Secrets of the Silk Road: Mystery Mummies from China to be Unveiled

Secrets of the Silk Road: Mystery Mummies from China to be Unveiled March 27, 2010 at Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, California

Much-anticipated exhibit highlights one of histories most celebrated excavations.

SANTA ANA, CA – One of the most important archaeological finds — and certainly one of the greatest mysteries of the 20th century — are the hundreds of well-preserved mummies that have been found buried in the parched sands of the Tarim Basin in the Far Western Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China.

The reason these mummies are so historically important and have created such a controversy is their high degree of preservation, which has allowed scientists to see far more detail than would normally be expected in a burial site. These mummies are not, for the most part, Asian-looking, but rather light skinned, round eyed, with long noses, red or blond haired men, women and children. The material buried with them, as well as their perfectly-preserved clothing, bears a striking resemblance to mummies found in Siberia to the North, Persia to the West, and Europe. What is even more surprising is that these mummies span a period of more than 3,000 years, providing a glimpse into the ancient Silk Road traders, who were an intriguing mix of people from all over Eurasia, based on DNA research.

On March 27, 2010, these mummies will be seen for the first time outside of Asia in an exhibition opening at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, California. Following its closing July 25, 2010, it will move to the Houston Museum of Natural Science from August 28, 2010 to January 2, 2011, and then to the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology from February 5, 2011 to June 5, 2011.

This groundbreaking exhibition features more than 150 objects, many predating the Silk Road by more than 1,500 years. These objects have been drawn from the collections of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Museum and the Xinjiang Institute of Archaeology in Urumqi.

“Secrets of the Silk Road” includes three mummies: the much-celebrated Yingpan Man with his gold-foil and white mask and beautiful robes; an infant wrapped in a woolen blanket, wearing a blue and red bonnet of lightly felted wool; and the spectacular woman known as the “Beauty of Xiaohe,” a 3,800-year-old mummy whose beauty is startling and is considered to be one of the most well-preserved, exquisite mummies ever discovered.

According to scientists, these mummies are among the most important human remains ever found. In addition to the mummies, the exhibit features a vast array of well-preserved clothing, textiles, wood and bone implements, coins, documents, and jewel-encrusted gold objects, including vessels, masks, and jewelry. This impressive collection of objects reflects the full extent of the Silk Road trade with strong Mediterranean influences as well as goods from ancient China.

The exhibition is accompanied by a landmark catalog authored by an impressive team of authorities including Victor Mair, Professor of Chinese Language and Literature, University of Pennsylvania, and Consulting Scholar, Penn Museum (Catalogue Editor); Dr. Spencer Wells, Director of the Genome Project of the National Geographic Society; Dr. Elizabeth Barber, noted textile expert from Occidental College; and Lothar von Falkenhausen, Professor, UCLA Department of History. This Curatorial Consulting Team is responsible for the majority of what we know about the mummies.

“This breakthrough exhibition will open up a whole new world of understanding and interest in the complex ancient history of this part of China, and the vast area where so many peoples connected so long ago,” Dr. Mair says. “The Tarim mummies and their associated artifacts from 4,000 to 2,000 years old hold an essential key to understanding the development of Eurasian civilization at a crucial moment: the transition from the Bronze Age to the Early Iron Age, from prehistory to history.”

“So wonderfully preserved are these mummies, lying there in their colorful clothing, that people unconsciously drop their voices and begin to tiptoe, as though these millennia-old people were merely asleep,” Dr. Barber says. “These mummies have revolutionized our ideas about the history of contact between Europe and Eastern Asia.”

The discovery of these ancient people along the Silk Road has helped historians better understand the settlement of ancient East Central Asia and has opened up a window to understanding the very early exchange of important technologies, life-improving inventions and ideas and customs being practiced in the inhospitable lands of the Tarim Basin where East meets West. The advanced metallurgy and textile traditions of these mystery mummies are of particular note, according to archaeologists.

The “Silk Road” was aptly named because of the vast amounts of silk and other merchandise — spices, gold, precious metals and stones, ivory, glass, exotic animals, furs, ceramics, jade, lacquer, iron and plants — that were carried back and forth from East to West. Many goods were bartered for others along the Silk Road, and objects often changed hands several times.

“The opportunity to see these priceless objects and the celebrated Tarim mummies will enable visitors to gain a new perspective on the complex cultures and the rich trading crossroads that characterized Eastern Central Asia in ancient times,” Dr. Mair says. “I have been engaged in intensive research on Xinjiang archaeology since the early 1990s and never dreamed that I would see the day when these invaluable ancient artifacts would come to the Americas. This exhibition will provide visitors with a unique opportunity to gain an appreciation of life in Eastern Central Asia both before and after the formation of the fabled Silk Routes in the late 2nd century BC.”

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