SANTA ANA, Calif. — Mystery, dazzle and awe unite the mummies of a man, woman and child who were found in China's Tarim Basin at different times in different places for an exhibition so rich in history it contains some of the earliest known baby bottles, trousers, sunglasses and pasta.
"Secrets of the Silk Road: Mystery Mummies of China," is on display at the Bowers Museum. Ten years in the works, the exhibition marks the first time the mummies can be seen outside of Asia.
"The Beauty of Xaiohe" is around 3,800 years old and is one of the most perfectly preserved mummies ever discovered, said exhibit catalog editor Victor Mair, a professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania.
"I call her the Marlene Dietrich of the desert. She is stunning," he said.
A reddish, dishwater blonde, the beauty has long, full eyelashes and is wearing a rakish corded hat with a feather. She probably died in her early 30s, Mair said.
Because of her eyelashes, "I keep joking we ought to get Maybelline to sponsor this," said Peter C. Keller, president of the Bowers Museum.
Her remains were found at Small River Cemetery No. 5 (Xaiohe means small river). Bluebonnet Baby, around 9 months old, and Yingpan Man, about 55 when he died, were found at different burial sites a couple of hundred miles apart in the Tarim Basin in the Far Western Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China.
They were all discovered along what would become known as the Silk Road, the rambling, braided trading route between Central Asia and China named for the luxurious fabrics that exchanged hands, along with spices, gold, exotic animals, furs and jade.
Light-skinned, with light hair
None of the mummies are Asian-looking, Mair said. They are light-skinned with round eyes, long noses and red or blonde hair.
The beautiful woman lived nearly 1,800 years before the Silk Road was established. "They were just isolated people. They are not trading on a large scale. They're just subsistence, just making do. I call them eggroll pastoralists. They have sheep and goats and cattle, all of which came from western Asia," Mair said. They also know how to grow wheat, he said, another Asian product.
China is protective of its ancient mummies, so many tests have yet to be done, including CT scans and other tests that could tell scientists about the people's last meals, intestines, hair follicles, diet, cause of death, lungs and other factors.
The exhibit comes with more than 150 pieces of clothing, implements, coins, documents, masks, jewelry, coffins and other items found at the burial sites.
"Everything is beautifully preserved. There's a pair of shoes in the exhibit that you could wear today, made out of cattails. I could see a designer actually copying them," Keller said.
The child, about 2,800 years old, is displayed next to a sheep's udder shaped into a conelike drinking vessel. "You can say it's the world's first baby bottle," Mair said.
"He's wrapped in a beautiful purply, red, brown blanket which has a different color from whatever side you look at it. They have used red dye on natural brown wool, so you get the same effect as a woman with brown hair who hennas her hair," said Elizabeth Barber, a member of the curating team, a prehistorian and noted textile expert from Occidental College in Los Angeles.
Barber was impressed with how much the ancient people did with so little. "The baby blanket has a texture stripe in it. By overspinning the yarn and putting three rows of it in every once in a while, it gnarls up in the cloth and makes the texture stripe," she said.
"The face is just beautiful. You can see these long eyelashes and these little reddish brown eyebrows and this little ski-jump nose," she said, but the mouth is covered by a layered cashmere bonnet.
Baby Bluebonnet was found next to a tomb in the south Tarim Basin that held a man and three women, Barber said. Three adults were mummified and one was a skeleton, but the colors and cording on their clothing identified them as a family.
How they died, how they lived
About 10 percent of the bodies found in the cemetery were mummified, and the rest were not.
Natural mummification occurred in the winter, when temperatures dipped to 60 degrees below zero. Dying in the summer, when it was 110 in the shade, ensured deterioration, Barber said.
The bodies that were mummified had freeze-dried. When spring and hot weather came, there was no moisture left to aid decomposition.
Barber believes the man and two women were laid out on the ground and froze while their tomb was dug deep into the rock salt. They were just about to close up the tomb when the third woman died and they made room for her. But she didn't spend any time on the surface, so she didn't freeze. As a result, her flesh deteriorated, leaving only skeletal remains.
The baby died after the tomb was closed, so rather than reopen it, they dug a shallow grave for the baby. Being so small and so close to the surface, the baby's body froze and mummified.
Duded up for death
The third mummy in the exhibit is just clothing and a mask that belonged to Yingpan Man, who died when he was about 55. He is around 2,000 years old, and his remains were found in the north Tarim Basin. The body was taken out when the clothing was sent for study at the National Silk Museum, Mair said.
"He has the most amazing, spectacular, splendid garments that he's wearing, with classical, Western, European, Mediterranean, Greek and Roman kinds of designs on it. It's kind of tour de force clothing, really showing off. He must have been extremely wealthy. He had an extra set of clothing on his belly," Mair said.
He was at one time thought to be 6 feet and 6 inches (198 centimeters), but his height has been lowered by four to six inches (10 to 15 centimeters), Barber said.
"He has a white mask on his face and gold on his forehead and his boots, Mair said. "He was really lavishly duded up for death. We think he was a trader, out in the middle of nowhere but a very strategic trading post. He had some Roman glass in the tomb with him and other things that indicate he had long-distance connections along what had by now had become the Silk Road," Mair said.
Man of bronze
The mummies are the centerpieces of the exhibit, but Mair said other parts are just as mesmerizing, including bronze eyeshades and the fried dough twist, men's pants, combs, fans, games and masks.
But his favorite piece is a 2,500-year-old kneeling bronze warrior, about a foot tall, with a bare chest, a big nose and round eyes.
"I can just stare at this guy for hours and he's not a mummy. He's a statue," Mair said. "What was he doing in the mountains in the middle of Asia? What kind of people would have cared?"
The exhibition opened Saturday and will be at the Bowers through July 25. It wiill be on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science from Aug. 28 to Jan. 2, 2011, then at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology from Feb. 5 to June 5 of 2011. Keller said a fourth site was under consideration.
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