Date of this Version
Published in Silk Roads, Other Roads: Textile Society of America 8th Biennial Symposium, Sept. 26–28, 2002, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts.
The salty sands of the Tarim Basin, along the route of the later "Silk Road", have produced masses of textiles, splendidly preserved with all their colors, from 2000 BC down to the recent past. In 1995 Irene Good and I had the privilege of being invited to study some of the earliest textiles from this region—those preceding the Chinese entry into the area about 110 BC. I was particularly struck by the prevalence of textile bands, the subject I now wish to explore.
The earliest textiles there come from around Loulan, the dry. salty, and desolate northeast corner of the Taklamakan Desert. Here, beginning a century ago, explorers have occasionally found startlingly well-preserved corpses from 4000 years ago. such as the so-called Beauty of Loulan. She wore a hide skirt and moccasins, a blanket-wrap of natural brown sheep's wool woven with supplementary weft-looping, and a woven-felt hood with a feather. With her, the excavators found a pouch of woven grass containing wheat, a winnowing basket for wheat preparation, and part of a long-toothed comb that she probably used not only on herself but also to collect molting wool from the local breed of primitive-fleeced sheep. The wheat and sheep her people raised, together with their Caucasoid features, tell us that these folk must have wandered into the Tarim Basin from far to the west, for both wool and wheat were first domesticated in the foothills around Mesopotamia at the start of the Neolithic, about 8000 BC, spreading outward from there. The Loulan culture was still so simple, however, that weavers used their wool only in its natural colors, sometimes sorting it by color for effect, but seldom succeeding in dyeing it. The little three-strand braided band that ties the Beauty's felt hood around her face, however, contains one yarn dyed blue.
When we get our next major find of textiles 1000 years later, from a large tomb near Cherchen, people had figured out both how to dye their wools yellow, blue, and shades of red, and how to make much fancier plaited bands. The tall, typically Caucasian man from 1000 BC, central occupant of an intact tomb, had strong connections with the grasslands to the north and west, for he wore trousers, recently invented in the steppes for horse riding, and his tomb contained a saddle and the bones of a horse sacrifice. The invention of horse riding, in fact, had suddenly made it easy for riders to traverse the grasslands, which run north of the desert zone from what is now Budapest to Beijing. And traverse it they did. For example, after much research, I determined that the man's belt-band is constructed of six pairs of threads in five colors, in the same manner as Japanese kumihimo. The Japanese use a wooden disk supported on posts, with a central hole through which the cord forms, tensioned by a weight. Each component strand is wrapped around a small weight, preferably of 1 to 3 ounces, which hangs off the outer edge of the disk. By grasping opposite weights and swapping their places, one can quickly and easily plait a very solid cord. The order of moving the pairs (along with their number and color) determines the pattern.