The Most Alluring Mummy Avacal Has Ever Seen

The Finished Product:

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Photo credits: Process pics are by me but all of the pictures of me were taken by William Shieldbiter.

Level of Authenticity: Wild guessing and rampant speculation/I made a pretty thing!  I would like to emphasize that I am NOT an expert on the peoples of the Eurasian Steppe and that Mistress Maiosara Azarionos has much more depth and breadth of research and experience recreating Scythian and other Eurasian finds than me.  I am normally an Italian Renaissance person and this is just a side project that got out of hand.

Where: Like my other “mummy” projects, this is based on finds from the Tarim Basin and other areas in and around the Taklamakan Desert.  For a map and general overview of the finds and my research to date, please see my Alluring Mummy Beanie post.

When: The previous mummy finds I’ve tried to recreate are usually dated between 1000-600 BCE.  When I initially began this project I intended to make something from New Kingdom Egypt to celebrate the Coronation of King Albrecht and Queen Nasheeta, whose persona hails from the middle of the Eighteenth Dynasty period, between 1440 and 1330 BCE.  In my typical fashion I soon found myself looking not at actual Egyptian fashion but at the fashions of neighboring cultures that might have had contact with Egypt during this period, and soon after that I found myself back in the Tarim Basin looking at finds from earlier time periods than I had previously chosen to try.  The finds this particular outfit is based on are all dated around 1800 BCE, so in the end, I missed the target both in terms of date and culture for an Egyptian Queen.

Who:  If you do not already know the story, you are probably wondering, “what makes a mummy so alluring anyway?”  Well, my friends, feast your eyes on The Beauty of Loulan and The Beauty of Xiaohe (both links NSFW).  Aren’t they lovely?  Don’t they look like they have just lain down to sleep instead of having been freeze dried almost 4000 years ago?  You can clearly understand why one of the main Western scholars working on these finds calls the Beauty of Xiaohe “The Marlene Dietrich of the Desert”.  Taking my tongue out of my cheek for a moment, one of the strangest things I noticed about these finds when I was doing my initial research was how all of the English language scholars (male and female) writing about them describe the female mummies in strangely sexualized, objectified terms – and even without the descriptive verbiage, notice that both of the mummies I’ve mentioned so far have been labeled “The Beauty of…”

As well as these two more famous or charismatic mummies, there were two other female mummies from this approximate time period who were well-described in the English language literature, although neither of them was considered sexy enough to get her own name (how humiliating for them!).  As I’ve previously detailed, the English language scholars working on these finds have not reached consensus about what language the mummy cultures might have spoken, and in fact it may not be possible to make a certain identification given the paucity of evidence.  The two most likely language groups are either Tocharian or Indo-Iranian (Scythian) (both Indo-European languages), though other possibilities include either an otherwise-unattested branch of the Indo-European language family, or else an unattested branch of a non-Indo-European language.  You’ll see that in several places below I refer to “related” cultures, by which I mean roughly contemporary cultures known to share the ancestral Indo-European cultures with each other.  I’m doing this on the assumption that the Tarim mummies did belong to some branch of the Indo-European family, and most of my reconstruction here proceeds on this assumption.

As well as “who wore/used the thing” I usually try to answer “who are the artisans who made the thing”.  Elizabeth Barber was asked this question in one of the lectures I watched and her answer was that we don’t have enough information to know for sure, but she suspects that the women of the Tarim Basin peoples were the ones doing the spinning and weaving.  Most of the written materials assume the same, and also that each family unit was likely engaged in cloth and clothing production for its own use, rather than there being specialized artisans.

What:  All of the four mummies I studied were buried in blanket-like shrouds.  The “Beauty of Loulan” has a deer hide skirt with the fur to the inside, while other of the mummies seem to have worn only a fringed belt under their wraps.  Some of the mummies wear leather boots.  This was pretty meagre evidence to proceed with, so I got rather creative as you’ll see in “How” below.

Why:  I chose to assume that what the mummies were buried in was what they had worn in life, though it’s also possible that they wore other clothing in life and these were just their burial clothes.  In either The Mummies of Urumchi or Women’s Work (it’s been a while), Elizabeth Wayland Barber talks at some length about the apparent significance in early Indo-European cultures of the fringed belt or girdle as a symbol of adulthood or marital status, but we can’t be sure that it held the same significance for the mummies’ culture.

I’d also like to note that often the literature mentions an assumption that the mummies must have died and been buried in the winter time, both because of their state of preservation and the level of warmth offered by their clothes.  The climate of the Tarim Basin appears to be similar to the climate of the Canadian Prairies, so I can confidently state that although I was not uncomfortable being outside around 0C in this outfit for about 10 minutes, I would not want to attempt a primarily outdoor lifestyle in nothing but these garments in the deep of winter.  Maybe I am just a too-soft modern, or maybe the early Tarim Basin inhabitants had extra layers they could wear in deep winter, or maybe they were not buried in winter after all.

How:  Project Design:  As I mentioned up top, I’m usually a tailor of late medieval and renaissance Italian garments.  With that, the challenge is in cutting the fabric to the right shape, and then shaping it using means that sometimes approach architecture to make it fit your model with the right silhouette.  This was a challenge of an entirely different nature, trying to draw on tiny scraps of evidence from various sources to create something plausible.  In addition to the descriptions I found of the four mummies and an accompanying baby mummy, I drew on the evidence of a couple of small dolls or effigies among Tarim Basin finds of the same age, as well as the apparent clothing practices of likely-related cultures such as the early Greeks and the Hallstatt-era Celts.

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Materials:  Other than their alluring beauty, the mummies are most notable for their extremely well-preserved textiles.  At this early date, the fiber used in the blanket wraps seems to have been 100% wool, though in later finds there is evidence of additional fibers being mixed in in small amounts.  The textiles are woven in a variety of complex patterns, sometimes (as in the case of a mummified baby from the same era) with several different patterns appearing in a single piece of cloth.  Patterns are achieved through the use of yarn spun in different directions or at different tensions, and through sorting the natural color of the wool into different shades.  The fringed belts and girdles seem also to have been made of wool.  The Beauty of Loulan’s skirt is of deerskin with the fur turned inwards, and her boots are also leather.  The hats found on the 1800 BCE mummies are primarily plain wool felt, or wool felted over textile pieces.  I did not note discussion of any kind of socks on the 1800 BCE mummies, but the mummies of ca 1000-600 BCE had socks of a very lightly felted wool roving.  Metal items are rare throughout all the finds and at the date of 1800 BCE, it seemed that wood or bone pins were the material of choice or necessity for fastening clothing.

The textiles appear to the modern eye to be undyed and in a small range of natural colors of wool.  Barber, Good, and Sylwan all note that this could mean either that dyeing had not yet been developed, or that dyeing had been developed but means of making the dye colorfast over a long period of centuries (or even over the lifetime of the wearer) had not yet been developed.  Elusive evidence that dyeing was used at least some of the time comes in the form of decorative red threads woven in a few places in the blanket wrap of one of the mummies.

In developing this ensemble, I decided that it was more important to choose a fabric that had the appearance of being undyed but having a complex weave than it was to choose a fabric that had a high wool content.  For the blanket wrap, I wound up with a fabric that was 90% polyester and 10% wool.  It has a sort of houndstooth pattern in two colors of yarn that approximate natural colors, and as well it has a nice decorative selvedge showing off some red yarns.  I choose to avoid working with fur, so for my skirt I decided to pick out a different fabric that had approximately the same characteristics.  In this case I was able to get a tabby weave pattern with a white warp and a brown weft; the fiber content is 60% wool and 40% unknown.  This is going to be a common refrain throughout the rest of the post, but note that I wouldn’t want to enter a competition at any level with fabric of this sort, and I’m not sure that I would want to enter a competition with a fabric skirt instead of a deerskin skirt.  At the very least here I would want to spend more time sourcing a fabric that was 100% wool and came closer to the weave patterns and natural colors observable in the extant pieces, and in order to give a project like this the complexity it deserves, it would be nice to be able to give it the “sheep-to-shirt” treatment.  Maybe something like this is in my future.  We shall see.

For sewing, I used a lace-weight 100% merino from Manos del Uruguay in a colorway called “sangre” (“blood”).  This skein is in a “handpaint” style meaning that the color is variegated throughout the length of the yarn, in some places a very dark red and in some places much lighter in color.  In previous Tarim Mummy projects I’ve tested various weights of wool for sewing with and this was another experiment.  It would be nice to have more detail on the fiber length, twist direction, and weight of the sewing wool used by the mummies but I don’t think this information is given.  From a working perspective I was pretty pleased with the result.  I chose this particular yarn because I thought it was pretty and I wanted to do something with it.  I had initially thought about knitting stockings for my sixteenth-century attire, the deep crimson red being highly prized at that time because it came from kermes, an expensive luxury dyestuff.  After some consideration, I decided not to, because I didn’t think that the uneven dye distribution, though pleasing to many a modern eye, would have been thought suitable by a discerning sixteenth-century consumer.  I thought it might be okay for the mummy project though because of the embryonic state of dyeing technology and skill evident from the extant pieces.  Again, I probably would not use a yarn like this for a competition piece, I would want to do my best to get the right wool type and use either an undyed/neutral color or a color produced with a natural dyestuff.

I didn’t note the discussion of any socks or leg wraps for the 1800 BCE mummies, but the 1000-600 BCE mummies tend to have socks of very lightly felted wool roving.  This was the area where I was able to most closely approximate the original materials because I was able to buy natural brown undyed roving from Maistreas Sadb and she helped me choose a wool that had characteristics similar to some heritage breeds.  For a competition, I would either choose to forego socks (if I went back to my research and determined there were not socks) or else (if I went back to my research and discovered there were socks) make sure I was picking a wool that was the most similar in fiber length and other characteristics to what was described for the extant finds.  I wasn’t exactly sure how the roving was going to hold up so I actually wore a thin pair of merino wool socks underneath for the roving to stick to.  This worked out okay, and it did felt up as I was wearing it, but I kind of had to break apart the narrow part by the ankles to get my feet out at the end of the day.  I’m mulling a couple of possible alternatives but I suspect the real answer is that the mummies did not change their socks every day.

Items Not Made By Me: I relied on the handiwork of many others for this ensemble.

The fringed belts/girdles are described in detail in Sylwan’s “Woollen Textiles of the Lou-Lan People” so I assume they are wool although I admit that for this particular ensemble I didn’t go into this in detail when I was researching.  My belt is a tablet-woven belt that was gifted to me by my apprentice sister Johanna Katrin and I believe that the fiber is cotton.  I was putting this outfit together in a hurry and this belt was the one I thought was most suitable.  I’ve never tried any weaving so I don’t know whether a fringed belt would be something that would be small scale enough for me to try as a first project under the supervision of someone more experienced, or whether it might prove to be more difficult than something larger.  If I was going to enter a competition, I probably would want to try weaving my own belt in a style closer to what is seen in the extant pieces, but for now, I think it’s nice to be able to wear a nice gift from one of my longtime friends.  I was also wearing a second belt, I actually don’t know who made it but it was kindly loaned to me by Seeta after I realized that I wasn’t entitled to wear my pretty green one any more.

The hat I’m wearing here is a nalbound hat in what I believe is wool.  I still have not achieved a hat that is appropriate for this time period and culture and I think that a hat should actually be my next project, so I can have something that is appropriate.  Still, this hat is slightly better than the Alluring Mummy Beanie I started the event by wearing, since the new hat is nalbound (a technology certainly used by the 1000-600 BCE mummies) and the old hat is knitted (a technology very unlikely to have been used in this period).  Unfortunately I don’t know the name of the artisan who made it but I bought it from Pol the Blackfist.

The boots are an entirely modern purchase.  They are leather, which is a step in the right direction, but there have been considerable advances in shoemaking over the past 4000 years.  The literature describing the mummies does contain cutting patterns for several of the extant pairs of boots and for a competition piece I would want to get someone to make up boots of the right style for me or else try my hand at leatherworking so I could make them for myself.  I have ankle ligament problems though, so for the time being I’m happy wearing modern shoes with modern arch support.

Several of the mummies as well as the effigy dolls have their garments pinned together with wooden or bone pins.  This is another thing I’d like to source so I can up the authenticity of this ensemble.  As I mentioned before, I was putting this outfit together in a hurry and I wasn’t confident of my ability to find the right thing in time.  At Samhain, I was pleased to be a judge in the Apprentices’ Tourney and one of the entries I judged was penannular brooches in a variety of materials made by Brother Selewine.  Although I knew that metal finds were very rare in the 1800 BCE mummy graves, I did know that penannular brooches were a very common method of closure throughout the Indo-European world in the Bronze and Iron Ages, and the brooches that Brother Selewine had made were stylistically more neutral than the Hellenistic fibulae I already had in my jewel box.  When I was preparing this outfit, I contacted Brother Selewine to see if he would be willing to sell me some of his copper or bronze brooches but instead, being the excellent and generous human being that he is, he gifted them to me.

You’ll also note that I’m wearing a neutral-colored tank top here.  There is of course no such thing in any of the extant finds, and in fact some of the mummies don’t appear to wear anything except their string belts under their blanket wraps, but for reasons of modern modesty and warmth, I picked up a cheap tank top that I hoped would blend in instead of standing out as modern.

Tools:  You can see a longer discussion of the tools I think may have been available to the Tarim Basin peoples under “How – Tools” in this previous post.  I wasn’t especially concerned with authenticity of tools and processes for this particular project because I just wanted something new and pretty to wear, but I did actually wind up using one of my bronze needles (also from Seeta) because it was the sharpest needle whose eye was the right size to thread the sewing wool I was using.

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Cut and Construction:  The best-described blanket wrap is the one worn by the Beauty of Loulan.  It consists of two lengths of cloth approximately two feet wide each, joined together in a horizontal seam near the waist with long whipping stitches.  I didn’t note any discussion of how long the resulting blanket wrap was.  Barber and Good’s best guess is that the looms used by this culture were ground looms, which would result in a selvedge along three sides, including the long sides.  There was no information given on the cut and construction, if any, of the deerskin skirt.

The fabric I was able to acquire for both skirt and blanket wrap was much wider than the exemplar fabric, so my first step was to take my 60″ wide fabric and turn it into multiple strips of fabric that would be 24″ wide when finished.  Because I was only going to have selvedge left on one side of my fabric after cutting, I needed to leave seam allowance that I could turn under in some fashion and make a finished edge.  Because the warp and weft threads of these two fabrics were clearly visible, I decided that I would use the drawn-thread method of sectioning the fabric instead of merely relying on my ability to cut a perfectly straight line with a pair of shears.  This was a bit time consuming and frustrating, but in the end I was happier with the result than I would have been if I had just cut.

The next step was to finish the edges of the fabric.  For both fabrics, I first used a blanket stitch on the cut edge of the fabric, and then I turned the edge under and stitched it down with a running stitch.  In the case of the skirt fabric, that was enough, but with the blanket wrap fabric I felt that the raw/blanket stitched edge of the fabric was still sticking out and didn’t look that nice, so I stitched the raw edge down further with a whipping stitch.

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In order to complete construction of the blanket wrap, I pinned the two lengths together along their seam-finished edges so that the selvedges would be at the top and bottom of the garment, then attached the two pieces together with a whip stitch.  The stitching on the Beauty of Loulan’s wrap is described as “loose” or “coarse” but I wasn’t convinced that the stitching wool I had chosen was going to stand up if it was only loosely attached, so I placed my stitches much closer together.  There was no real information on the skirt so I guessed that a simple tube shape that was wider around than my hips would probably work.  I pinned the two short edges together and whip stitched them together as well.  On my earlier Caftan Prototype, Maistreas Sadb had given me advice that if I didn’t want my whip stitching to show on the right side of the garment I should whip stitch from the inside (with right sides together, like in modern sewing).  Here though I wanted the whip stitching to be part of the otherwise minimalistic decorative scheme so I sewed from the right side (with the wrong sides together).  The blanket stitching, the two types of seam finishing, and the whip stitching are all sewing techniques appearing on textiles found at Hallstatt.  Hallstatt was contemporary with the later (1000-600 BCE) mummies and Elizabeth Barber believes the two cultures were possibly quite closely related.

Draping:  The mummies I was focusing on for this project all wore either fringed belts or girdles and, in the case of The Beauty of Loulan, a deerskin skirt apparently underneath their blanket wraps.  This seems to line up with the other evidence Barber presents about the portrayal of girdles in the literature of other Indo-European cultures.  Since I didn’t have any other information about how the Beauty of Loulan’s skirt worked, I decided to tie my belt on over top of it and then fold down the top of the skirt over the belt to keep it up. I chose to put the selvedge of the skirt at the top.

When the mummies were buried, they were wrapped or rolled up in their blankets so that the blankets covered their faces, even when this sometimes left their feet and ankles bare.  Many other (somewhat related) cultures of the Bronze and Iron Ages also wore garments amounting to pinned and draped lengths of fabrics, and I concluded that it was possible to interpret the mummies’ blanket wraps in this light, although I don’t think this is the only possible interpretation or even necessarily the most correct one.  Among items found from the 1800 BCE date are two dolls or effigies.  They are sort of symbolically person-shaped rather than being any kind of anatomically approximate fashion doll, but both of them appear to be dressed in lengths of fabric that are pinned over both shoulders and belted at the waist.  Since this is one way that other related cultures draped their garments, I decided that was the best approach here.  I had originally purchased 3m of blanket wrap fabric, but while working with it I decided that was much too long and decided to halve it to 1.5m.  While 1.5m is enough to comfortably go around me, it turns out to be slightly too short to comfortably wear a style that is pinned at both shoulders.  After several test drapings with my penannular brooches pinned at different locations, I concluded that the only way I was going to feel comfortable was with a one-shoulder approach.  I know this is one way that Greeks sometimes wore their garments, though I’ve come across some information that they only left one shoulder unpinned for certain activities.  If I was going to enter a project like this in a competition, I think I would want to make sure my blanket wrap was long enough to wear on both shoulders, because this is what the Tarim Basin effigies show, and I might also want to have some information on social meanings of various stylings in related cultures.

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)

“Secrets of the Silk Road”, Bowers Museum (book)

“Woollen Textiles of the Lou-Lan People”, Vivi Sylwan (book)

Penn Museum Silk Road Symposium (Youtube)

Various lectures on Indo-European studies (Youtube)

Heather Rose Jones – Archaeological Sewing

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