Li Jin, a well-known geneticist at Fudan University, who said in 2007 that their DNA contained markers indicating an East Asian and even South Asian origin.

The mummies in the Small River Cemetery are, so far, the oldest discovered in the Tarim Basin. Carbon tests done at Beijing University show that the oldest part dates to 3,980 years ago. A team of Chinese geneticists has analyzed the mummies’ DNA.

Wang Da-Gang
A 3,800-year-old mummy, the Beauty of Xiaohe, found at the Small River Cemetery.

Despite the political tensions over the mummies’ origin, the Chinese said in a report published last month in the journal BMC Biology that the people were of mixed ancestry, having both European and some Siberian genetic markers, and probably came from outside China. The team was led by Hui Zhou of Jilin University in Changchun, with Dr. Jin as a co-author.

All the men who were analyzed had a Y chromosome that is now mostly found in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Siberia, but rarely in China. The mitochondrial DNA, which passes down the female line, consisted of a lineage from Siberia and two that are common in Europe. Since both the Y chromosome and the mitochondrial DNA lineages are ancient, Dr. Zhou and his team conclude the European and Siberian populations probably intermarried before entering the Tarim Basin some 4,000 years ago.

The Small River Cemetery was rediscovered in 1934 by the Swedish archaeologist Folke Bergman and then forgotten for 66 years until relocated through GPS navigation by a Chinese expedition. Archaeologists began excavating it from 2003 to 2005. Their reports have been translated and summarized by Victor H. Mair, a professor of Chinese at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert in the prehistory of the Tarim Basin.

As the Chinese archaeologists dug through the five layers of burials, Dr. Mair recounted, they came across almost 200 poles, each 13 feet tall. Many had flat blades, painted black and red, like the oars from some great galley that had foundered beneath the waves of sand.

At the foot of each pole there were indeed boats, laid upside down and covered with cowhide. The bodies inside the boats were still wearing the clothes they had been buried in. They had felt caps with feathers tucked in the brim, uncannily resembling Tyrolean mountain hats. They wore large woolen capes with tassels and leather boots. A Bronze Age salesclerk from Victoria’s Secret seems to have supplied the clothes beneath — barely adequate woolen loin cloths for the men, and skirts made of string strands for the women.

Many of the women buried there wore string undergarments like the one in this drawing.

Within each boat coffin were grave goods, including beautifully woven grass baskets, skillfully carved masks and bundles of ephedra, an herb that may have been used in rituals or as a medicine.

In the women’s coffins, the Chinese archaeologists encountered one or more life-size wooden phalluses laid on the body or by its side. Looking again at the shaping of the 13-foot poles that rise from the prow of each woman’s boat, the archaeologists concluded that the poles were in fact gigantic phallic symbols.

The men’s boats, on the other hand, all lay beneath the poles with bladelike tops. These were not the oars they had seemed at first sight, the Chinese archaeologists concluded, but rather symbolic vulvas that matched the opposite sex symbols above the women’s boats. “The whole of the cemetery was blanketed with blatant sexual symbolism,” Dr. Mair wrote. In his view, the “obsession with procreation” reflected the importance the community attached to fertility.

Arthur Wolf, an anthropologist at Stanford University and an expert on fertility in East Asia, said that the poles perhaps mark social status, a common theme of tombs and grave goods. “It seems that what most people want to take with them is their status, if it is anything to brag about,” he said.

Dr. Mair said the Chinese archaeologists’ interpretation of the poles as phallic symbols was “a believable analysis.” The buried people’s evident veneration of procreation could mean they were interested in both the pleasure of sex and its utility, given that it is difficult to separate the two. But they seem to have had particular respect for fertility, Dr. Mair said, because several women were buried in double-layered coffins with special grave goods.

Living in harsh surroundings, “infant mortality must have been high, so the need for procreation, particularly in light of their isolated situation, would have been great,” Dr. Mair said. Another possible risk to fertility could have arisen if the population had become in-bred. “Those women who were able to produce and rear children to adulthood would have been particularly revered,” Dr. Mair said.

Several items in the Small River Cemetery burials resemble artifacts or customs familiar in Europe, Dr. Mair noted. Boat burials were common among the Vikings. String skirts and phallic symbols have been found in Bronze Age burials of Northern Europe.

There are no known settlements near the cemetery, so the people probably lived elsewhere and reached the cemetery by boat. No woodworking tools have been found at the site, supporting the idea that the poles were carved off site.

The Tarim Basin was already quite dry when the Small River people entered it 4,000 years ago. They probably lived at the edge of survival until the lakes and rivers on which they depended finally dried up around A.D. 400. Burials with felt hats and woven baskets were common in the region until some 2,000 years ago.

Wang Da-Gang

The language spoken by the people of the Small River Cemetery is unknown, but Dr. Mair believes it could have been Tokharian, an ancient member of the Indo-European family of languages. Manuscripts written in Tokharian have been discovered in the Tarim Basin, where the language was spoken from about A.D. 500 to 900. Despite its presence in the east, Tokharian seems more closely related to the “centum” languages of Europe than to the “satem” languages of India and Iran. The division is based on the words for hundred in Latin (centum) and in Sanskrit (satam).

The Small River Cemetery people lived more than 2,000 years before the earliest evidence for Tokharian, but there is “a clear continuity of culture,” Dr. Mair said, in the form of people being buried with felt hats, a tradition that continued until the first few centuries A.D.

An exhibition of the Tarim Basin mummies opens March 27 at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, Calif. — the first time that the mummies will be seen outside Asia.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Is there any news about the search for the tomb of Ghengis Khan ?

The last article written about this subject is by Joshua Kucera in " (Eurasia Insight)".
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.

Did anybody read any news about this subject, especially the search by Albert Yu-Min Lin?
Please let me know where to find the latest news on this subject!!!!

To refresh your memory, go to The Valley of the Khans Project or read the following article by Joshua Kucera:

Joshua Kucera 11/13/09
Part 5 in a Series

The Valley of the Khans project, the American-led effort to find the tomb of Genghis Khan, has gone to great lengths to appeal to Mongolian sensibilities. Project leaders have hired Mongolian partners, including two prominent scholars, a "local media and political consultant/liaison" and a public relations agency, according to the group’s website.

"I had to do some ’diplomatic PR,’" explained Albert Yu-Min Lin, the group’s leader, in a speech earlier this year. "I established collaborations with the academics, politicians and media sources that I needed to make a campaign to make it OK for us to do this search."
Perhaps most crucially, learning from the mistakes of the previous international expeditions, he has promised to only identify the location of the tomb, not to disturb it in any way. "The whole thing has to be non-invasive, to be respectful and meet some of the cultural traditions of the Mongolians, and one of their big traditions is that you shouldn’t disturb the grave[s] of the dead," Lin said.
While the geophysical surveys that the Valley of the Khans group plans to conduct usually just serve as preliminary surveys before an excavation, Lin said he hopes that, in this case, they will provide proof that Genghis’ grave exists, without having to dig. "With this we can say, ’This is, more conclusive than not, the site of the tomb,’ then we can start to protect it using programs like UNESCO World Heritage," he said in a speech to colleagues at the University of California-San Diego earlier this year. He added that Mongolia is suffering from a surge in black-market archeological trade, and that "by locating it officially we can protect that area."
Despite taking extreme care to cultivate local opinion, Lin has found himself caught up in controversy. Interviews with dozens of people in Mongolia uncovered very little enthusiasm - and many unflattering rumors - about Lin’s expedition. Part of this has to do with his heritage: He is Chinese-American, and Mongolians have a deep mistrust of China, which ruled Mongolia for centuries. In addition, many Mongolians still believe has irredentist claims on Mongolian territory.
Asked if he had considered working with Lin, the head archeologist on a rival Mongolian team, Batsaikhan, answered "I will never cooperate with a Chinese man to find Genghis Khan’s grave."
Lin’s rivals also have attempted to spread negative stories about the Valley of the Khan’s expedition in the local press. And while many of the allegations against Lin are implausible, they nevertheless point to a PR challenge for the Valley of the Khans team. Batsaikhan said that Lin climbed Burkhan Khaldun without official permission twice, but city officials in Mongonmort, who regulate climbs up the mountain, said they weren’t aware of that.
Gerel, the director of the Great Mongolian Khans’ Theme Park, said that his friends in the Mongonmort area said that Lin told them he was hoping not to find the grave, but instead to prove that it wasn’t there. "Only after that did I find out that they were searching for the tomb," he said. "Mongolian people aren’t happy about them," he said, adding that the mistrust is so great that Mongonmort residents refuse to lend Lin and his team horses for their trips up Burkhan Khaldun. (Gerel is also critical of Batsaikhan’s effort, and said the team is not as close to finding the grave as they claim. "They are making money on this. They just say they are out of money to gain attention," he said).
For his part, Batsaikhan does not hide his interest in excavating the tomb. He says that while Mongolians aren’t yet ready for the grave of Genghis to be dug up, his team has a plan to build public support. Team members believe that not only Genghis is buried on top of Burkhan Khaldun, but four other khans are as well, including Khubilai Khan (Genghis’s grandson and the founder of Yuan dynasty) and Ogodei Khan, Genghis’s son and successor as ruler of the Mongol Empire. If those graves are excavated first, "we will prepare people psychologically for excavating Genghis Khan’s tomb," he said.
He said a Mongolian archeologist excavating the tomb would not be as controversial as a foreigner. And he argued that the popular disapproval of excavating the tomb is getting in the way of Mongolia’s national interest, namely in claiming Genghis’s legacy from China and other countries. "China, Russia, even Kazakhstan, they say that Genghis Khan’s grave is there. So we need to settle this issue, to confirm that it is in Mongolia," he said. "For Mongolians it’s a religious thing to not disturb the grave, but that makes it difficult for professionals like me to work."
What might be in the grave is a matter of debate among experts. Some believe Genghis may not have been buried at all, in keeping with traditional Mongol practice at the time, and therefore there may not even be a tomb to find. Others argue that he must have been buried with accoutrements befitting his status as the most powerful man in the world: Batsaikhan said he believes the grave holds not only treasure, but the bodies of animals and women intended to accompany him to the afterlife. "A lot of people think the grave is full of riches, but no one knows," said D. Tumen, the head of the archeology department at the National University of Mongolia.

For now, what’s in Genghis Khan’s grave remains a secret, one of archeology’s greatest mysteries. But it soon could be solved, whether Mongolians are ready for it or nott.