This page is an adjunct to Cherchen / Qiemo - Ancient Mummies and Modern Comfort,
a tourism guide to this town on the southern rim of the Taklamakan Desert in Xinjiang, China.

扎滚鲁克古墓群景点  Zagunluk Ancient Group Tomb Scenic Spot
Zagunluke Gumuqun Jingdian (zāgǔnlǔkè gǔmùqún jǐngdiǎn)

Tel. 0996-792-9001, 30Y.  No photos. 
09:30-13:30, 16:30-19:30, probably every day. Not staffed -- Go to Toghraklek Manor, just a few kilometers away, to get the docent, who has the key, and bring her/him to the Zaghunluq Tomb building. 

Zaghunluq Ancient Mummy Tomb ticket, Cherchen / Qiemo, Xinjiang, ChinaThe main tourist attraction in Cherchen / Qiemo is the mummy tomb found in the adjoining village of Zaghunluq.  In Chinese guides, it is called 扎滚鲁克古墓群景点, Zagunluke Ancient Group Tomb Scenic Spot.

On the vast, empty salt plateau, a tiny pink building stands alone.  It was built only recently over one of the hundreds of tombs at this site. Excavated only a decade ago, the tombs date back thousands of years.  In this 2,600 year old tomb, you can see, a few meters down through the plexiglass cover, fourteen naturally mummified bodies, in their bright woollen clothes with their variety of funerary offerings in excellent condition, looking as if they had been placed quite recently.  Several of the mummies are shown in the image to the left, the museum entry ticket.

You can also observe, close up, two 2,400 year old mummies in display cases, a husband and wife that had been buried together in a separate tomb nearby.

Location and Transport

Cherchen / Qiemo town,showing site of Zaghunluq Ancient Mummy Tomb museum, Xinjiang, ChinaThe Zaghunluq site is less than five kilometers southwest of the city center, passing through rural Cherchen / Qiemo with its poplar-lined lanes, and just 500 m west of the edge of the oasis.  You can take a regular taxi, but your driver must pick up the docent with the key at the Toghraklek Manor Museum (above) before going to the site. 

You might want to arrange with your driver in advance for a price that includes him waiting for you as you see the Toghraklek Manor museum, because the museum includes a good selection of artifacts from the excavated graves, and then take you and the docent to Zaghunluq. 

Zaghunluq Section Contents

This description and history of the Zaghunluq Cemetery is in a separate page from the Cherchen / Qiemo page due to its length.

Of the following sections in this document, the Location and Transport and The Fascination sections are also included on the main Cherchen / Qiemo page.

Zaghunluq Section Contents
  • Location and Transport
  • The Fascination
  • A Building over a Tomb
  • Hundreds of Tombs
  • Making a Mummy
  • A Complex Sandwich
  • Group Tombs
  • Extensive Wardrobes
  • Not Quite Giants
  • Other Artifacts
  • Discovery
  • Renewed Interest
  • Names and Spelling
  • Sign at Zaghunluq Tomb
The Fascination

For many travelers, interest is piqued by:

The Zaghunluq mummies have all these bases well covered. 

You don't need to know their history to be awed by 3,000 year old mummies.

Yet, if you do look into their history, as much as we know, there is still so much unknown. 

Cherchen Woman, c.1000 bce, Zaghunluq cemetery, Cherchen / Qiemo, on display at Urumqi Museum,  Xinjiang, China

Cherchen Woman
c.1000 BCE
Xinjiang Museum, Urumqi.
Photo source unknown

Even as more information emerges from on-going research and newer excavations, few of the facts provide definitive answers and some even raise new questions.

But even without knowing much of their history, one knows the earliest cemetery residents lived in dynamic times:  the days of Zoroaster in Iran, Solomon in Israel, during the Vedic period in India, and just a few hundred years after Ramesses the Great in Egypt and the late Bronze Age collapse of several great Mediterranean civilizations -- Mycenae and the Hittites. Their time was at the tail end of the vast Indo-European migrations ranging to India and to Ireland, of which these people were the easternmost branch; living hundreds of years before ancient Greece or Rome were founded, and many hundreds of years before Qin Shihuangdi first unified China and created his terracotta warriors.


A Building over a Tomb

Zaghunluq Ancient Mummy Tomb building - inside, Cherchen / Qiemo, Xinjiang, ChinaZaghunluq Ancient Mummy Tomb building, Cherchen / Qiemo, Xinjiang, ChinaTombs found here date back as far as 3,500 years ago.  Many ancient cemeteries have been found around the Taklamakan desert, but one of the greatest concentrations, and among the oldest and best preserved, have been found at the Zaghunluq cemetery.

A small building has been erected here over the spot of what archaeologists call Tomb 24.  On display is this single tomb, 3.4 meters down and 5 meters by 2.7 meters, containing fourteen mummies as they were placed here 2,600* years ago, along with their textiles and grave goods.  They are in remarkable condition, with colorful, complex intact clothing.  (* per the docent at the tomb)

The Shanghai Office of the Guinness Book of Records conferred on this tomb the world record as the "largest family joint burial tomb of mummies."  The tomb includes men, women, and children. It may not actually be the largest, but no representatives of other group tombs have contested this designation, and it is certainly the largest one open to tourists.

Mummy in case, c.400 bce, Zaghunluq Ancient Mummy Tomb, Cherchen / Qiemo, Xinjiang, China2400-year-old mummy, Zaghunluq Ancient Mummy Tomb, Cherchen / Qiemo, Xinjiang, ChinaAlso in the same building, in two display cases which you can observe close up, is a pair of 2,400 year old mummies found together in another tomb at Zaghunluq.  A photo of the two together in their original tomb hangs on the wall.  In the room photo above to the left, you can see the display cases and to the left and right you can see images of the two mummies. Although they are in remarkable condition for their age, they are not the best quality mummies from this site; the best preserved have been taken for display or research at the Xinjiang Regional Museum in Urumqi, Xinjiang.

Zaghunluq Ancient Mummy Tomb sign, Cherchen / Qiemo, Xinjiang, ChinaIn the tomb building, there is only a brief background sign in English (see text below) and a few photos of grave goods, so you may want to do your research before you go. You can search for Xinjiang Mummies or Mummies of Urumchi or Tarim Mummies, or search for the famous "Cherchen Man" and "Cherchen Woman," who were found here but are on display in Urumqi.  Wikipedia, one of the most convenient resources, is generally blocked in China.  Some historical context is provided here.

Hundreds of Tombs

Zaghunluq Ancient Mummy Tomb ticket, Cherchen / Qiemo, Xinjiang, ChinaExperts estimate there are more than 800 ancient tombs in this cemetery. Only a small percentage has been excavated, 169 to date over three excavation periods.  This is one of the largest cemeteries found in Xinjiang.  Many tombs have been looted, both recently and back into antiquity, and others have been exposed by the incessant winds.  Due to budget constraints for preservation of mummies, most of the excavated tombs have been reburied here.  Few of the tombs have yielded mummies, although even skeletons and the other tomb contents, such as copious well-preserved textiles, and their placement have been historically valuable.  Looting has always been a problem, but especially recently with all the publicity, even though no gold or silver has been found here, because even a small piece of ancient textile is said to be worth a great deal on the black market.

Making a Mummy

The mummies here were not bodies extensively-altered by the living after death, like Egyptian mummies, so these are called natural mummies.  But clearly the people wanted the bodies to be preserved and had learned over time how to increase the odds.

They covered the skin with some animal protein/fat mixture.  They dug a channel under the bodies for better circulation to enhance drying before decomposition.  They buried them in grounds with high salt content.  It seems that bodies buried in winter (as indicated by the warmer clothing) had enough time to dry and mummify while the cold staved off decomposition better than those buried in summer.

A Complex Sandwich

Tomb design, Cherchen Man, c.1000 BCE, Zaghunluq cemetery, Cherchen / Qiemo, Xinjiang, ChinaAt Zaghunluq, the ceiling contents of the tomb have been pulled back so that you can see somewhat how they were constructed. The image to the right shows the structure of Cherchen Man's tomb.

The tombs were built with a smaller section below, for the bodies, and a wider section above to support the beams and other ceiling materials.  Below the bodies, they dug a channel to allow better airflow, covered with tree limbs and willow mats.  At least a meter of open space was left above the bodies and their funerary items.  On top of this, in the case of Cherchen Man, came a sequence of tree limbs, woven willow mats, skins from a horse, a donkey and a yak, reed mats, a think cloak, a felt blanket, with more grave goods, and finally sandy soil.

Group Tombs

The group tomb 24 was probably populated over time, a common practice here but unusual in ancient times.  Several such tombs in this cemetery were built with an entry through an anteroom which could be reopened to add more bodies. 

Prejevalsky, in 1873, reported being told of another tomb with twelve corpses, and several other group tombs have also been found.   

In the most famous tomb, that of the Cherchen Man, whose mummy is on display in Urumqi, his body was found along with that of three other women and, nearby, a baby.  They may have died together, perhaps as a result of illness. 

Several man / woman tombs have been found -- here and elsewhere in Xinjiang -- though these may not be romantic burials but rather may represent a wife, as traditional in India, being killed upon the death of her husband.  Another tomb seems to represent a woman of high status being buried with three sacrificial victims.

Extensive Wardrobes

It is unusual to find more than a scrap of fabric in tombs this ancient.  So, as you can imagine, the researchers have been quite excited about the finds at Zaghunluq. "The Tarim Basin textiles are at present the largest cache of prehistoric textiles in the Old World, and they are of substantial importance from many different aspects." ('Bronze Age Cloth and Clothing of the Tarim Basin: The Chärchän Evidence, Irene Good)

The textiles found in many ancient Xinjiang tombs has been remarkable, but the Zaghunluq finds have been particularly remarkable. Specialists continue to be amazed at the high quality preservation of the fabric and the voluminous amounts of fabric and the variety of threads, weaves, colors and designs used to make shrouds, shirts, trousers, hats, coats, belts, shoes and socks. 

Given that textile work made up perhaps half the working hours of women in these times, according to ancient textiles expert Elizabeth Barber, the fact that most Zaghunluq burials involve a large quantity of clothing is astounding.  Considering that Egyptian mummies had only linen wrappings, these folks were veritable clothes hounds.

Felt pointed hat, c.1000 BCE, found with Cherchen Man, Zaghunluq Cemetery, Cherchen / Qiemo, Xinjiang, China

In several tombs, in addition to the clothes they wore, the deceased were even provided with additional clothing.  For example, the famous "Cherchen Man," discovered at Zaghunluq but displayed in Urumqi, was buried with ten hats, each one different. 

If you're not a textile fan, feel free to skip this section.  If you are a textile buff, this will only whet your appetite and you will want to buy Barber's book, "The Mummies of Urumchi."

The fabrics were almost exclusively of sheep's wool, except for some animal furs and deerskin boots.  On a few fabrics, Barber spied some admixture of smoother, glossy wool, giving the fabric a sheen.  It appears to be mohair, that is, hair from a goat, which is possible since some goat skulls were found in a Zaghunluq tomb.

The fabrics from Zaghunluq include a wide variety of weaving techniques:  plain weave, twill weave, woven patterns including tapestry, band plaiting, and nalbinding, as well as non-woven felt and fabric painting. 

Long-hop twill fabric, Zaghunluq cemetery, Cherchen / Qiemo, Xinjiang, China

Plain weave is where the left-right threads (the rows or the weft) each go over or under one forward-back thread (the columns or the warp) at a time. Many Zaghunluq fabrics used plain weave, but often in creative ways such as altering the twisting of the thread.

In twill weave, the weft threads go over or under more than one warp thread, and alternate with different warp threads in different rows. Twill creates a stronger and thicker fabric; modern denim and canvas fabrics, for example, are based on twill weaves. Basic twill usually creates a tell-tale diagonal Spiral and zigzag patterns in fabric, Zaghunluq cemetery, Cherchen / Qiemo, Xinjiang, Chinaeffect in the fabric. Some Zaghunluq fabrics, as shown in the green fabric on the right, are distinctively creative in using what Elizabeth Barber calls a long-hop twill, the weft crossing over three then under one warp thread.

Woven patterns are created by using different colored threads, usually in the weft. The spirals and zigzags in this bright orange and yellow fabric are made with pattern weaving.

Tapestry is the creation of an image effect in a fabric during weaving by use of one or more techniques including thicker weft threads, denser packing of weft threads, or extra weft threads of the same or different weft material or different-colored weft material. Tapestry technique was used to create the hourglass shapes in this fabric (right) found at Zaghunluq. This same fabric had tapestry argali sheep along the border, the only example to date of animals in textiles found at Zaghunluq.

"The very fact of finding tapestry here startled us. ... Tapestry depends on tamping down the weft so tightly that it covers the warp. ... Since the warp doesn't show, changing the color of the weft alone during weaving will produce solid fields of color usable to produce designs." (The Mummies of Urumchi, Elizabeth Barber)

Hourglass tapestry designs in fabric, c.1000 BCE, Zaghunluq cemetery, Cherchen / Qiemo, Xinjiang, ChinaSeveral examples were found at Zaghunluq that involved the use of decorative narrow plaited bands, each only 1 cm wide. "These people made their textiles from sheep's wool. Someone had to tend those sheep, spending long and largely idle days and nights out in the meadows wandering about with them. Weaving on a loom requires many hours working in one place, and a large loom is too heavy and awkward to haul about easily, especially when a cloth is in progress. But band weaving is quite portable. Somecultures use a frame, but in most you just loop the far end of your long, skinny warp around a tree or your own big toe, pull back on the near end with your hand to create the necessary tension, and start weaving. If you have to stop and move, you just roll it up, unhitch the far end, and go. Inn short, Fabric from Zaghunluq cemetery, c.600 bce,  Cherchen / Qiemo, Xinjiang, Chinaanyone could weave or plait bands while herding sheep. ... One has a sense of glimpsing back into a lifestyle of the Bronze Age. The pace is slow but nothing is wasted, including time. ... Researching how the strips themselves were made, I found that the flat bands were created by widespread method called oblique plaiting, related to simple three-strand braiding, but done with ... anywhere from ten to forty threads." (The Mummies of Urumchii, Elizabeth Barber)

Patterns are also more easily woven into narrow strips, and they are an economical way to add decoration (and strength) with multiple colors of dyed threads.  In Zaghunluq, a strip was sometimes used alone for decoration and strength in a hem. Other times, several wider fabrics were made by sewing together several of these narrow strips.

Hat made through nalbinding technique, c.1000 BCE, Zaghunluq cemetery, Cherchen / Qiemo, Xinjiang, China

Nalbinding (or nallbinding) is the use of a needle to loop thread loosely but in an interlocking pattern.  It is similar in effect to knitting, which was not invented until much later. Among the Cherchen Man's ten hats was one created by nalbinding, where the artist added an increasing number of thread loops in subsequent circles to create a beret.

Felt is a non-woven fabric.  The fibers, instead of being spun into thread, are pressed together, the minutely rough surfaces of the wool (technically, the minute overlapping scales covering the cylindrical fibers of keratin that is wool) grabbing onto those of their neighbors.  The Cherchen Man's socks are made of felt, various strips of felt wrapped around his lower legs and feet in bright red, orange, and blue. The blue cap of the baby buried nearby is of felt, as is one of Cherchen Man's hats (shown far above right), which is a tall cone reminiscent of a Phrygian cap. 

Felt leg wraps in deerskin boots, Cherchen Man, c.1000 BCE, Zaghunluq cemetery, Cherchen / Qiemo, Xinjiang, ChinaFabric painting is a way of adding decoration to fabric after weaving.  Fabric painting is rare at Zaghunluq, but this fabric was around the legs of a woman in Red spirals painted on fabric, woman in Cherchen Man's tomb, c.1000 BCE, Zaghunluq cemetery, Cherchen / Qiemo, Xinjiang, Chinathe same tomb as Cherchen Man. Red fabric spirals had been painted on it..  One baby had a shroud with red strips with tie-dyed yellow circles.

No plaid has been found at Zaghunluq; therefore it is beyond the scope of this Cherchen / Qiemo guide.  Plaid was found, however, at the Qizilchoqa cemetery near Qumul / Hami, 1700 km northeast of Cherchen / Qiemo in eastern Xinjiang.  You can read more about that plaid in an excerpt here from The Mummies of Urumchi

Other Artifacts

Some tomb items were laid with the deceased, while others were placed on the felt blanket, and still others on top of the grave.  Artifacts found in various tombs at Zaghunluq include a saddle, part of a cart, heads of sheep, goats and horses, along with the forelegs of a horse, a hollowed cow horn, musical instruments, pottery jars and cups, carved or painted wooden bowls, cups, trays, and boxes, wooden combs, jewelry of carved jade, beads and shell, milking pails, needles, bows and arrows, gourds, spindles, cloth and leather pouches, a glass jar and glass beads, food items, various bronze items, such as knives, seals, coins, and a mirror.

The head and forelegs of a horse in a tomb are found in several nomadic burials in the Eurasian steppe and the Altai Mountains far to the north and west.

Some of the items in the much later tombs come from far away, such as a glass cup likely from Rome, and are thus evidence of increasingly distant trade that accompanied the opening of the Silk Road.

Many artifacts from Zaghunluq can be seen at the nearby Toghraklek Manor museum.  Other artifacts are on display in the museums in Hotan, Korla, and Urumqi.

Images of Zaghunluq artifacts are included throughout the rest of this page.

Not Quite Giants

Cherchen Man, c.1000 bce, Zaghunluq cemetery, Cherchen / Qiemo, on display at Urumqi Museum,  Xinjiang, China

Cherchen Man c.1000 BCE
found at Zaghunluq
on display at Xinjiang Museum, Urumqi.
Photo source unknown

They were tall, for their time.  But not as tall as the oft-repeated early estimates.

Of the Cherchen Man, shown here to the left, Mair and Mallory write, in "The Tarim Mummies,", "[A]nthropological analysis of his stature indicates a 'dead' height of 1.76 m (5 ft 9 in); we can give him another inch or so when alive, but no more."  The excavator's initial claim was of 2.0 m (6 ft 7 in), which has been included in scholarly publications as well as the popular media until they were remeasured in 1999, and is often repeated today.

Still, it can be said that he was tall, in comparison to contemporary people in northern central plains China.  In Shangma cemetery in Shanxi province, for example, the average height of male occupants was 1.65 m (5 ft 5 in) with the tallest of these several hundred reaching 1.79 m (5 ft 10 in).

In the grave with him, the mummy dubbed Cherchen Woman was 1.6 m (5 ft 3 in).  The excavator's initial claim for her was 1.9 m (6 ft 4 in).  In comparison, "the average height of females in southern Siberia at this time was about 1.56 m (5 ft 1 in) ... with the tallest woman set at 1.7 m (5 ft 7 in)."   Another woman from Zaghunluq, excavated in 1989, was 1.7 m (5 ft 7 in) tall.


Konghou (harp) musical instrument, c.1000 BCE, from Zaghunluq Cemetery, on display at Toghraklek Manor Museum, Cherchen / Qiemo, Xinjiang, ChinaLocals had long known about the many tombs in the area, since they were sometimes exposed by the incessant winds or found while digging for salt.  The high salt content of the soil along with the arid conditions were ideal for the tomb preservation.

Early explorers such as Prejevalsky (1870s) and Bergman (1930s) commented on the tombs -- including the European features of the remains. 

But Chinese and western interest at the time was minimal, with most scholars focusing on the early Silk Road and Buddhist cultural finds, dating from the beginning of the first millennium CE, including the cities found buried in the desert like Niya, Loulan, and Miran and the fabulous Buddhist caves at Kucha and in nearby Gansu Province at Dunhuang.

Increased Interest

In 1988, prominent American scholar of Chinese studies, Victor Mair, took a strong interest when he saw mummies from Zaghunluq and from further northwest near Loulan on display in the Xinjiang museum in Urumqi.  Most of these had been excavated in the 1970s and early 1980s by Dolkun Kamberi, a Uyghur researcher who later received his doctorate in archaeology.

Mair, sensing the importance of these finds, was stunned by what he saw and the claims for their age of more than 3,000 years. They might be the proof he had been lacking to support theories that he and others posited about contact between east and west far more ancient than the Silk Road.

At the same time, he was also, understandably, skeptical. These mummies and their clothing were in better condition than any others anywhere in the world, and especially good given their reputed age. ""I thought it was part of a wax museum or something, a ploy to get more tourists. How could they have such advanced textile technology three thousand years ago? I couldn't put it into any historical context. It didn't make any sense whatsoever," said Mair."

Animal fabric, c.1000 bce, found in Zaghunluq Cemetery, displayed at Toghraklek Manor Museum, Cherchen / Qiemo, Xinjiang, ChinaBut the more he researched, the stronger the proof became.  Read The Curse of the Red-Headed Mummy for a good discussion of the the mummies' discovery and subsequent flurry of international academic and public interest.

But why the increased interest now?

Great advances had been made in many fields of science, since the late 19th and early 20th century explorations in Xinjiang of Prjevalsky, Stein and Hedin, in genetics, archaeology, linguistics, metallurgy, geography, anthropology, dromography, ethnology and related historical fields.  In those same decades, archaeological discoveries had blossomed in south Asia, the Middle East, Central Asia, the Commonwealth of Independent States (the republics of the former Soviet Union) and China, as well as elsewhere around the world, pushing back the chronological frontiers of knowledge -- albeit often sketchy or fragmentary -- about humanity into the Iron Age, the Bronze Age, and the Neolithic or late Stone Age.

Wooden comb from nearby Vash-Shahri, similar to combs displayed at Toghraklek Manor Museum, Cherchen / Qiemo, Xinjiang, ChinaThe early Internet and its antecedents connected research organizations and universities as well as the military, years before the advent of the world-wide web, and allowed speedy sharing of ideas previously tethered to the periodic pace of published journals.  This, along with greater openness after the Cold War and China's transitions, allowed increased sharing of knowledge between and about these countries and the past embedded in their lands.  This led to connections, in scholarly circles, between the histories and prehistories of, for example, what are now India and China, and of what are now Iran, eastern Russia, and the Central Asian republics, and of what are now Turkey and Mongolia.

Yet in between these lay Xinjiang, its history to the beginning of the Silk Road partly known and beyond that hardly known, when the region was again shut off by the massive disruptions of China's history in the 20th century.  Xinjiang, a vast area one-sixth of China's land mass, a bit smaller than Alaska, three times the size of France, was a missing piece in many puzzles, and most scholars thought there may be nothing more to find there, a dead end, like its many rivers that flow into the desert and disappear into the sand.

Carved wooden box, c.1000 BCE, found in Zaghunluq Cemetery, displayed at Toghraklek Manor Museum, Cherchen / Qiemo, Xinjiang, ChinaChina's opening of the 1970s didn't touch Xinjiang; Mair was among the first westerners allowed in the mid-1980s, and tourists were then cautiously allowed, supervised, as far as Urumqi and Turpan, and gradually into the rest of Xinjiang.

Mair assembled and brought back a research team in 1993.  His hunch was right, and it was even more significant than he had imagined.  This project resulted in waves of scholarly papers, conferences, television documentaries, and several books, some of which are listed below.  More than a thousands scholars today are actively studying the Bronze Age and early Iron Age history of the early Indo-Europeans, including Xinjiang, given its importance as an ancient zone of cultural contact between east and west and even north and south a millennium before the Silk Road.

Carved cup, found in Zaghunluq cemetery, Cherchen / Qiemo, displayed in Urumqi Museum, Xinjiang, ChinaVictor Mair and colleague J. P. Mallory, an expert in Indo-European migrations, gathered the research papers into a scholarly, 900 page, two-volume set, "Bronze Age and Early Iron Age People of Eastern Central Asia" in 1998. You can see the table of contents at   They also summarized that information (if you can call 352 pages a summary) into an academic volume, "The Tarim Mummies" in 2000.  Mair also translated a scholarly work of leading Chinese researchers, Wang Binghua, Ji Xianlin, and Ahmat Rashid, called, "The Ancient Corpses of Xinjiang: The Peoples of Ancient Xinjiang & Their Culture."

Ancient textile expert Elizabeth Barber wrote a book not just illuminating the textiles but telling the full story of the mummies in a fascinating readable style in "The Mummies of Urumchi" in 1999. Here is a review of her book.  You can read large excerpts of this book here at Google Books

Embroidered fabric, Zaghunluq - later period, Cherchen / Qiemo, Xinjiang, ChinaWho Were They?

This is not an easy question to answer, at least not in a meaningful way.

First, as a general rule, the further back you go, the less information you have and the less it can tell you clearly and distinctly.

Second, remember that research in earnest on prehistoric Xinjiang -- the Bronze Age (2000-900 BCE) and the Iron Age (900-130 BCE) only began in 1995 with Mair's research team. This is a tiny amount of time in the academic world to pull together information across thousands of years and thousands of square kilometers and hundreds of cultures and multiple academic and scientific disciplines and develop, debate, massage and revise theories.  The work of Mair and Mallory et. al. in publishing research within a decade of beginning these studies in earnest is a stunning accomplishment in academic circles.  But it's only the first word on the subject, and far from the last word.  Archaeology and analysis continue to the present with no end in sight.

Pottery jar from Zaghunluq cemetery, c.600 bce, similar to pots on display at Toghraklek Manor Museum, Cherchen / Qiemo, Xinjiang, ChinaThird, though several tombs from Zaghunluq have been excavated and certain finds have been researched, no published scientific dating or DNA is available.  Most of the research has been done on the finds in northern and eastern Xinjiang, partly because they are closer to the ancient cultures of central plains China, with a greater opportunity for comparison, and perhaps because there are more cemeteries and settlements from different periods in the north and thus a better chance of putting more information together in a larger context.  So, though Cherchen Man is the most famous of the Tarim Mummies, he is also somewhat the Unknown Soldier. 

In spite of all this, this author is willing to attempt to vastly simplify this already tentative research and give the reader a few clues about the ancient residents of Zaghunluq.  It's lucky that the Zaghunluq table-land is mostly made of salt, because you'll have to take these ideas with several big grains of it.

Food on tray, c.600 bce, from Zaghunluq cemetery, Cherchen / Qiemo, displayed in Urumqi Museum, Xinjiang, ChinaThey came from the west -- that is, west of here.

There are two main theories about where and how the earliest wave of immigrants came from who migrated into Xinjiang over several thousand years in the Bronze Age and early Iron Age. 

Bread, c.800 BCE, Zaghunluq cemetery, Cherchen / Qiemo, Xinjiang, ChinaAnd these are only the most popular theories today.  All of these groups would have been from the wide-ranging Indo-European migrations of their day.

Wherever their provenance, this first wave entered Xinjiang starting more than 4,000 years ago, perhaps as much as 4,500 years ago. 

A distinct second wave migrated into Xinjiang about 3,200 years ago, an offshoot of the Saka, from what is now Iran or Afghanistan, across the Pamirs into what is now Kashgar and settled along the northwest and southwest rims of the Taklamakan, as far as Hotan.

But, however Xinjiang became populated, we don't know, at this point, from which of these waves the Zaghunluq population specifically derived. The burials at Sampul near Hotan are clearly from this second wave. The burials at Qawrighul, where the Loulan Beauty was found, are clearly in the first wave. Mair and Mallory tentatively put the Zaghunluq cemetery into the first category. Explorer Christoph Baumer puts the Zaghunluq residents into the second category.

Round leather box, Zaghunluq, Cherchen / Qiemo, Xinjiang, ChinaThey didn't come from Europe.

They did come, technically, from the very, very easternmost part of far eastern Europe, since the most likely homeland of the Indo-European migrations began around where Asia and Europe meet. 

The ridge of the Caucasus Mountains between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea is today part of the modern dividing line between Europe and Asia (and in ancient times this line further west, along a river at the northeast corner of the Black Sea). The line continues west through the Black Sea to Istanbul and the other way goes north through the Caspian Sea to the Ural Mountains.  

The Indo-European migrations (most scholars today believe) began near this border of Asia and Europe and spread east, west, north, and south.  Therefore, it would be no more true to say that the Tarim Mummies "came from Europe" than to say that the Irish "came from Asia." 

Over the years, earlier theories have placed the ultimate homeland, or urheimat, of the Indo-Europeans in various locations, from India to Denmark. But subsequent research in a number of fields has narrowed the options, in the opinions of most scholars, to the Caucasus regions.

They spoke an Indo-European language.

Bronze knives, Zaghunluq cemetery, Cherchen / Qiemo, Xinjiang, ChinaWe don't know precisely what language the Zaghunluq folks spoke when they were alive, but it was almost certainly one of the Indo-European languages.  There is still some scholarly debate about where the original proto-Indo-European language originated, and when.  But most today believe it started north of the Caucasus, with a minority in favor of it coming from Anatolia, south of the Caucasus.  But in either case, with the Indo-European migrants, their languages changed as the people went in all directions, and from those directions again went in all directions, and some of these directions brought some of them, from different places and at different times, into Xinjiang.

Cherchen baby, c.1000 BCE, Zaghunluq cemetery, Cherchen / Qiemo, Xinjiang, China
AP Photo

Their language was most likely either proto-Tocharian, one of the earliest languages to break off from the proto-Indo-European stem, or an Iranian language, a cousin to proto-Farsi, a later Indo-European branch, since these eventually became the languages of the two most likely ancient migrations into the area of Zaghunluq.  Zaghunluq finds itself in a region where evidence of both languages and cultures or their descendents have been found.  Having been separated for a millennium, they were probably not mutually intelligible.  And since the only written records in either language emerge nearly 2000 years after the early Zaghunluq burials, we may never know which it was unless future excavations here and more throrough analysis of existing data reveals more clues.

In several areas of Xinjiang, there were both settled agriculturalist cultures and nomadic cultures, trading grain and perhaps textiles for animal products such as wool, meat, and cheese.  Mair and Mallory propose that along the eastern side of Xinjiang, the agriculturalists spoke the languages today called Tocharian, and those nomads who took up agriculture also adopted those tongues, while the nomadic tribes spoke various Indo-Iranian languages.

They lived a long time ago, as long as 3,500 years ago.

Carved wooden box, Zaghunluq cemetery, Cherchen / Qiemo, Xinjiang, ChinaIt would be helpful in understanding who they were if we knew when they were.  But despite the mountains of material, only five Zaghunluq cemetery finds have been scientifically dated, and none of these has yet been published.  Mair and Mallory, in "The Tarim Mummies," say that Chinese researcher "He Dexiu indicates there are five dates in the range c. 3200-2700 B[efore] P[resent], i.e., c. 1500-850 BC" [given the range of uncertainty in testing].  No DNA results -- if any have been done -- have yet been reported. 

Chinese reports, from unpublished Carbon-14 dating of tomb artifacts, place Cherchen Man at about 3,000 years ago. (Mair and Mallory suggest he may be several hundred years younger.)  The docent at Zaghunluq told this author that this group burial on display of tomb 24 dates to 2,600 years ago, and the two mummies on display in glass cases date from 2,400 years ago.

Red woolen gauze, Zaghunluq cemetery, Cherchen / Qiemo, Xinjiangm, ChinaThe sign at Zaghunluq claims three phases of burials at Zaghunluq.  The Chinese have done two further excavations after the flurry of early western research in the 1990s, but they have been somewhat reserved about releasing or publishing the results of this research, at least as far as this author has been able to discover.  So this sign (see text below) is what we have to go with.  The first phase dates from around the 15th century BCE.  The second phase dates from around the 8th to 1st century BCE.  The third phase dates to around the 1st to 5th century CE.

Zaghunluq is not the earliest cemetery in Xinjiang and these are not the oldest mummies in the Tarim Basin. The Loulan Beauty, also on display in the Xinjiang Museum in Urumqi, was found near Lop Nor and her artifacts have been dated to 1,800 BCE. Some evidence of very early influence from the west includes wheat found in Gansu dating to 2,300 BCE. (Li Xiao Qiang, Nov 2007)

They were pastoralists, likely seminomadic or settled.

The rock carvings in the mountains south of Cherchen / Qiemo have been tentatively to the same period as Zaghunluq cemetery. It is likely they were made by the same people.  The rock carvings indicate a mixed economy, with hunting and pastoral scenes and only a few agrarian scenes. (See ROCK CARVINGS in the Cherchen / Qiemo page.)  In the burials at Zaghunluq, the artifacts, including saddles and the heads and forelegs of horses, are strong indications that these were pastoral people, living by herding cattle, sheep, and horses. It is likely that they were semi-nomadic, settling in one place during the winter. It is also possible that they had become settled in the oasis, largely giving up their nomadic ways though remaining pastoralists.

Spindles with spiral design, Zaghunluq cemetery, Cherchen / Qiemo, Xinjiang, ChinaThe Zaghunluq people may have been semi-nomadic pastoralists, making their living mainly from herding sheep and perhaps cattle, largely on horseback, with some hunting, possibly practiciing some agriculture. But they may have been former nomads who settled and increasingly relied on agriculture. The picture is far from clear.  

In many regions of the world, settled peoples show a higher level of civilization, technology, and art than nomads, but in ancient Xinjiang, the nomads were the more advanced, practicing metallurgy and more elaborate art forms, at least until the founding of Khotan and the opening of the Silk Road in the last centuries of the first millennium BCE.

Skirt, c.800 BCE, Zaghunluq cemetery, Cherchen / Qiemo, Xinjiang, ChinaNo settlements in the area have been found dating to the early periods of this cemetery.  Their settlement (if they had a fixed settlement) or the settlement of their agrarian counterparts may be buried in the sands of the Taklamakan Desert or may have been washed out by the changing river flow. It may be that, if nomadic, the Zaghunluq people may have spent the warmer months in the mountains in the south, such as in the Tula Grasslands, with their herds and flocks, coming north toward the desert only in the colder months or to trade or bury their dead at Zaghunluq.  

They had Europoid features.


Cherchen Man face, c.1000 bce, Zaghunluq cemetery, Cherchen / Qiemo, on display at Urumqi Museum,  Xinjiang, China
Cherchen man face detail showing ochre painting
added after death
Photo source unknown

All of the remains found to date at Zaghunluq have Europoid features -- white skin, deep-set eyes, prominent noses, facial hair on the men, and some had light-colored hair.  This is a general statement that their body type is Europoid (also called Caucasoid) rather than East Asian (also called Mongoloid).  This is also true of all the bodies found in all of Xinjiang before 200 BCE, except for a few cemeteries in far eastern Xinjiang, where some East Asians (but not Han Chinese) are also found.

In "The Tarim Mummies," Mair and Mallory report on three distinct Europoid physical types in Xinjiang, based in large part on features of the skulls.  

No skulls from Zaghunluq were apparently analyzed for the above study, nor were any from ancient Niya, nor has DNA been published for these mummies. Likely because there are more sites in northeastern Xinjiang located more closely together, and because those are closer the original path of contact with central plains China, there has been more academic interest in those sites than in Zaghunluq, located off very much by itself, at least during the Bronze Age and early Iron Age.

Among the hundreds of mummies and thousands of ancient skeletons excavated in Xinjiang, therefore, the Zaghunluq mummies are still somewhat more of a mystery.  In one of the most authoritative books on the subject, "The Tarim Mummies," by J.P. Mallory and Victor Mair, states, "So far, the remains of Zaghunluq have not been associated specifically with any other culture, but its use of the double-chambered pit, timber, mat and hide layers, and animal remains are hardly far removed from the other cultures of East Central Asia."  A frustrating non-answer, but the best one currently available.


A Word about Spelling and Naming

The mummies found here are also called Cherchen Mummies, Tarim Basin Mummies, Tarim Mummes, Taklamakan Mummies, Takla Makan Mummies, Urumqi Mummies, Urumchi Mummies, the Mummies of Urumchi, and the Desert Mummies.  Except for the first, these names also include mummies from other sites in Xinjiang.  The most famous individual from here is called Cherchen Man, who is on display in Urumqi. 

The author doesn't know (yet) the meaning of the Uyghur name Zaghunluq.  The cemetery was named after the Uyghur village next to the cemetery, a few kilometers from central Cherchen / Qiemo. 

The proper roman spelling of the Uyghur name is Zaghunluq.  This is the spelling used in most western research, so the author has used this spelling.

From the sign at the site, the official Chinese characters are 扎滚鲁克.  The Pinyin name, for these characters, with tone marks, is zā gǔn lǔ kè or zhā gǔn lǔ kè or, without tone marks, Zagunluke or Zhagunluke. 

The roman name on the English sign inside the building is Zagunluk.  The roman name on the County Travel Bureau attraction price list is Zahonluk.  The roman name Tagunluk is printed on the tickets but nowhere else and is clearly a typo, since the Chinese character on the ticket is 扎 (za). 

However, in addition to these, the name for this cemetery is spelling in an amazing variety of ways, including Zaghunluk, Zagunluk, Zogholuk, Zahonluk, Zahongluke, Zaghanluq, plus all of these with "zha" instead of "za." 

Why the spelling confusion? 

This is a very frequent situation in Xinjiang, though usually not with quite such a variety.  The issue is whether the romanized name in English should be the Uyghur name, following standard roman Uyghur spelling rules, or the Pinyin of the transliteration of the Uyghur name into Chinese. 

The case of Zaghunluq presents two examples of a transliteration spelling issue.

Another frequent issue relates to Chinese language structure, such as what characters are permitted at the beginnings and ends of words, and what sounds are allowed to follow certain sounds, and how the standard sound of the character might change depending on where it appears in a word.  The Chinese character 扎 in Pinyin can be either "za" or "zha."

These three issues account for almost all of the spelling variety.

A separate issue relates to the meanings of various Chinese characters.  Many English speakers are familiar with the story of Coca-Cola in China, before it chose an official Chinese name, it allowed local distributors to apply their own name, and one chose characters which, while they closely represented the sounds of the name, could mean "Bite the Wax Tadpole."  Coca-Cola, after some research, chose a Chinese name, with perhaps less phonetic fidelity but greater syntactic harmony, which could mean "Happiness in the Mouth."  The Chinese are so accustomed to doing this with foreign words that perhaps some of the alternates are considered, by their creator, to be improvements.

What does all this matter to you, the reader?  Not much, except that inquiring minds want to know.  But if you want to do a web search that finds everything written about this place in English, you'll want to use a parentheses containing all of the spellings each separated by the word OR written in capital letters. 

Sign at Zaghunluq Tomb

The only information for visitors at the Zaghunluq tomb site is three letter-sized signs, in Chinese, Uyghur, and English.  It tells nothing about the history or culture of the people, but merely provides a brief description of tomb construction and artifacts. 

Graveyard No.1 at Zagunluk, lying in Zagunluk village within the territory of Charchan county in Xinjiang.  The culture of the graves is divided into three phases. 

The graves in the first phase are rectangular earthen shaft tombs.  Unearthed things include polychrome pottery and wooden articles, dating around 15th century BC. 

The second phase is the main part of the culture, dating around 8th - 1st [century] BC.  Tombs include rectangular earthen shaft tomb, rectangular earthen shaft tombs with a wooden shed and a passage to the wooden shed.  Burial customs include single burial, multiple burial, mass secondary burial.  Most of the burial postures is the upward-fixed supine position.  Unearthed implements include wooden articles, pottery, stone artifact, ironwares, copperwares, and so on. 

The graves of the third phase include rectangular earthen shaft tombs, square earthen shaft tomb with a wooden shed and catacomb. Unearthed things include wooden articles, earthenware, glass cup and cotton clothes, etc. The date is around 1-5th century AD."

Go to the Cherchen / Qiemo page.


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