Silk Road Riches No Embarrassment

Article excerpt

The survival of organic materials in the waterless fringes of the Takla Makan and Lop Deserts in the Tarim basin in Xinjiang (north-western China) has fascinated us for a century, since Sven Hedin, Aurel Stein and Albert von Le Coq found the remains of settlements and cemeteries at the Great Wall's lonely outposts and along the routes between China and Central Asia known as the Silk Road. The finds date flora the Bronze Age to the later first millennium AD. In the 1980s and '90s, it was shown that the most striking of them, the Tarim 'mummies', belong to both Mongoloid and Caucasoid peoples (Mallory & Mair 2000). The archaeology here of public and domestic life is full of the kinds of surprises and contradictions that we are learning to expect--if not accept--with 'globalisation'. Development in the region is now prompting new discoveries but also looters, so the research is urgent.

Secrets of the Silk Road is a travelling exhibition of nearly 100 objects or groups of finds lent by the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Museum and the Xinjiang Institute of Archaeology. A version came to Germany in 2007-8. The current exhibition was brought to the USA last year by the Bowers Museum, Santa Ana, California, and shown there before going to the Houston Museum of Natural Science (2010-11) and then the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology, where the tour closes on 5 June. The present review is based on Houston's display.

Suffused with dreamy music by the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the exhibition comprises three main parts (details varying, no doubt, with venues). The first presents maps anda 'time line' that includes cross-dates to history more familiar to most visitors. Here, Houston displayed a saddle blanket from Sampul and a robe and quilt from Niya. The second part reveals the range of preservation: a fifth-century AD tombstone, a small Tang census statement on paper, Sasanian coins; various figurines depicting everyday life, including a rider veiled in gauze; a pair of woollen trousers from Sampul and the hanging from Sampul that included part of another pair (Wagner et al. 2009); a spring roll, a dumpling (won ton), and three dainties shaped as flowers. The third part of the exhibition, about cemeteries, is presented as the climax. Among the goods are a felt 'witch' hat (Mallory & Mair 2000), Scythian 'animal art' in gold, a dressed ox scalp and horns, a Han cauldron (fu) and a Tang miniature quiver. There are grave markers, including a pair of wooden phalli for women's interments and one of the paddle-shaped 'vulvae' for men, from Bronze Age Xiaohe (Small River), and one of the same site's 'boat coffins'. Three corpses--or their shapes--are displayed. There is 'The Beauty of Xiaohe', one of a group thought, by archaeologists, to be of European origin (see Figure 1; Mair 2010: 50). There is Early Iron Age 'Baby Blue', whose face, daubed over in flesh colour, gives a lifelike impression of plumpness (Mallory & Mair 2000: 193). Third is the Yingpan Man or, rather, his accoutrements: a mask with the suggestion of epicanthic folds on the eyelids bur a bold nose; a band of gold across the brow; a headdress; decorated trousers and socks; and a gown embroidered in figures 'Greco-Roman and ... Persian' (Mair 2010: 194). His burial was 'unlike all the others at Yingpan' but the body itself was removed and withheld from the exhibition (Mair 2010: 56-7).

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

That illustrates an ironic problem with finds preserved so well. Whatever the reason for withholding it was, to have shown the Yingpan body as well as its clothing would have exposed the artifice of display. Presumably, the body has been replaced with stuffing to support the clothing. Equally, the Xiaohe Beauty's shroud had concealed little bags, pins and sprigs; while, on the other hand, we can wonder whether her tresses were really found spilling across the shroud so sweetly (Mair 2010: 171). …