Desert tombs reveal Iron Age style

(First Edition)

One of the world's greatest collections of ancient textiles has been discovered by archaeologists inside a series of 2,300-year-old tombs on the fringe of north-west China's Takla Makan Desert - and British expertise may be made available to help to conserve it.

The discovery reveals in detail for the first time the type of ordinary clothing worn by central Asian tribes, probably including the Huns who devastated much of Asia and Europe as late as the fifth century AD.

Excavations carried out by a Chinese archaeological expedition are yielding dozens of perfectly preserved items of Iron Age clothing, including multicoloured woollen skirts, felt hats, woollen underwear, leather trousers, coats and boots and even woollen hair nets.

Rose Kerr, curator of the Victoria & Albert Museum's Far Eastern department, said: 'This is one of the world's greatest discoveries of ancient textiles and affords archaeologists a rare glimpse of what these people wore in their everyday lives.

'The V & A would be happy to make available to the Chinese the latest British research on the conservation of textiles and leather.'

So far the Chinese archaeologists have investigated 15 tombs and have found more than 20 well-preserved corpses together with their clothes and grave goods.

Several of the women were buried wearing 20-inch high conical felt head-dresses, while others wore felt headbands shaped like horns, pointed at both ends and meeting on the forehead. Their dress includes long multi-coloured woollen skirts, leather coats with long sleeves - wide at the top and narrow at the wrists - and high leather boots.

The men were buried wearing leather trousers attached to their boots, and several of them were interred with their bows and arrows. Quivers full of arrows and numerous elegant bows have so far been found inside the tombs, together with a horse saddle and beautifully painted pottery bowls, cups and water holders.

The tombs were discovered near one of the famous Silk Road routes along which Chinese silk and other products passed to the Middle East and Europe - and it is likely that the people buried there were semi-nomadic tribesmen, possibly involved in raiding the merchant caravans.