Uncovering Mysteries along the Silk Road

USA TODAY, August 2010 | Go to article overview

Uncovering Mysteries along the Silk Road


One of the most important archaeological finds ever unearthed are the hundreds of well-preserved mummies that were found buried in the parched sands of the Tarim Basin in the Far Western Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China. A revealing exhibition, "Secrets of the Silk Road: Mystery Mummies from China," showcases 150 ancient objects discovered along the famous Silk Road, including three mummies who underscore the "secret" of the exhibit.

"These three mummies are ... among the most important human remains and archaeological finds because of their high degree of preservation, which has allowed scientists to see far more detail than would normally be expected in a burial site," asserts Victor Mair, professor of Chinese Language and Literature at the University of Pennsylvania, consulting scholar at the Penn Museum, and author of The Tarim Mummies.

"Secrets of the Silk Road" includes the much-celebrated Yingpan Man, with his gold-foil and white mask and beautiful robes; an infant wrapped in a woolen blanket, wearing a bonnet of lightly felted wool; and the spectacular woman known as the "Beauty of Xiaohe," who is considered to be one of the most well-preserved, exquisite mummies ever discovered. With her graceful eyelashes, flaxen hair, and serene expression, this lovely lady simply appears to have fallen asleep, yet she last dosed her eyes some 3,800 years ago. Her loved ones dressed her in fur-lined boots and placed a felted wool hat with plumes of feathers upon her head. At her shoulder was a basket of grain for her journey to the afterlife. Wrapped in a finely crafted burial shroud and placed in a boat-shaped coffin, she was left for eternal sleep.

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These mummies are not Asian-looking, but rather light-skinned, round-eyed, long-nosed, red- and blond-haired men, women, and children. The material buried with them, including their perfectly preserved clothing, bears a striking resemblance to mummies found in Siberia to the North, Persia to the West, and Europe. Even more surprising is that these mummies span a period of more than 3,000 years, providing a glimpse into the ancient Silk Road traders, an intriguing mix of people--based on DNA research--from all over Eurasia.

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In addition to the mummies, the exhibit features a vast array of well-preserved clothing, textiles, wood and bone implements, coins, documents, and jewel-encrusted gold objects, including vessels, masks, and jewelry. This impressive collection reflects the full extent of the Silk Road trade with strong Mediterranean influences, as well as goods from ancient China.

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