For thousands of years—more than 1,500 years before the historical Silk Road is said to have begun—people from the East and the West journeyed to the Tarim Basin desert of Central Asia. Though their lives commenced and concluded long ago, their story of ancient commerce and culture continues today.
An extraordinary collection of materials, including spectacularly preserved clothing and textiles, personal items and golden treasures, all recently excavated at desert burial sites in the far western reaches of modern China, are coming to Penn in February in “Secrets of the Silk Road,” one of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology’s biggest exhibitions ever—and the only stop of the landmark exhibition on the East Coast.
Following its opening at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, Calif., in March of last year, the exhibition traveled to the Houston Museum of Natural Science, where it drew crowds through Jan. 2 of this year. On Feb. 5, it will open at Penn, and run through June 5.
The Museum plans to display the materials by drawing upon the history of Central Asia’s Tarim Basin desert and the mystery of the peoples who lived there or passed through long ago.
“Our sequence is different [from that of the Bowers’] in that it’s more of a narrative about the Silk Road,” says James Mathieu, the Museum’s chief of staff. “We’re free to design the exhibit to fit our galleries and mission as an archaeology and anthropology museum. [The Chinese] have provided us with the panel next to an object that tells what it is, but we have the freedom to write larger text panels that talk more about concepts.”
Penn Museum’s exhibition team, in close collaboration with Victor Mair, a consulting scholar at the Museum and professor of Chinese language and literature at Penn, developed the presentation. Mair, who also edited the “Secrets of the Silk Road” catalog, is credited with “rediscovering” the remarkable Tarim Basin mummies, some dating to almost 4,000 years ago, for the West on a trip to the region in the 1990s. He has engaged in intensive research on Xinjiang archaeology ever since.
Physically transporting the fragile objects, which range from 700 to 3,800 years in age, is the responsibility of the Bowers Museum, and China’s Archaeological Institute of Xinjiang and the Urumqi Museum.
Officials from those institutions will load the objects onto 18-wheelers for the trip to the East Coast. When the materials arrive at Penn, the Chinese will install them in the Museum’s second floor west wing gallery in collaboration with Penn officials.
“The [objects] already were mounted and covered in Plexiglas,” Mathieu says. “They are sealed and locked and shipped in various packing materials.”
The Chinese will retain strict control over the objects during the exhibition’s installation. “They are there to witness the closing of the cases,” Mathieu explains. “We’re not supposed to open the cases to move things around [unless] there’s an emergency and the artifact is in danger. ... If we want to make a change, we would have to contact them.”
The treasures in the “Secrets of the Silk Road” exhibition include the full burial trappings of a Tarim Basin mummy, the much-celebrated, 6-foot-6-inch “Yingpan Man,” circa 3rd-4th century CE, with a gold foil and white mask and opulent robes (the mummified remains of his body were too fragile to travel). The exhibition also features a reproduction of a desert burial site where the 3,800-year-old “Beauty of Xiaohe,” whose state of preservation is startling, was discovered. “We’re hoping—pie in the sky—that the exhibition will increase attendance for the year by 40 percent,” Mathieu says.
The ancient objects offer a special insight into the long and diverse cultural heritage of Central Asia. These include an array of clothing, textiles, wooden and bone implements, coins and documents. Gem-encrusted gold vessels, masks, jewelry, accessories and even preserved foods such as wonton and flower-shaped desserts reflect the wide extent of the Silk Road trade, with strong Mediterranean influences as well as goods from ancient China.
“You have things that don’t usually survive in the ground,” Mathieu says, “but because it’s so dry [in the Tarim Basin desert] they were freeze-dried. For thousands of years they didn’t deteriorate.”
For more information, including ticket prices and exhibit hours, go to www.penn.museum/silkroad.
Originally published on January 20, 2011