Aruna Sharkey, 6, looked at a female mummy at the “Secrets of the Silk Road” exhibit at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia.
From The New York Times, February 20, 2011
By Edward Rothstein
PHILADELPHIA — There are times, at the Penn Museum here, when you are almost hesitant to breathe. And it has nothing to do with the recent flurry of events in which Chinese officials suddenly forbid the display of the remarkable objects in the exhibition “Secrets of the Silk Road,” ultimately relenting and allowing them to be shown for just a short time. These doings (about which more later) are scarcely blinks in the history of these objects.
Most of these astonishing artifacts should have ceased to exist long ago. Exposed to breath and light, you can imagine them disintegrating into powdery mist: silk pillows and robes, thin brocades of cloth with floral patterns and rich colors, woven baskets, felt hats, a braided fried dough twist, feathers from caps and arrows. Ephemera, surely: these are not lasting things of stone, bone and gold, and the newest are at least 1,000 years old.
And speaking of ephemera, what of the bundled infant, whose light-brown hair can be seen peeking out of a blue cashmere cap? It is wrapped in a wool cloth tied with thick cords of red and blue. Two rectangular blue stones rest over its eyes, and at its side is a prehistoric nursing bottle made from a goat’s bladder. The baby’s age? Less than 10 months, or, reckoning from its death, 28 centuries.
In another part of this 6,000-square-foot exhibition lies the body of a woman wrapped in a wool cloak, her lavish brown hair draped to the side of her face, long lashes still framing her sunken eyes. Her skin, tinged with a white coating is eerily sensuous. That must have been a cold winter: she is still wearing fur-lined leather boots. She is in her early 40s, we are told, though that was at least 3,500 years ago. The Beauty of Xiaohe she’s called, and we forgive the poetic liberty, because in her death, against all the cautionary chastisements of later centuries, even that ephemeral aesthetic property remains intact.
These artifacts and bodies have all been uncovered from under the inhospitable sands of the Tarim Basin in the far western Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China, where the seasonal temperatures range from 40 degrees below zero Fahrenheit to 104 degrees above. Bodies seem to have been preserved not by design — the way the ancient Egyptians prepared for the afterlife — but accidentally. When buried during the winters, in tightly sealed coffins, many corpses were preserved from the indignities of decay by mineral salts and dry weather. The harshness of that environment is in sharp contrast to the almost genteel delicacy of the objects discovered there in recent decades in ancient cemeteries.
But the extremes may be in keeping with the political environment that led to recent controversies. The two mummies (on view until March 15) and the artifacts on loan from China (on view until March 28), are part of an exhibition organized by the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, Calif., that opened there a year ago; it also traveled to the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Victor Mair, a leading scholar of these artifacts and a professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania, is editor of the informative exhibition catalog and has served as a consultant, shaping the show for the Penn Museum (formally known as the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology).
This, the show’s final stop, was to last from Feb. 5 through June 5. Special timed tickets were sold, events and lectures planned. The exhibition was expected to elevate the income and stature of this already distinguished museum.
Just days before the opening, though, the Chinese government announced that no objects could be shown at all, even though they had already been displayed in Santa Ana and Houston. No explanations were offered, and no museum official would comment. Photographs were substituted for the missing items and admission prices eliminated. One museum spokesman attributed the problem to a “miscommunication” and would not elaborate. Then, last week, negotiations led to the abbreviated schedule.
Look around and you can begin to see why these artifacts might have more than a purely anthropological or aesthetic importance. It would be foolhardy to think that they reflect a single culture. The Tarim Basin is a sixth the size of China and nearly the size of Western Europe; artifacts here range over thousands of years from multiple sites.
Moreover the exhibition’s title is too narrow. The Silk Road, a network of trading routes that crossed the Basin region, was in its prime during the first millennium. These artifacts reach back to the Bronze Age. Sometime between 1800 B.C. and 1500 B.C., the Beauty of Xiahoe was buried. Would she have had any familiarity with the uncannily well-preserved pastries shown here that have a freshness date of sometime in the ninth century? A lot happens in 2,500 years.
In addition the exhibition text points out that even before the height of the Silk Road the basin was a multicultural area. Records of 28 different languages have been found there, including Tocharian, unique to the region. Buddhism was practiced (as several artifacts show); so were Zoroastrianism, Nestorian Christianity and Judaism. Conquests by Islam and by Genghis Khan’s armies led to still other transformations.
One of the most remarkable sets of artifacts are the trappings of a man found at Yingpan, dating from the third to the fifth century. His mummy was too fragile to travel, but his clothes are arrayed in a coffinlike space and reflected in a tilted mirror. He was 6 feet 6 inches tall and buried with a Roman glass bowl that might have come from Syria. The pillow he rests on, we are told, shows the influence of Han Chinese culture, but his elaborately decorated clothes include images from Greek and Roman mythology. The hypothesis is that he was a Sogdian trader from the eastern region of Iran. His features do not have any affinity to those of Eastern Asia.
This is the crux of the matter, for most bodies found in this region have what are called Caucasoid features. And though many objects here are clearly associated with later Chinese traditions — like the delicate figurines of women making pottery (from the seventh to ninth centuries) — others come from cultural worlds that can still not be clearly identified.
A felt hat from the fifth to third centuries B.C. could easily be imagined atop the head of a Tarim leprechaun. (The exhibition notes that some textile patterns seem related to Celtic styles.)
The Beauty of Xiaohe mummy not only has features that seem alien to the region, but she was also buried in a style that has little connection with local traditions of later millenniums. The wooden coffins in her cemetery are shaped like overturned boats and sealed with clay and mud; women seem to have been buried with icons representing the phallus, men with icons of the vulva. (That cemetery is near a dried up riverbed, which may help account for the boatlike coffins and the ready use of wood in burial artifacts.)
As Mr. Mair points out, the basin, because of its geographic isolation and brutal climate, was one of the last areas on the planet settled by humans. It also proved, he says in the catalog, to be an “unparalleled storehouse of genetic, anthropological and cultural material of peoples who entered it from all directions at different times during the last four millenniums.” Recent genetic research on DNA samples also suggests that there was far more migration of populations than was once thought in the era before the Silk Road.
The problem is that right now this is the worst possible news, given the political climate. There are hints in the catalog of problems Western scholars have confronted: incomplete skeletal remains, unreleased photographs, difficulty in conducting genetic analysis. The unexpected appearance of non-Chinese-seeming cultures and bodies in this region is being treated a bit like the way some American Indian tribes treated the 1996 discovery of Kennewick Man in Washington State, his prehistoric remains showing Caucasoid or Asian features; the tribes asserted ownership over the remains and wanted to prevent scientific analysis.
In this case the issues have ramifications in territorial claims on this oil-rich region. One museum in Xinjiang insists that the territory “has been an inalienable part of the territory of China.” But in 1993 the Chinese government was concerned enough to prevent Mr. Mair from leaving China with 52 tissue samples after having authorized him to go to Xinjiang and collect them. And the region’s Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim people, have hailed the discovery of these non-East Asian mummies as proof of their own historical claims. There is a separatist movement of Uighurs; there are also Chinese attempts to rein in Islam in the region.
But the DNA and cultural analysis support neither opposing claim. (Nor would it matter if they did.) In a helpful essay in the current issue of the Penn Museum’s magazine Mr. Mair points out that xinjiang means “new borders.” That’s what were established in the region when it was conquered by the Chinese in the 19th century and what were created again, when, after an era of independence, Chinese control was reasserted in the 20th century, turning it into an “autonomous region.”
In the catalog Lothar von Falkenhausen, an art historian at the University of California at Los Angeles, suggests, “The present exhibition, for reasons connected with the historical situation of Xinjiang today, particularly emphasizes the Chinese cultural impact on the ‘Western Regions.’ ” Maybe Mr. Mair’s particular emphasis on cosmopolitan themes made the Chinese particularly nervous, but other visitors, can only react with something like awe at how much there is still to learn from what is buried in the sands, and what an enduring impact ephemera can have.