Archaeologists Find Tomb Artifacts Linking Nepal to Silk Road

M. Aldenderfer
M. Aldenderfer / M. Aldenderfer

History—or, rather, our present-day discovery of history—is full of surprises. Take the Silk Road, for example. The commerce and cultural exchange facilitated by the legendary trade network were hugely influential in the advancement of civilizations from the Pacific to the Mediterranean. Maps of the routes are well established, yet archaeologists say they may have found a new stop, high in the Himalayas. Their report was published in the journal Science and Technology of Archaeological Research.

The researchers hadn’t started out looking for Silk Road artifacts. Anthropologist Mark Aldenderfer had been excavating a series of 10 shaft tombs in the Nepalese village of Samdzong. The tombs had been buried for centuries and were only revealed in 2009 when a seismic event broke off the front of the cliff in which they were hidden. So far, the tombs have yielded the lovingly enshrined remains of more than 100 people.

Aldenderfer found the surprising artifacts in a tomb known as Samdzong 5, which contained only two bodies: one adult and one child. These bodies had been laid to rest in luxury, surrounded by wooden, bronze, copper, and glass cups, trays, jewelry, and beads. One of the most interesting items was a mask of gold and silver (shown above), which the researchers believe likely covered the adult’s face. The edges of the mask were perforated, suggesting it had once been sewn to cloth.

Margarita Gleba

Cloth is a tricky thing. Unlike metal, glass, or stone, it degrades relatively quickly under normal conditions, so archaeologists don’t often recover textiles. But Samdzong 5 was littered with scraps of silk fabric, thanks to the dry climate and high elevation (more than 13,000 feet above sea level).

What’s more, those scraps weren’t local. “There is no evidence for local silk production,” lead author Margarita Gleba said in a press statement, “suggesting that Samdzong was inserted into the long-distance trade network of the Silk Road."   

Margarita Gleba

All of the objects found in the tomb underwent chemical analysis. Previous researchers had examined the cups, jewelry, and beads in previous studies and concluded that they’d been produced elsewhere, in places like India and Sri Lanka, or down on the Tibetan plateau.

The recent study took a closer look at the scraps of silk using scanning electron microscopes (for super close-up imaging of the fibers), liquid chromatography to test the dyes, and micro-Raman spectrometry to identify any pigments. The tests revealed that the silk, too, was the product of trade, with components from both local and far-flung sources.

"The data reinforce the notion that instead of being isolated and remote, Upper Mustang was once a small, but important node of a much larger network of people and places,” Gleba said. "These textiles can further our understanding of the local textile materials and techniques, as well as the mechanisms through which various communities developed and adapted new textile technologies to fit local cultural and economical needs."