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Beyond Stone & Bone

Yingpan Man’s Fabulous Wealth
by Heather Pringle
March 29, 2010

80.YingpanThe Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, California, has been grabbing headlines over the past week for a much anticipated exhibition of the European-looking mummies from China’s Tarim Basin.  I’ve  just attended the opening and  I can say that all the brouhaha is well warranted.  The Tarim Basin mummies have never travelled outside Asia before, so the little known California museum has pulled off a major coup in bringing these ancient humans to the United States.  Moreover, these mummies and their extraordinary artifacts –nearly 150 items in all—are revealing new information daily about early contacts between East and West in Central Asia..

The oldest of the Tarim mummies dates back to the Bronze Age some 4000 years ago—nearly 2000 years before the opening of the Silk Road.  In all likelihood, these Bronze-Age European migrants were the first humans to settle in the bleak Tarim Basin region—one of the driest and most remote places on earth.   A forthcoming issue of Archaeology will have my article on current research on these Bronze Age mummies spearheaded by Victor Mair, a 67-year-old Sinologist at the University of Pennsylvania.   But two days ago, I tagged along on a Saturday morning tour that Mair gave to the Bowers Museum docents, and I thought I’d share Mair’s comments on a lesser known highlight of the show:  Yingpan Man.

The magnificent trappings of Yingpan Man are the first things that visitors lay eyes on in the exhibit.  The Chinese government did not send the remains of the European-looking 6 footer who wore his brown hair in a topknot. But as Mair pointed out, Yingpan Man’s “sartorial shell” alone speaks volumes.   Dating to the 4th or early 5th century AD,  the attire of this ancient traveler  clearly embodies all  the wealth and splendor  that flowed through the Tarim Basin after  the Silk Road opened and  linked China to the Mediterranean world.

Yingpan  Man was clearly a clotheshorse.   In his grave he sported a white mask with a golden diadem, a splendid red and gold-colored woolen caftan, a pair of embroidered pants,  and some very fancy boots ornamented with gold.   “This is the most magnificent set of clothing from East Central Asia, and probably from anywhere in the ancient world,” Mair pointed out.

The woolen caftan, for example, is a masterpiece in double-weave.   It portrays a small army of little golden Greco-Roman putti (who resemble cherubim) and sacrificial bulls on a red background.  Textile expert Elizabeth Barber,  a professor emerita from Occidental College in Los Angeles,  believes that weavers in the Eastern Roman Empire made the caftan,   then traded it eastward into the Tarim Basin.  And so much did Yingpan Man love his clothes that mourners even laid a miniature extra set on his chest, so that he could change in the next world.

Who was Yingpan Man?   Mair has some ideas.  He died in his early to mid-thirties,  and he had clearly amassed a fortune by that point,  most likely through trade.  The town of Yingpan, after all,  was an crucial trade node on the Silk Road.  During this period,  Mair pointed out,  the richest traders along the route  were Sogdians, an Iranian-speaking people whose homeland lay near Samarkand in what is now Uzbekistan.  So Mair believes that Yingpan man was likely a Sogdian merchant who died relatively young in a place far from home.

The Secrets of the Silk Road:  The Mystery Mummies of China will run at the Bowers Museum until July.  I can recommend it whole-heartedly.

Comments posted here do not represent the views or policies of the Archaeological Institute of America.

10 comments for "Yingpan Man’s Fabulous Wealth"

  • Reply posted by Mark Rose (March 29, 2010, 5:46 pm):

    Heather–great post. If I can just add something… One of the best things
    about working at Archaeology is meeting great scholars, by which I mean
    those that are not only at the top of the heap in whatever specialty, but
    those who also take the time to convey what they are doing–and why it’s
    important–to the rest of us. Victor Mair, the Tarim mummy specialist, is
    one of those & I just wanted to acknowledge that publicly.–Mark Rose


  • Reply posted by Secrets of the Silk Road – Coming Soon to HMNS! | BEYONDbones (April 1, 2010, 7:23 am):

    […] to know more? Check out these articles: USA Today LA Times CultureMonster blog Archaeology this | digg this | Stumble It! Social Bookmark BlinkList Furl ma.gnolia Netvouz […]


  • Reply posted by adam mofat (April 12, 2010, 8:25 pm):

    who said these europpeans were immigrants? ( immigrants from where? Europe? Europe were inhabited then by the celts and latins (black eyes black hair people look most like arabs (J1 and J2 haplogroups), while thopse mummies were living in their homeland in Taklamakan desert (now, but a great lake in 2000 BC)
    obviously Current ( colored eyes fair haired ) europpeans were the chinese of 2000 BC to 500 AD !!


  • Reply posted by Pam Kosty (April 13, 2010, 11:57 am):

    For east coast folks who would like to see the trappings of Yingpan Man–as well as the extraordinary “Beauty of Xiaohe” (3,800 years old) and about 150 objects in this incredible exhibition: the third and final stop on the US tour of “Secrets of the Silk Road” will be at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia, February 5, 2011 through June 5, 2011!


  • Reply posted by Dirk Van Tuerenhout (June 24, 2010, 12:45 pm):

    After the exhibit leaves the Bowers Museum, it will go on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science from August 27, 2010 through January 2, 2011.


  • Reply posted by Julianna Lees (November 11, 2010, 1:11 am):

    Dear Heather,

    I very much enjoyed your article about “The Secrets of the Silk Road” which I have only just seen, long after you wrote it. However, I am puzzled by one important detail: your reference to “sacrificial bulls” on the Yingpan man’s red caftan. I see prancing goats. With a stretch of the imagination they could be deer. No way do I see bulls, nor any reason why they should be described as “sacrificial”. I would have thought there is a playful reference here, along with the cheerful putti. Hunting was, no doubt, à la mode in designs like this one. To me, the fabric speaks of pleasure, not religion.

    With best wishes,

    Julianna Lees


  • Reply posted by Liem Bui (November 28, 2010, 7:04 pm):

    Dear Mark and Heather:
    I saw the Secrets of the Silk Road exhibit in Houston. And as Flickr members were allowed one Sunday night to come in and take pictures to show to friends all over the world about the exhibit, I would like to invite you to a revisit to the wonderful exhibit at this link:

    Do not use the slideshow option. But open the first picture then advance each picture with the NEXT button. This way you could see additional info and pictures embedded within the actually picture.


  • Reply posted by Driver Download (January 4, 2011, 4:54 am):

    I enjoyed your article about “The Secrets of the Silk Road” long after you wrote it. However, your reference to “sacrificial bulls” on the Yingpan man’s red caftan. I see prancing goats. With a stretch of the imagination they could be deer. No way do I see bulls?


  • Reply posted by HVAC Contractors (March 25, 2011, 9:19 am):

    Very interesting idea on who the yingpan man maybe, I had always been fascinated with mummies more so asian mummies. Very informative post. thanks


  • Reply posted by An examination of Japanese rooster symbolism, mythology, and the funerary and folkloric connections with rooster symbolism around the world | Heritage of Japan (October 29, 2012, 8:05 pm):

    […] Road. Yingpan Man’s head rested on a pillow shaped like a cockerel. Since the Yingpan man was buried with rich grave goods with a Greek gold mask and wearing elaborate golden embroidered red and…, he is thought to have been one of the wealthy Sogdian traders who plied the Silk Road, who were an […]


About Our Blogger:

Heather Pringle is a freelance science journalist who has been writing about archaeology for more than 20 years. She is the author of Master Plan: Himmler's Scholars and the Holocaust and The Mummy Congress: Science, Obsession, and the Everlasting Dead. For more about Heather, see our interview or visit

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