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Penn Museum Presents Historic Secrets of the Silk Road Exhibition from China

With graceful eyelashes, long flaxen hair and serene expression, the “Beauty of Xiaohe” seems to have just softly fallen to sleep-yet she last closed her eyes nearly 4,000 years ago. She was found, and excavated, in 2003, one of hundreds of spectacularly preserved mummies buried in the harsh desert sands of the vast Tarim Basin, in the Far Western Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China.

This “Beauty of Xiaohe” and more than 150 objects, 700 to 3,800 years old, also excavated in recent years from the same desert and mountain region-travel for the first time ever to the East Coast, where Secrets of the Silk Road opens at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia from February 5 through June 5, 2011, before returning to China.

The exhibition tells several fascinating stories. One is of early human migration and cultural interactions previously unimagined in this desert crossroads of Central Asia. Another is that, though far from Europe and separated by great mountain ranges, these desert mummies surprisingly are not, for the most part, Asian-looking, but rather have long noses, deep, round eyes, and red or blond hair. Also, the astonishingly intact appearance of these mummies is due more to weather and environmental conditions than to formal preservation techniques generally associated with the more familiar mummies of ancient Egypt.

“I never dreamed I would see the day when these invaluable ancient artifacts would come to the Americas,” said Dr. Victor Mair. Penn Museum consulting scholar and professor of Chinese Language and Literature at the University of Pennsylvania, he is the exhibition’s catalog editor. Credited with “rediscovering” the Tarim Basin mummies for the West on a trip to the region in the 1980s, Dr. Mair has been engaged in intensive research on Xinjiang archaeology since then.

“This traveling exhibition of materials from half way around the world is opening new doors-providing visitors with an unparalleled opportunity to come face to face, literally, with life in East Central Asia, both before and after the formation of the fabled Silk Routes that began more than 2,000 years ago,” he noted.

The historic exhibition, organized by the Bowers Museum, Santa Ana, California in association with the Archaeological Institute of Xinjiang and the Urumqi Museum, began its U.S. tour at the Bowers Museum (March 27 to July 25). Secrets of the Silk Road moves to the Houston Museum of Natural Sciences (August 28-January 2, 2011) before arriving in Philadelphia.

Secrets of the Silk Road includes two mummies and the full burial trappings of a third, representative of three different periods of time: the much celebrated, six foot six inch “Yingpan Man,” ca 3rd-4th century AD, with his gold-foil and white mask and opulent robes (the mummified remains of his body were too fragile to travel); an infant, ca 8th century BC, wrapped in a still vibrant blue bonnet and burgundy woolen shroud similar to that found in northern Europe; and the spectacular, just recently discovered, 3,800-year-old “Beauty of Xiaohe,” whose state of preservation and attractiveness are startling.

Upon first encountering these mummies, Dr. Mair and other scientists realized the potentially enormous implications of these astonishingly well-preserved human remains for migration and interactions at this central meeting point of Europe and Asia so long ago. The material buried with these men, women and children, as well as their perfectly preserved clothing, bears a striking resemblance to mummies found in Siberia to the North, and Persia and Europe to the West. Even more surprising is that these mummies span a period of more than 3,000 years, providing a glimpse into the lives and culture of the ancient Silk Road traders, who are, based on new DNA research, an intriguing mix of people from all over Eurasia.

In addition to the mummies, the exhibition features more than 150 objects that offer insight into the long and diverse cultural heritage of Central Asia-a crossroads of the Silk Road. These include an array of well-preserved clothing, textiles, wooden and bone implements, coins and documents. Along with gem-encrusted gold vessels, masks, jewelry, accessories and other objects, and even preserved foods such as wonton and flower-shaped desserts, the collection reflects the wide extent of the Silk Road trade, with strong Mediterranean influences as well as goods from ancient China.

The discovery of these ancient people along the Silk Road has helped historians better understand the settlement of ancient Central Asia and has opened up a window to understanding the very early exchange of important technologies, life-improving inventions, and ideas and customs-including what may be the world’s first sunglasses- 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, ” which scholars date from China’s Han Dynasty in the late second century BC to about AD 1400, 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, laquer, iron and plants-that were carried back and forth between East and West. Many goods were bartered for others along the route, and objects often changed hands several times. Artifacts in the exhibition both span the 1,500-year period of the famous route, and, in the case of early mummy burial goods, pre-date the historical Silk Road.

The exhibition is accompanied by a landmark catalog authored by a team responsible for much of what is known outside of China about these mummies and their culture, including Dr. Mair; Spencer Wells, director, National Geographic Society’s Genographic Project; Dr. Elizabeth Barber, noted expert on ancient textiles, Occidental College; and Lothar von Falkenhausen, professor, art history and archaeology, UCLA.

The Penn Museum presentation of this exhibition is made possible, in part, through the generosity of Lois and Robert Baylis, Dow Chemical Company, Host Hotels and Resorts, and Alexandra Schoenberg and Eric J. Schoenberg, PhD.

Image: Beauty of Xiaohe

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