Secrets of the Silk Road Print E-mail

Delaware County Times
February 26, 2011

Victor Mair is smitten with a 3,800-year old dazzling beauty.

Chinese archaeologists unearthed the “Beauty of Xiaohe" in 2003, and when they opened her coffin they discovered an alluring woman with graceful eyelashes, long flaxen hair and a serene expression. “Sleeping Beauty” is considered one of the most important human remains ever found.

“I call her the Marlene Dietrich of the desert,” said Dr. Mair with a laugh.  A resident of Swarthmore, Pa., Mair is an archaeologist and professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania.

“She has long tresses of hair spilling down over her shoulder.  She is wearing a white, Alpine-like hat tilted down over her right eye.  She’s got beautiful features.  She is gorgeous.”

The Beauty of Xiaohe is just one of the eye-popping sights in the “Secrets of the Silk Road” exhibition at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology that runs until June 5th, 2011.


The exhibition draws upon the rich history of Central Asia's Tarim Basin desert, and the mystery of the peoples who lived there or passed through so long ago.  You can view the Beauty of Xiaohe and a group of more than 100 artifacts such as sophisticated textiles, jewelry and gem-encrusted gold vessels, excavated in far western China, have traveled outside the country.

A consulting scholar at the Penn Museum, Mair is the exhibit’s catalog editor and a curatorial consultant. “Secrets of the Silk Road” is considered the most prominent exhibition Penn has produced in an Asian art field since the 1920s when the core of the Asian collection arrived at the Penn Museum.

“We anticipate there will be a lot of major Chinese officials from the Xinjiang region coming over here to the opening,” said Mair, who sports a snow white, bushy beard. “There has been a greater degree of openness and cooperation. It is serving as a kind of bridge between the two countries. It’s a very positive sign that we’ve been able to do this exhibition from a region that is fraught with controversy.”

Mair has spent his academic career engaged in intensive research on Xinjiang archeology.  Back in the summer of 1988, Mair led a Smithsonian tour through a Xinjiang gallery. When he parted a black curtain and stepped into a dimly lit room, Mair was face-to-face with eight Bronze Age mummies.

“I was suspicious, full of disbelief, I said, ‘oh this is some kind of hoax,’” Mair recalled.  “They looked like something out of Madame Tussauds Wax Museum—they were too well preserved.”

Some of the Tarim Basin mummies were nearly 4,000 years old. How could they be so well-preserved? And the even larger mystery was: who the heck were they?

“Rather than the expected Chinese-like appearance, these mummies were tall in stature, fair in complexion with blond, reddish-brown hair,” Mair explained.  “It was shocking.”

The mummies were dressed in everyday clothing that hinted of European or western Eurasian descent.

“The clothing was so immaculate, so pristine, and the colors were vivid and bright,” he said.  “I stayed there for four hours staring at the mummies. They had to kick me out, but, by the time I left I was convinced they were real.”

For the first time ever, two of the strikingly-preserved mummies and the full burial trappings of a third-- representative of three different periods of time-- are being presented on the east coast at the Penn Museum.  The historic exhibition also reveals surprising details about the people who lived and traded along the ancient Silk Road in the Tarim Basin between 700 and 3,800 years ago.

Revitalizing the Museum

A native of East Canton, Ohio and a graduate from Dartmouth College, Mair has lived in Swarthmore for more than 30 years.  He is a strong proponent of the Swarthmore Food Co-op that he calls the hub of his activities.  Mair rides the Septa train a couple of days a week to teach Chinese language and literature classes at Penn. His investigations of the mummies and their artifacts have taken Mair on numerous expeditions to East Central Asia.  In the late 1990s Mair worked with PBS’ NOVA and the Discovery Channel on documentaries about the mummies of the region.

Beyond the “Beauty of Xiaohe,” the Penn exhibit is showcasing the much celebrated, six-foot-six inch "Yingpan Man," circa 3rd-4th century AD, with his gold-foil and white mask and opulent robes (the mummified remains of his body were too fragile to travel).  Another is an infant, ca 8th century BC, wrapped in a still vibrant blue bonnet and burgundy woolen shroud similar to that found in northern Europe.

“The human remains in the Tarim Basin mummified naturally,” Mair explained.  “The desert environment, freezing winters, and salty soil created the perfect environment for the preservation of organic materials. They probably were buried during the winter. The extremely cold temperatures inhibited the growth of bacteria, and slowed decomposition even more.”

Still, the exhibit is a lot more than just its mummies. A wide array of ancient objects-- such as clothing, textiles, gold jewelry and coins, figurines, masks, tools, burial goods, and even perfectly preserved food-- help illuminate the history, and pre-history, of the famous Silk Road with strong Mediterranean influences as well as goods from ancient China.

The Silk Road was a set of trade routes that connected China, India, Central Asia, the Middle East, and parts of Africa and Europe, spanning over 4,000 miles. Silk Road travelers migrated on foot or by camel caravan through the harsh terrain of Eastern Central Asia.

The discovery of these ancient people has opened up a window to understanding the very early exchange of important technologies, life-improving inventions, and ideas and customs—including what may be the world's first sunglasses— being practiced in the inhospitable lands of the Tarim Basin where lavish goods, technologies and ideas between East and West were adopted and exchanged.

The exhibition was organized by the Bowers Museum of Santa Ana, Calif. in association with the Archaeological Institute of Xinjiang and the Urumqi Museum.  In February of 2009 Mair received a call from the director of the Bowers Museum and was asked if he would be involved in planning an exhibition of the mummies.

“I couldn’t believe it; I’m thinking man, this is like a dream,” recalled Mair in an enthusiastic, wide-eyed way.  “Then he asked, ‘could the exhibit come to Penn?’  I nearly fell through the floor.  It’s so appropriate, I started researching all this in 1991, and 20 years later it’s come full circle.”

With this blockbuster exhibit, Penn is re-launching the museum as a public venue that resulted in three galleries being totally refurbished, including the original 1899 west wing.

“The museum has a long and storied history, but it’s gotten crusty and a bit neglected here on a corner in west Philadelphia,” Mair related.”The president, the provost-- everybody collaborated with us wonderfully. The museum hired a lot more young blood, and a lot of outreach events have been building for months. It’s not just an exhibition.  It is the revitalization and rebirth of the Penn Museum.”



Take a Look!

©2010 Terry Conway, all rights reserved
website by Fairview Design