The Ornamental Trousers from Sampula (Xinjiang, China): Their Origins and Biography

Article excerpt


Since the discovery of mummies in the Tarim Basin in Xinjiang (e.g. Wang 1999; Figure 1), cultural contacts and migrations of the early inhabitants of eastern Central Asia have become intensely debated issues (e.g. Posch 1995; Mair 1998; Parzinger 2008). Information about this area appears in Chinese historical records only after 126 BC, when Zhang Qian returned to the Imperial court in Chang'an from his first voyage to the West (Hulsewe 1979). In the southern Tarim Basin, writing (the Kharoshthi script) was first adopted with the spread of Buddhism. The oldest known Kharoshthi documents found in Loulan (Kroraina) and the mention of Khotan kings are dated to c. AD 300 (Bailey 1982). Hence, our knowledge about earlier times in Xinjiang, in the western part of modern China, is based exclusively upon archaeological data.


The region of the Tarim Basin is particularly rich in pre- and early historic textiles and other organic remains, owing to the fact that they are extraordinarily well preserved in the dry environment (e.g. Sylwan 1941 ; Wang 1999). In 1984 a pair of ancient woollen trouserlegs with pictorial weaving were excavated from a 2000 year-old tomb near the village of Sampula, 25km east of modern Khotan. Since its discovery, the find has been described and discussed in several national and international publications and exhibition catalogues (e.g. Rexiti 1986; Knauer 1998; Bunker 2001; Sampula 2001; Schorta 2001 ; Wieczorek & Lind 2007).

Although the woollen tapestry fragments were tailored into trousers, the investigators agree that these fragments originally belonged to a larger wall hanging. Aside from this general agreement on its secondary use, other important questions concerning the textile's lifespan, such as the place and time of manufacture and its path to Khotan, have not been adequately addressed--until now. In this paper we attempt to answer these questions and to present our interpretation of the warrior-and-centaur textile of Sampula in the context of the regional history of eastern Central Asia.

Characteristics of the warrior-and-centaur textile

The final use of the textile was certainly as trousers since it was excavated with human leg bones still present inside. The earliest photographs show two lower legs of a pair of trousers (Rexiti 1986: Figures 6 and 7), each leg gathered at the ankle and bound with a narrow strip of blue fabric. The right leg displays a centaur framed in flowers, and the left leg depicts the head of the warrior (Figure 2a).

During the process of the textile's conservation, the pleated and piped parts were opened and the different textile patches were separated and re-adjusted in order to reconstruct the original picture. In doing so the form of the trousers was lost, but the form of a wall hanging could be recognised (Figure 2b). The reconstructed tapestry measured 2.31 x 4.8m and showed a taller-than-life-size warrior (Schorta 2001: 108). Taking into account the traces of joins along the left edge, it was assumed that the strip once belonged to something larger still. Some of the woollen yarns used for the tapestry are mottled, giving the tapestry the appearance of a painting (Schorta 2001: 108).


The relocation of the tapestry patches to their later position in the trousers revealed that the tailor who made up the trousers very likely had one large fragment of the hanging in his/her hands, which he/she cut into four parts. Currently on exhibit is the upper half of the tapestry strip (Wieczorek & Lind 2007: cat. 113), which was stabilised for transport by closing slits and holes. The published photographs altogether corroborate three states of preservation and conservation of one and the same archaeological object: 1) the state of discovery--two lower legs of trousers consisting of tapestry fragments and other textile patches; 2) the reconstructed state--the pictorial tapestry fragment after removing all non-pictorial textiles and old repairs; and 3) the current state--part of the pictorial tapestry fragment including new repairs. …