Recent spoliation by local villagers.
Mashik, an expert searcher of tombs.
Group of tombs,
644 THE ANCIENT CEMETERIES OF ASTANA [Chap. XIX
way of precious metals, &c. ; for trees are very scarce in the oases, cattle-dung also, and fuel accordingly at a high price.
The desire of the villagers to ascribe the wholesale opening of these tombs to the truculent Tungans was probably prompted by the knowledge that, until the recent revolution with its subversive consequences, the local Mandarins would have effectively checked any open disturbance
of the dead, if only from regard for the feelings of the numerous Chinese traders and cultivators settled in the Turfân oases. Yet there was reason to believe that the gentle native ` Chantos ' of
the neighbouring villages had not been altogether averse to taking their share in the spoliation of these tombs, whether openly during the troublesome times of the Muhammadan rebellion or clandestinely later on, when, to their great relief, peace and order had been re-established under Chinese rule. Conclusive testimony on this point was supplied by ` Mashik ',2 the local tomb expert, whom the obliging Darôgha of Astâna had brought me to serve as guide, along with our first contingent of diggers. I was only too glad to employ this intelligent fellow as their foreman ; for through long practice in this macabre line of business he not only possessed an uncanny familiarity with all that appertained to these abodes of the dead, their personal outfit, &c., but also a remarkably accurate knowledge as to which tombs had been searched recently for antiques and which had remained untouched but for the unsophisticated exploitation attributed to the Tungans. Considering the very large number of tombs and the importance of economizing time, this knowledge was of obvious value to us and fully worth the rewards which secured that it should be honestly applied.
Mashik stated that he had been initiated into this business by his father, who had died at a great age some twenty years before. Others remembered hearing the old man talk of his tomb experiences during Tungan times and later on in the days when the digging had to be done more or less secretly at night. Mashik himself claimed that he had opened more than a hundred tombs during the last four or five years, when the Chinese administration had ceased to take serious notice of such proceedings. During that time, certain local Mandarins with modern notions and antiquarian tastes had directly encouraged them, in order to secure manuscripts and other antiquities for their own collections of curios. All the more significant was Mashik's emphatic assertion from the first that among all the tombs that he had examined during these years he had never found a single one of which the brick wall originally blocking the entrance had not been partly broken through by some previous searchers. This disappointing experience might well have reduced his exploratory zeal had not a curious discovery of his own, aided by a peculiar freedom from all superstitious scruples where the remains of ` dead Kâfirs ' were concerned, enabled honest Mashik to look for precious metals in places where even greedy Tungans had failed to search for them.
Our work at the Astâna cemeteries was begun on January 19th with the examination of tombs which, without showing an enclosure of embanked gravel, might yet, by their arrangement in more or less parallel rows, be recognized as a separate group marking the extreme north-eastern extremity of the area (see Pl. 31). Among this group, Ast. i, the arrangement of which is shown in Pl. 32, a considerable number of tombs had manifestly been searched in recent years. But in the middle row the majority appeared to have escaped. The six tombs here successively opened by us were all, as the sketches in Pl. 32 show, approached by a trench, about 3 or 4 feet wide on the average at the bottom, leading down from the surface of the ground to a depth which varied, as practically in all other Astâna tombs, from 1 a to 16 feet. At its end the trench gave access to a narrow rock-cut entrance, about 3 feet wide and only 3 to 4 feet high ; from this the
2 I regret not to have kept a note of the full Muhammadan worthy Astâna cicerone was abbreviated after a fashion
form of the name from which this current appellation of our customary at Turfàn.