Human beauty is evanescent. Yet when you gaze on the flaxen-haired Beauty of Xiaohe—even in a photograph—the usual metrics crumble. She’s 3,800 years old, after all.
Chinese archaeologists unearthed the sleeping Beauty in 2003, and when they opened her coffin, “her hat was slanted like this,” says Victor Mair, professor of Chinese language and literature, angling his hand across his brow. “I always refer to her as very alluring—almost seductive. She has such beautiful features—just lovely. Her lips are great; her teeth are great. She is gorgeous!”
That Mair is so cheerfully besotted with a woman whose age can be measured in millennia isn’t only because he’s an archaeologist, though that’s certainly a big part of it. (See main story.) Her beauty gives new meaning to the word timeless, and the artifacts buried with her suggest that a similar reverence attended her death.
“All in all, this is a sumptuous burial of a stunningly beautiful woman who was much loved by those who interred her,” notes the Secrets of the Silk Road catalogue, which cites such other “striking attributes” as “the wooden phallus on her chest, the magnificent felt hat, the fine fur-lined leather boots, and the string skirt.”
The Beauty of Xiaohe is just one of the more eye-dazzling sights in the Secrets of the Silk Road exhibition, which opens February 5 at the Penn Museum and runs until June 5. (Organized by the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, California, in conjunction with Xinjiang’s Institute of Archaeology, its provincial museum, and its Cultural Heritage Bureau, the exhibition arrives at Penn after a stop at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.) Its incredibly well-preserved contents include two mummies and the full burial trappings of a third, plus more than 150 additional artifacts. Those range from sophisticated textiles, paintings, and statuary to gold plaques and 1,200-year-old spring rolls, all of which provide contextual significance, not just for the mummies but for the history of human migration across Eurasia.
The exhibition also marks the first time that the Beauty of Xiaohe or any of the mummies have traveled outside of China. The high degree of cooperation between the two nations was an encouraging sign, especially since the show’s contents suggest that China’s westernmost province was populated by somebody other than ethnic Chinese for several millennia—a potentially touchy point given the political sensitivities surrounding Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
“It’s a very high-level exhibition, and there will be a lot of Chinese officials coming over here to the opening,” notes Mair. “The fact that we can have these very precious objects, including some human remains, coming to Penn means that there is a greater degree of openness and cooperation. I think the exhibition is serving as a kind of bridge between the two countries. It’s a very positive sign that we can do this exhibition, and it gives you hope that things will get even better.”
Equally hopeful for Mair and others is the fact that the Museum is investing so much psychic capital and coin in the exhibition and its accompanying events.
“The Penn Museum is going all out with this exhibition,” says Mair. “It’s going to be academically sound—serious research has gone into it—but it’s also educational. There’s a very strong intent to help the public understand what these mummies and all the cultural artifacts mean.”
In the view of Nancy Steinhardt, professor of East Asian art and curator of Chinese art at the Museum, “this is the biggest thing Penn has done in an Asian art field in recent memory, maybe since the 1920s, when the core of the Asian collection came to Penn.” For the public, she adds, it’s also a “chance to see objects they will not see when they visit Xinjiang,” where many of the pieces would be in storage or archaeological research institutes.
“I think viewers should come with the expectation of being overwhelmed,” Steinhardt concludes. “And I think they will be.”
For Richard Hodges, the Williams Director of the Museum, Secrets is not just a “really exciting exhibition,” but also one that the Museum hopes will “reach all sorts of audiences.”
“We’re in a sense relaunching the Museum as a public museum,” he explains, a process that has involved “restructuring” both its galleries and its personnel. Instead of simply putting window air-conditioning units in each gallery, for example, “we saw it as an opportunity to refurbish the original 1899 west wing,” a process just now being completed.
Another change has involved “putting a new team in exhibitions to cope with the scale of this project as a blockbuster,” Hodges adds. “This museum hasn’t been known for blockbusters, and so that’s what we’re trying to do.”
“We look on this as the renaissance and rebirth of the Museum,” says Mair. “The president, the provost—everybody collaborated with us wonderfully. The Museum hired a lot more young blood, and there are a lot of outreach things as well. It’s not just an exhibition. There’s a whole panoply of ideas. It’s one of the most outreaching kinds of exhibitions I’ve ever been involved with.”
The outreach events have been building for months. In October, for example, Nancy Steinhardt gave a lecture on “Great Sites on the Silk Road,” and in November Mair spoke on “Mummies of the Tarim Basin.” (For videos and podcasts of those and other lectures, as well as information about the exhibition and related events, tickets, and hotel rooms, see www.penn.museum.)
In addition to regular weekend programs on “Mummies: Through Time, Across Continents” and “Explore the Silk Road,” visitors can:
Follow costumed travelers—a merchant, a princess, a horseman, an entertainer—based on composites of actual Silk Road travelers from the time of the Tang Dynasty.
Attend monthly “Great Adventures Along the Silk Road” lectures, such as “The Plague: Deadly Travel Companion of Trade Routes,” by Lester Little, emeritus professor of history at Smith College (February 2); and “Samarkand in the Age of Tamerlane,” with Renata Holod, professor of art history at Penn (March 2).
Follow anthropology PhD candidate Jeremy Pine’s “On the Silk Road” travel blog along the modern-day Silk Road (www.penn.museum/sites/silkroadblog).
On March 19, some 15 years after Mair organized an international conference on the Tarim mummies, the Museum will host another international symposium, this one titled “Reconfiguring the Silk Road: New Research on East-West Exchanges in Antiquity.”
There will be a raft of interactive stations at the exhibition itself, including:
“Textiles of the Silk Road: Fabric Testing and Digital Microscopes,” in which visitors can perform tests on swatches of silk and felt to check out their breathability, insulation, and protection.
A Chinese translation station where visitors can try their hand at translating Chinese poetry.
A computer interactive station that allows visitors to hear how words from distant countries and centuries evolved into words we use today.
A mummification section, with pictures, a video, and silicone swatches that “mimic the feeling of mummified flesh.”
Secrets of the Silk Road is a lot more than its mummies. Yet even Steinhardt, who as professor of East Asian art is quick to talk up some of the remarkable artifacts and artwork, acknowledges that the mummies are “probably the most important” elements of the exhibition, “because they confirm the ethnicities of those who were traveling—if not living—and dying in Xinjiang in the last centuries BCE and early CE centuries.” Textiles are “amazingly informative” in terms of art and juxtaposition of symbols, she adds, and—speaking of juxtapositions—“we find blue-eyed figures and Chinese supplications for progeny from nearby sites at approximately the same time.”
Even more poignant than the Beauty of Xiaohe is the Infant Mummy from the 8th century BCE, excavated from the same Chärchän region as Victor Mair’s Ur-David.
The baby was found “lying on its back and shrouded in dark red wool wrapped with intertwined red and blue cords, giving the appearance of swaddling clothes,” notes the catalogue. A pillow beneath its head makes it “seem as if the baby is sleeping soundly.” Though the two blue-gray stones covering the eyes might look a little like dark glasses, “stones of such color are not common,” the catalogue notes, and “their use to cover the eyes of dead children must convey important symbolic information.” Equally poignant, though perhaps easier to decode, are the artifacts found on either side of the baby: an ox horn and a nursing device made from a goat’s udder.
“I call this infant ‘Little Baby Blue Bonnet’ because of the incredibly soft and fluffy cashmere wool wrapped over his/her—we don’t know which!—head,” says Mair. “The wool fibers still spring back if you press gently on them. Charming as all get out, this child almost looks as though it could be a doll.”
The most sartorially glamorous mummy is not actually a mummy at all but rather the spectacular funeral clothing and mask of one. Yingpan Man, as he’s called (based on the area of excavation), is also the most recent of the three, dating “only” to the third or fourth century CE. The pattern of the sumptuous red-wool-and-gold robe “reflects the influence of West Eurasian art,” notes the catalogue, “mainly Greco-Roman and secondarily Persian.”
“Here’s a guy that was really out to make a fashion statement,” says Mair. “He’s the most resplendently garbed mummy I’ve ever seen, which is saying a lot for a six-foot-six guy with a mustache!”
A Greco influence can also be found in Mair’s favorite artifact, the Kneeling Bronze Warrior, from 500 BC.
“He’s wearing a kilt,” says Mair. “He looks like a Greek warrior, and he was found in a high mountain valley. When I first saw him, I said, ‘This is a quirk.’ I didn’t say, ‘This is a hoax.’ I said, ‘How did he get here?’
“He’s got like a USC Trojan’s helmet on,” Mair adds wryly. “A Phrygian helmet. He looks very Greek, and he has a big nose, and he would have had a weapon in his hand—but he’s bare-chested, just like the Greek warriors. And then, 20 years later, they found another piece, just like him, at a nearby cemetery. I said, ‘OK, he belongs.’
“I’ve been to that [Xinjiang] museum so many times, and every time I go I spend a lot of time meditating on this piece,” he says. “Why is there this Greek warrior up in the mountains of central Asia? I don’t attempt to come up with an answer. I just meditate. And he’s coming to our museum! It almost makes me cry.”—S.H.
Jan|Feb 2011 contents
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