Ancient fabrics preserved in desert sand go on display in canton Bern

Fragment from one of the 2,000-year old Chinese textiles in Riggisberg Keystone

A collection of ancient fabrics dating back 2,000 years has gone on show at a museum in canton Bern. The textiles were discovered buried in the sands of the Taklamakan Desert in northwest China, one of the most arid places on earth.

This content was published on April 27, 2001 - 17:08

The fabrics are in almost the same condition as the day they were swallowed up by the scorching desert sands two millennia ago, thanks to the dryness and heat, which acted as preserving agents.

The ancient garments and fragments depict abstract figures, reminiscent of modern art, as well as animals, birds, and natural scenes. Much of the clothing is large and unwieldy, suggesting that it was made for purposes other than everyday use.

The women's skirts, for example, are nearly a metre-and-a-half in length and tightly pleated, with a circumference of up to 15 metres on the outer rim - clearly unsuitable for use by the nomadic peoples that inhabited the area at the time.

Surprisingly, the fabrics were not found in the graves of rulers or other elites, but in the burial grounds of poor communities. Scholars have failed to explain how these people could have acquired such precious objects.

The fabrics provide an insight into the ethnic composition of the area, which is today part of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

They testify to the fact that two millennia ago, it was a melting pot of different cultures. The motifs used bear little resemblance to the stylised animal-combat themes, typical of the Asian steppe, and instead seem more closely related to Iran's cultural heritage.

The exhibition is being staged in cooperation with the Xinjiang Institute of Cultural and Historical Relics and Archaeology and the Xinjiang Museum.

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