A team of Chinese archaeologists have recently discovered dozens of remarkably well-preserved mummies scattered about a sand dune on the western edge of Lop Nur, a desolate area in northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.
"Never before have such a large number of mummies been found in a single graveyard anywhere in the world," said Yang Lian, a research fellow with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences who led the group in early January.
Yang said the exact number of bodies was not determined, as they were buried in layers in what experts believe is an ancient cemetery. Other bodies are lying on top of or partially protruding from the sand, as well as inside semi-deteriorated coffins.
"It is estimated there are well over 100 mummified bodies," he said.
The sand dune where the mummies were found covers 2,400 square meters and rises as high as seven meters. It looks like an isolated island in a sea of sand.
"The mummies lying at the bottom are older than those on the top layer as the sand dune was formed over a long period of time," said Wang Binghua, the foremost researcher of the Xinjiang Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, who had visited the site on a separate expedition.
On the mummified body of a boy about six or seven years old, a plump eyelid is still intact, and his long brown hair still flows down his back. His skin has turned black.
The mummified bodies found in coffins were wrapped in leather and were not treated with any form of embalming, unlike Egyptian mummies, said Xia Xuncheng, a researcher with the Xinjiang Institute of Ecology and Geography, who was on the January trip.
In Egypt, corpses of pharaohs or wealthy men underwent a complicated embalming process. The Lop Nur mummies were preserved naturally in the sandy area, which has annual rainfall of 13 mm and a yearly evaporation rate of up to 4,000 mm, said Xia.
"The discovery of the mummies is of great academic value to the study of social development in unrecorded history," he noted.
Xia, who has studied mummies in China for decades, has made a careful study of a 3,800-year-old female mummy who lived in the ancient civilization of Lou Lan. Based on the sand found in the woman's lungs, experts believe Lop Nur became an arid land some 4,000 years ago.
Archaeologist have theorized that the newly found mummies were Indo-European men, judging from the facial structure and size of the bodies.
The experts believe the bodies were entombed over 4,000 years ago. Further testing will be done to determine the exact period of burial.
The recently found tomb is adjacent to Lou Lan, one of the busiest commercial cities on the ancient Silk Road, and Taiyang (which means "sun") Cemetery, where mummies had been found previously.
"It is amazing that so many ancient bodies were found in such good shape," Wang said, adding that further study of the mummies would aid Chinese scientists' research on ancient Xinjiang and the development of civilization in central Asia.
(People’s Daily 02/26/2001)