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The Tapestry Trousers of Sampul

Sampul and the Silk Road

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Head of a Greek-Macedonian Lancer on the Sampul Tapestry

Head of a Greek-Macedonian Lancer on the Sampul Tapestry

Shizhao
Centaur and Trumpet on the Sampul Tapestry

Centaur and Trumpet on the Sampul Tapestry

Shizhao

The tapestry trousers of Sampul are a pair of decorated woolen trousers, likely dated to the first or second century BC. They were found on the legs of a person buried in a mass grave at the Silk Road oasis of Sampul in the Tarim Basin of far western China north of Tibet. The trousers had been fashioned from a tapestry which, scholars believe, once hung on the walls of a palace or elite residence in one of the cities in west central Asia which fell under the influence of Alexander the Great.

How this tapestry became trousers and ended up on the legs of a person who died by violence in Sampul far from the tapestry's origins, is an entertaining, if somewhat scholarly, puzzle. But it also sheds a glimmer of light into the life of nomads and the interactions of the cultures that were affected by the opening of the Silk Road. The origins of the tapestry trousers were discussed in late 2009 in a scholarly article in the journal Antiquity, by a team led by Mayke Wagner of the German Archaeological Institute (DAI).

Sampul

Sampul (also spelled Shampula or Sampula) is an oasis on the ancient Silk Road, located in the Tarim Basin along the south edge of the great Taklamakan Desert. The desert is one of the main impediments to travel across central Asia along the Silk Road, and Sampul was one of a handful of Tarim Basin oases—others included Khotan and Niya. Archaeological studies at Sampul have been primarily excavations by the Archaeological Institute of Xinjiang; artifacts from the excavations can be seen in the Xinjiang Museum at Urumqi, in the autonomous region of Xinjiang Uyghur in western China.

Cemeteries at Sampul

Most of the archaeological investigations at Sampul have been focused on the cemeteries. Several dozen single or multiple burials dating to the 2nd centuries BC through the 4th centuries AD have so far been excavated. Most of the burials are straightforward, containing between one and several individuals, probably representing family interments. However, in 1984, four mass graves with over 100 burials each were discovered by excavators. Based on radiocarbon dates and architectural styles, the tombs are believed to have been filled at roughly the same time, some time between the first and third centuries BC.

The mass graves are in square stone vaults, measuring roughly 5 x 5 meters by 3 meters deep. Each stone vault contained the jumbled and disarticulated bones of between 133 and 215 men and women, many showing signs of violence. In one of the tombs was discovered two complete skeletons lying in the bottom, in a normal style for burials of the period. The rest of the bodies had been piled in on top of the original two. The excavators believe that the deaths were the result of a mass assassination, perhaps an attack on the town of Sampul, and the victims were hastily buried within existing tombs.

Grave goods in the tombs included lacquer combs and bronze mirrors, tapestry fragments and other materials from Han Dynasty China. Several skirts with decorative figures typical of Scythian nomads were also recovered, as were coins from Khotan with bilingual Chinese and Kharoshthi inscriptions. Kharoshthi script is an Indian script used between the 3rd century BC and 4th century AD—the Tarim Basin oases were colonized by people from both Indian and Chinese cultures.

Connecting the Tarim Basin and China

The Tarim Basin had been known to the Chinese for at least 2,000 years when the Han Dynasty extended the Silk Road in the second century BC. A precursor to the Silk Road was called the Jade Road, built to connect Khotan in the Tarim Basin and the Longshan culture in Qinghai and Gansu provinces in China, to facilitate trade of Tarim's white jades.

The first contact of the Tarim Basin with Han Dynasty China occurred in 121 BC, when Chinese explorer Zhang Qian reached Sampul. Zhang Qian was sent by Han Dynasty rulers to find routes west of the Tarim which were to become known as the Silk Road. From 59 BC to AD 9, the Han Dynasty in China ruled the Tarim Basin, including the region near Sampul. These events are reflected in the grave goods of the mass tombs at Sampul, and serve to date the tombs as likely the first century BC.

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