Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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The Mummies' Threads Volume 49 Number 5, September/October 1996
by Spencer P.M. Harrington

[image] This garment from western China includes the oldest cashmere ever found. (Courtesy Irene Good) [LARGER IMAGE]

Study of garments worn by 3,000-year-old mummies excavated in western China's Tarim Basin (see ARCHAEOLOGY, March/April 1995) has yielded the world's oldest cashmere threads. Other mummies wore wool twills woven in a plaid design dating to 720 B.C. that required looms most likely brought by settlers from the Eurasian steppes.

Irene Good of the University of Pennsylvania and Elizabeth J.W. Barber of Occidental College examined textile samples from two sites, Chärchän and Hami, where mummies have been excavated since the late 1970s by Chinese and Uighur scholars. Good identified the cashmere threads from Chärchän by their shape, fineness, and consistency of diameter. "The Chärchän textiles indicate a high degree of skill in sorting and spinning fibers," she says. "The presence of cashmere shows a very sophisticated breeding of goats for the fleece."

The plaid twill was dyed blue and derived from a hairy, rather than woolly, fleece. Barber says there is no evidence that the Chinese ever made wool twills on their looms, which were designed for silk, and that wool-weaving technology arrived with the western settlers of the Tarim Basin ca. 1800 B.C.

© 1996 by the Archaeological Institute of America