In the middle of an unforgiving desert in northwestern China. And they looked and dressed surprisingly European.
In the middle of a terrifying desert north of Tibet, Chinese archaeologists have excavated an extraordinary cemetery. Its inhabitants died almost 4,000 years ago, yet their bodies have been well preserved by the dry air.
The cemetery lies in what is now China’s northwest autonomous region of Xinjiang, yet the people have European features, with brown hair and long noses. Their remains, though lying in one of the world’s largest deserts, are buried in upside-down boats. And where tombstones might stand, declaring pious hope for some god’s mercy in the afterlife, their cemetery sports instead a vigorous forest of phallic symbols, signaling an intense interest in the pleasures or utility of procreation.
Their graveyard, known as Small River Cemetery No. 5, lies near a dried-up riverbed in the Tarim Basin, a region encircled by forbidding mountain ranges. Most of the basin is occupied by the Taklimakan Desert, a wilderness so inhospitable that later travelers along the Silk Road would edge along its northern or southern borders.
As the Chinese archaeologists dug through the five layers of burials, Dr. Mair recounted, they came across almost 200 poles, each 13 feet tall. Many had flat blades, painted black and red, like the oars from some great galley that had foundered beneath the waves of sand.
At the foot of each pole there were indeed boats, laid upside down and covered with cowhide. The bodies inside the boats were still wearing the clothes they had been buried in. They had felt caps with feathers tucked in the brim, uncannily resembling Tyrolean mountain hats. They wore large woolen capes with tassels and leather boots. A Bronze Age salesclerk from Victoria’s Secret seems to have supplied the clothes beneath — barely adequate woolen loin cloths for the men, and skirts made of string strands for the women.
Within each boat coffin were grave goods, including beautifully woven grass baskets, skillfully carved masks and bundles of ephedra, an herb that may have been used in rituals or as a medicine.
In the women’s coffins, the Chinese archaeologists encountered one or more life-size wooden phalluses laid on the body or by its side. Looking again at the shaping of the 13-foot poles that rise from the prow of each woman’s boat, the archaeologists concluded that the poles were in fact gigantic phallic symbols.
The men’s boats, on the other hand, all lay beneath the poles with bladelike tops. These were not the oars they had seemed at first sight, the Chinese archaeologists concluded, but rather symbolic vulvas that matched the opposite sex symbols above the women’s boats. “The whole of the cemetery was blanketed with blatant sexual symbolism,” Dr. Mair wrote. In his view, the “obsession with procreation” reflected the importance the community attached to fertility.
Several items in the Small River Cemetery burials resemble artifacts or customs familiar in Europe, Dr. Mair noted. Boat burials were common among the Vikings. String skirts and phallic symbols have been found in Bronze Age burials of Northern Europe.