Alluring Mummy Beanie

The Finished Product


Level of Authenticity: I made a pretty thing!

Who/When/Where, TL;DR version: prehistoric (Bronze Age and Early Iron Age) peoples living in the Tarim Basin in Central Asia between about 1000 and 500 BCE.  For the long version, including info on why these mummies are so alluring, see below after “How”.

What: My hat is a knitted wool hat in a round beanie shape.  The actual hats in the archaeological finds are either nalbound or felted, and most of them are either kind of beret/tam shaped or else pointed like a Phrygian cap or smurf hat.  More on why I departed so far from the exemplar hats in the “How” section.

Why: I made this hat because I wanted a hat that would sort of go with my mummy outfit, or at least a hat that would go better with the outfit than the one with cat ears that I got in my Crazy Cat Lady subscription box.  When I was reading about the prevailing climatic conditions in the Tarim Basin, it seemed that they are fairly similar to climatic conditions we experience here in Avacal, with  very low humidity and extremes of both hot and cold, so it made sense that the mummies would have wanted to have hats to keep their heads warm or to keep the sun off their heads.  However, the number of hats found in each grave, especially in the particular burial that I concentrated on, suggests that the hats had some purpose beyond a mere utilitarian one, although I’m not able to speculate whether it was for some purpose that had social or ritual meaning, or whether it was just for the sake of fashion.


Materials: Almost all of the textiles found with the various Tarim mummies are made of sheep’s wool.  A very small percentage of finds are made of silk.  In some cases, cashmere or silk are mixed in with the wool during the process of spinning the fibres.  There are no finds of linen despite the preservation conditions being good for preserving linen.  In finds prior to about 1000 BCE, the textiles are either undyed, or were perhaps dyed with dyestuffs that have faded over the years.  Chemical analysis of the finds from Zaghunluq (the site I concentrated on) by Irene Good et al. determined that reds were achieved with madder, blues with indigotin, and yellows with a dyestuff that could not be identified within the scope of the experiments.  Several major textiles from Zaghunluq are a red-brown colour which Good and Elizabeth Wayland Barber determined to have been achieved by overdyeing naturally brown wool with madder.

For the main colour of my beanie, I used Brown Sheep company burly spun (100% wool) in “bing cherry” colour, which Brigida Vadesbana and I determined to be a comparable colour to the madder-dyed brown wool in the Zaghunluq finds.  For the contrast colour, I used Punta Yarns fuego (100% merino wool) in “copper” colour.  To my modern eye, it’s a really beautiful variegated color in sort of natural/earthy tones, but I can’t and won’t pretend that I think it’s anything like something that the mummies might have chosen to produce, as all of the dyed textile finds we have associated with the various mummy cultures are in solid, bright, primary colours.

If I was going to make a mummy hat to enter into a competition, I’d feel comfortable using the Brown Sheep burly spun for a baronial level competition, but I wouldn’t use a variegated yarn as a contrast colour.  I would look back at my research to determine whether there are any extant hats with two or more colours, and if there were, I would choose either the colour combination of an extant hat, or I would choose contrast wools that were in colours found in the extant textiles.  At a kingdom level competition, I’d want to do more research on exactly what kind of sheep wool was used for the hats – breed, fiber length and characteristics, etc., and whether there was any silk, cashmere, or other fiber mixed in – and then I would try to get, if not wool from the same kind of sheep (this might not be possible, if it is from a heritage breed that is no longer being bred), then at least wool with similar working characteristics.  This research would also include more focus on the weight of yarn that was used for the nalbound hats, if that information was available to me.  For extra credit, I might want to acquire my own brown wool and dye it myself with madder, and then spin it myself or get someone to hand spin it for me to the correct weight before making it up into a hat.

Processes:  Some of the hats found with the mummies are felted and some of them are nalbound.  The hat I made is knitted.  Nalbinding and knitting are only superficially similar, mainly in that (like crochet), they are both methods of creating a textile by working one continuous length of yarn.  The processes and equipment used are quite different and, on examination of the finished product, it is easy to see the difference between a knit piece and a nalbound piece.

There is only very questionable, tenuous evidence for knitting among the Tarim mummies.  In particular, one excavation report that I read noted the presence of “knitting needles” in one of the graves.  There were not any pictures of the purported knitting needles, nor were there even any drawings of them, and the material was not identified.  Although I have not personally done a lot of research on the history of knitting, I was skeptical that knitting dated this far back in time.  I asked my apprentice sister, Johanna Katrin, whose research has concentrated much more than mine on the history of knitting, and she gave a much later date for the invention of knitting and a proposed origin in Egypt.  At the same time, no textiles examined or described by Good and Barber in association with the Tarim mummies are identified as knitted, whereas many of the hats are described as nalbound.  In the absence of any further particulars of the purported knitting needles, as well as the absence of any knitted textiles, I consider it far more likely that the excavator misidentified some other artifact, like spindles or divining sticks, and that knitting was not known by the Tarim mummies.

Despite all this, I chose to proceed with making a knitted hat.  I would much rather have made a nalbound hat, as I believe it is a much more appropriate process for this culture, but I have not yet learned how to nalbind and I had a short (self-imposed) deadline of producing a hat before my next camping event.  Because I am a beginner knitter, I did not feel confident making a freestyle hat, so I surfed around Ravelry for a pattern that would use the weight of yarn that I had and that would somewhat resemble the hats found with the mummies.  I did not find anything I thought was appropriate, but I selected the Twisted Knit Cap pattern, which somewhat resembles the nalbound beanies I have seen on Norse personas at SCA events.  This pattern called for 9mm circular needles, which my local yarn store did not have in stock, so I knitted the cap on 8mm double pointed needles instead.  Knitting a pattern on smaller-than-called-for needles makes the resulting textile tighter and stiffer than the pattern intended, but in this case I found that it gave me a texture closer to the texture I have observed in nalbound items made by others.

If I was going to enter an item like this in a competition, I would make a nalbound hat instead of a knitted hat and I would try to make a hat in a shape that more closely resembled the shapes of the hats found with the mummies.

Who/When/Where, long version: This project is meant to accompany costuming research that I’ve done on what are popularly known as the Tarim Mummies or the Mummies of Urumchi, and I’ll be referring to them and their culture mostly throughout this post as “mummies”, even though they obviously weren’t mummies when they were alive and technically they may not be mummies at all but rather dessicated corpses.  As I was researching this project, I noticed a strange tendency for all of the scholars, male and female, writing or speaking on the mummies, to refer to the female mummies in oddly sexualized terms like “captivating”, “alluring”, and even “the Marlene Dietrich of the desert”.  Most of the female mummies are given names like “The Beauty of Loulan” and “The Beauty of Xiaohe”, and all of the mummies, male and female, are described as though they have just gone to sleep.  I’m not going to link to any pictures here, but if you go looking for them, you will find that although they are in fact remarkably well preserved for dessicated corpses, they are not alluring or beautiful and they certainly don’t look like they have just gone to sleep!

There are a variety of archaeological finds in the Xinjiang Autonomous Uighur Region of the PRC, in and around the Taklamakan Desert.  Most of these are from cemeteries or burial sites and include human remains that are quite well preserved.  The preservation appears to be due partially to natural factors in the area (salty soil, very dry conditions) and partially to intentional burial practices (covering the bodies with an as-yet-unidentified preservative, placing them in areas with either good air circulation or that are tightly sealed).  Some of the sites appear to date back as far as 3000 BCE but the particular finds I chose to emulate, found at Zaghunluq near the municipality of Qarqan (Cherchen), are carbon dated to some time between 1000 and 500 BCE.

The culture(s) that left the mummies were preliterate peoples but certain clues can be pieced together.  The mummies exhibit a phenotype that is today most commonly associated with Western Europeans, rather than Asians.  Their grave goods include horse riding equipment and they are frequently covered with, or accompanied by pouches of, ephedra.  Both of these types of finds are commonly associated with Indo-European peoples.  Elizabeth Wayland Barber sees strong similarities between their textile production technologies and those of the Hallstatt-era Celtic peoples (another branch of Ind0-Europeans), roughly contemporaneous.  Written records from the Tarim Basin area, dating well into the first millennium CE, show speakers of Indo-Iranian languages and speakers of Tocharian languages living in the area.  Both of these are branches of Indo-European, though Tocharian is now extinct.  When pieced together, these clues suggest that the mummies could have been speakers of an Indo-Iranian language (in which case they would have fallen broadly within the category of the peoples Greeks called Scythians); or speakers of a Tocharian language; although they could also have been speakers of an extinct and as-yet-unattested branch of Indo-European, or even speakers of a non-Indo-European language.  To the best of my knowledge, there is currently insufficient evidence to choose definitively among these possibilities.

Further Reading/Watching

This is supposed to be a fun blog, not formal documentation, so I wasn’t going to do a bibliography, but I think I should better identify some of the sources I referred to:

“The Mummies of Urumchi”, Elizabeth Wayland Barber, 1999 (book)

“The Tarim Mummies”, J.P. Mallory and Victor Mair, 2000 (book)

“The Horse, The Wheel, and Language”, David Anthony, 2010 (book)

“Characterization of dyestuffs in ancient textiles from Xinjiang”, Xian Zhang, Irene Good, Richard Laursen, 2007 (article in Journal of Archaeological Science)

Penn Museum Silk Road Symposium (Youtube)

Various lectures on Indo-European studies (Youtube)




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