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Victor Mair first encountered the Bronze Age mummies of China’s Tarim Basin 23 years ago. He—and others—have been trying to figure out what those people were doing there ever since.


The first time Victor Mair saw a Tarim mummy,
he didn’t believe what his eyes were suggesting.

It was the summer of 1988, and Mair, professor of Chinese language and literature at Penn, was leading a Smithsonian tour through Xinjiang, the northwestern Chinese province in the vast, desolate expanse of east-central Asia. They stopped in Ürümchi, Xinjiang’s capital, where the provincial museum had recently opened a small room at the end of its archaeological section. It was labeled Mummy Exhibition. Mair, his charges trailing behind him, parted the hanging curtains of the gallery doorway and entered the dimly lit room.

He found himself surrounded by mummies, maybe half a dozen in all. Not the usual sort of mummies, wrapped in rotting gauze or looking like something out of a zombie movie. These were astonishingly well-preserved people of decidedly un-Chinese appearance, dressed in their everyday clothes. Though their remains were identified as thousands of years old, they looked as though they were sleeping and could wake up at any moment.

Mair was stunned—and skeptical.

“I looked at the mummies and said, ‘Oh, this is a hoax,’” he says. “They looked like something out of Madame Tussauds Wax Museum—they’re too well preserved. Then all the clothing was so immaculate, so pristine, and the colors were very vivid and bright. And perfectly intact! Nothing destroyed.”

Mair had examined enough ancient manuscripts from the area to know that the salty sands and freeze-drying climate of the Tarim Basin, where the mummies were found, are highly conducive to preservation. (“The most linguistically diverse library in the ancient world has survived in the drying sands of the Tarim Basin,” he and co-author James Mallory wrote in their 2000 book, The Tarim Mummies: Ancient China and the Mystery of the Earliest Peoples from the West.) But their remarkable condition wasn’t the only puzzling thing about these mummies.

“They had all this advanced technology: bronze, and high-level textile technology, different kinds of tools—they had wheels, for example. Everything made me think this was too advanced for this time in this place.”

Even more brain-scrambling was the fact that they looked so … European. Their height (tall). Hair (blond, reddish-brown, fine-textured). Facial structure. Clothing.

Mair was especially drawn to one mummy whose remains were identified as dating back to 1000 BCE. Chärchän Man, excavated from Chärchän (Qiemo in Modern Standard Mandarin), was six-foot-two, with longish blond-brown hair and beard, and his clothing included a woolen shirt and trousers trimmed with red piping. Mair promptly dubbed him Ur-David, on account of the remarkable resemblance to his very-much-alive brother Dave. But beyond that eerie resemblance bubbled a serious question: What in God’s name was a tall, fair-haired man with that kind of clothing doing in east-central Asia 3,000 years ago?

Mair sent his tour members back to the hotel, and spent the next few hours in that dark room, meditating on the implications of its inhabitants. He filed the mental images away and went back to studying manuscripts.

Three years later, he found himself reading a story in The New York Times about a frozen 5,300-year-old body that had just been discovered in the Ötztaler Alps on the border between Austria and Italy. Ötzi the Iceman, as he became known, “died at the top of the Similaun Glacier, right near where my father pastured his animals when he was a boy,” says Mair. The weird convergence of time and place and professional interests prompts a grin. “I was born to be a mummy guy,” he says.

At that point, though, he was still a “Chinese language and literature guy with a lot of experience about central Asia,” albeit one who was “curious about everything.” And the discovery of Ötzi “galvanized” him.

“What really goaded me to go to the mummies was that [Ötzi] had an army of researchers working on him,” he adds. “It wasn’t fair. Those Xinjiang mummies—nobody was working on them; nobody even knew about them. I said to myself, ‘They’re every bit as important as he is. Maybe even more important.’ They’re in the center of Asia, at the crossroads of Asia. Before that it was just a big lacuna in that part of the world; then all of a sudden there were all these Caucasian people with all this advanced technology, right up there against China—very early.”

He pauses for just a moment, and adds: “That very afternoon, I became an archaeologist.”

Richard Hodges, the Williams Director of the Penn Museum and an eminent archaeologist in his own right, is talking with easy precision about the “two great issues” in world archaeology today.

One, he explains, is “that whole issue of man coming out of Africa, particularly sub-Sahara Africa, and crossing into the Middle East, then moving eastwards and northwards.” That’s a sort of prelude to the second issue—which, he says, involves “what was happening between Asia and Europe and the Middle East and this crucible of the Old World” over the past three millennia.

“The Tarim Basin is smack-bang in the middle of this crucible,” Hodges says forcefully. “And the archaeology that’s come from it, the new finds that have been made in that region, are extraordinary.” The result is “a remarkable chance to get to grips with those extraordinary issues that have interested archaeologists for centuries on a big scale”—until they “lost interest because they were myopic,” Hodges adds. “And now this big, grand narrative is back for us.”

The narrative takes physical form in Secrets of the Silk Road, an exhibition of Tarim Basin mummies and artifacts that opens at the Penn Museum February 5 and runs through June 5. The exhibition is “fantastic,” says Hodges, “because it really demands that you have the kind of imagination to look across huge distances and ask big questions about who we are and where we came from.”

For Mair, the fact that an exhibition of Tarim mummies and artifacts is coming to the Penn Museum at all borders on the “miraculous.” Not just because it’s a blockbuster show with dazzling objects and a raft of innovative special programs that represents a quantum leap forward for the Museum, though it is and it does. (See sidebar on p. 44.) It’s also that he had long since given up hope that any of those mummies and artifacts would ever make it out of China, let alone to West Philadelphia.

Fifteen years ago, he was turned down for a similar show, on the not-unreasonable grounds that the Museum was ill-equipped to handle either the crowds or the climate-sensitive mummies. Efforts to get a venue at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County also foundered. So Mair went back to studying, excavating, writing about, and organizing conferences on the remarkable discoveries in Xinjiang.

Then, in February 2009, he got a phone call from Peter Keller, head of the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, California. The museum, Keller told him, was planning an exhibition of Tarim mummies.

“I said, ‘Oh, no, you can’t be,’” Mair recalls. “‘He said, ‘Oh yes we can. Do you want to be involved?’”

Mair had to pick his jaw off the floor before he could answer.

“I said, ‘Man, this is like a dream! It’s not gonna happen!’ He said, ‘Yes, it is.’”

When Keller asked Mair if he wanted to edit the catalogue, the response was a high-octane affirmative. He then asked if Mair would be interested in having the exhibition come to the Penn Museum.

“I said, ‘What?! That’s what we’ve been trying to do all these years!’”

At that point Mair went to see Hodges, knowing he was facing long odds. But this time, the stars were in alignment.

“We’re trying to work on two fronts that I think the University feels pleased about,” says Hodges. “First, we’re trying to work with faculty and students, and it’s great to have these sorts of ideas come from a distinguished member of the faculty. Second, we’re trying to get a much larger audience for the Museum as a public museum, and we felt that this exhibition, albeit a little academic, actually meets the kind of interest that the public have at the moment in archaeology.”

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FEATURE: When West Went East By Samuel Hughes
©2011 The Pennsylvania Gazette

Left: The salty sands and freeze-drying climate of the Tarim Basin, where the mummies were found, are highly conducive to preservation.


SIDEBAR: Ancient Secrets, Found and Shared
A blockbuster exhibition, Secrets of the Silk Road,
is coming to the Penn Museum.

page 1 | 2 | Sidebar
  ©2011 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 01/05/11