Yingpan Man, from 3rd to 4th century, is the newest of the mummies included… (Bowers Museum )
The Taklimakan Desert in northern China is one of the largest in the world -- vast and inhospitable, and its howling winds were once thought the cries of ghosts and demons. Yet since ancient times, travelers have braved its edges, some engaging in the East-West trade that eventually earned the routes a fabled name, the Silk Road.
This weekend, the Bowers Museum opens an exhibition featuring about 150 artifacts from the area, "Secrets of the Silk Road: Mystery Mummies of China" (through July 25). The stars of the show are two mummies and the trappings of a third, already celebrities in the world of archaeology. Found in burial sites of different eras, they are Caucasoid -- a discovery that has been unsettling for Beijing, resulting in long-standing bans on their export.
"The Bowers has pulled off a real coup," says Victor Mair, professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania and a consultant to the exhibition. It is the first time any Chinese mummies have been shown in the U.S. Two of them actually predate the Silk Road, which began during the Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220).
"The Beauty of Xiaohe is the most spectacular of all the mummies," says Mair. "She's very beautiful, placid, with long eyelashes and wearing a very jaunty hat with cords wrapped around it and feathers stuck in it. Take one look and one is captivated by her."
That is, if you like desiccated figures. Her skin is shrunken around the skull, although she is remarkably well preserved -- with long, auburn tresses -- for being 3,800 years old. Then there is a baby in swaddling and a bright blue felt cap from the 8th century BC. Stones cover his eyes, and a kind of baby bottle made from a goat's udder will be displayed with him.
The newest of the mummies -- or at least the trappings, since his body isn't coming to Santa Ana -- is Yingpan Man, dating to the 3rd to 4th century. His face was covered with a mask with a gold band across the forehead, and he wore a wool robe bearing designs of animals, trees and muscular youths that reflect Western influences, says Elizabeth Barber, a prehistoric textile expert who wrote for the exhibit catalog.
Last year, Bowers President Peter Keller and board member Anne Shih went to China to arrange for loans from the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region Museum and the Xinjiang Institute of Archaeology. In addition to selecting the figures, they culled a host of other items from the Silk Road.
Textiles in the exhibit, some only in fragments, are among the most astonishing for their state of preservation, workmanship and bright colors. "They've been preserved so well because the dry, salty sand sucks the water out of everything," says Barber. "Also, the salt in the sand preserves the colors."
The cosmopolitan nature of the Tang Dynasty era (618-906) is reflected in figurines with large noses and full beards, such as the robust figure of a "hu" (foreigner) in a long robe.
Tang nobility enjoyed the finer things: Witness a pair of fiber shoes with upturned toes, a painted round fan and a couple of eyeshades -- hammered bronze eyepieces with multiple pinholes punched into them, to allow wearers to withstand the sun's glare. There also are preserved food items, including a spectacular little chrysanthemum-shaped dessert and a spring roll section (yes, with the filling inside).