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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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"The exhibit opens up a new world of understanding and interest in the complex ancient history of this part of China, and the vast area where so many peoples connected so long ago," points out Mair. "The Tarim mummies and their associated artifacts from 4,000 to 2,000 years old hold an essential key to understanding the development of Eurasian civilization at a crucial moment: the transition from the Bronze Age to the Early Iron Age, from prehistory to history.

"The discovery and intensive study of the mummies of the Tarim Basin have completely reshaped our understanding of the development of civilization during the Bronze Age and Early Iron Age. Viewers of this exhibition will see firsthand the human and material remains that have contributed to this remarkable rewriting of the past. Rarely have so many important artifacts been assembled in a single show. It is a stunning demonstration of the key role that archeology is playing in the investigation of Eurasian prehistory."

"So wonderfully preserved are these mummies, lying there in their colorful clothing, that people unconsciously drop their voices and begin to tiptoe, as though these millennia-old people were merely asleep," marvels Elizabeth Barber, noted textile specialist from Occidental College, Los Angeles. "These mummies have revolutionized our ideas about the history of contact between Europe and Eastern Asia."

The "Silk Road" aptly was named because of the vast amounts of silk and other merchandise--spices, gold, precious metals and stones, ivory, glass, exotic animals, furs, ceramics, jade, lacquer, iron, and plants--that were carded back and forth from East to West. Many goods were bartered for others and objects often changed hands several times.

These priceless objects and the celebrated Tarim mummies were seen outside of Asia for the first time from March 27-July 25 at the Bowers Museum, Santa Ana, Calif. They next can be viewed Aug. 28-Jan. 2, 2011, at the Houston (Texas) Museum of Natural Science, and then at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia, Feb. 5, 2011-June 5, 2011.

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Title Annotation:The World Yesterday; the exhibit, "Secrets of the Silk Road: Mystery Mummies from China"
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Aug 1, 2010
Words:769
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