Mummies & the museum
The Bowers Museum clearly has someone working for them who is both extremely persuasive, and very well-connected in China, in order to negotiate such an amazing collection for their exhibition. I consider their exhibition title, Secrets of the Silk Road, quite accurate. Keep in mind the Chinese allowed only a tiny handful of Western scientists to examine these amazing mummies and their gravegoods — and you can perhaps understand my amazement at hearing there would be not one but three of these mummies allowed out of China!
There was the “Cherchen Baby,” which I mentioned in my previous posting, the woman referred to as the “Beauty of Xiaohe,” and a ‘younger’ male mummy from the second or third century BCE, with extremely rich and beautiful grave goods. Last I heard, the exhibition was on a US tour of only two cities — the other was somewhere in Texas, I think? I hope more museums are able to negotiate a visit so these astonishing and beautifully preserved people can be seen by more.
From listening to one of the docents, it appears there was one unfortunate hitch in bringing over the mummies: when the male was lifted, he started immediately disintegrating. However, his grave goods were sent over, and they hold pride of place as you walk into the darkened first display room. I was initially quite disgruntled at seeing this first room, in fact. It is the central of three sections of rooms dedicated to the exhibition, with the “newest” items in the room to the left and the oldest articles in the rooms to the right.
I did not know this when I entered, and so was initially somewhat disgusted with the Chinese for only allowing out items from the second-third centuries BCE, rather than the really old, 3 to 4 thousand year old mummies which I’d hoped to see — such as the mummies from Urumchi which I mention in my previous post. Those mummies are the ones Mair was allowed to bring Barber in to examine, and about which Barber wrote her fascinating book titled (appropriately) The Mummies of Urumchi.
I highly recommend Barber’s book if you’re at all interested in this subject, by the way. She not only writes with all the enthusiasm of a dedicated scientist, but she also takes the time to clearly and entertainingly explain how weaving is done and why the textiles discovered with the mummies are so marvelous.
True, Barber’s book covers only the mummies of Urumchi, while Mallory’s and Mair’s The Tarim Mummies covers the subject of all the wonderful mummies of the entire Tarim Basin area — but while I think both books are good, I also would recommend Barber first, as a better writer for the layperson, for those wanting to learn more. She doesn’t dumb things down nor leave readers boggled by too much “academia speech” — and at the same time she really shares the joy and excitement of discovery.
So where was I… ah, yes, the exhibition! In retrospect I have to laugh at myself for being such an intellectual snob that I was disappointed at a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see mummies that were “only” about 2000 years old, rather than the almost 4000 year old ones I wanted to see. As it turned out, I did get to see the truly ancient ones, but the “young” one (try here if that link is dead) in the center room was also quite interesting once I got over my snit. They call him Yingpan Man, since he was found near Yingpan, and date him at the second or third century BCE.
His clothing, as you can see, is still brilliant and beautiful, made of a silk and wool mix. The outer coat has sleeves longer than his arms, which I think is how they kept their hands warm in the winter? -and is reversible, with the same pattern as you see on the front, but in “reversed” colors.
Click on the graphic and get the big version, and you’ll be able to see the weirdly cool part: in a far distant, frigidly barren Chinese desert around the second or third century BCE — this man was wearing a coat patterned with a distinctly Greek or Roman style of art! You can see the wavy-branched trees of life alternating with cavorting bulls and long-horned goats, as well as rather corpulent looking, mostly nude, male, cherub-like entities brandishing a variety of short javelins and shields, or bows and arrows — which the museum signage said were “warrior putti.”
While I can agree with the designation of putti for the little creatures, I had to cover a snicker at the firm assertion that they were warriors. If they were indeed supposed to be warriors — rather than symbols of fertility, sexuality, and life, just like the bulls, goats, and trees of life, as well as their Greek look-alike Eros — then they were the cutest, chubbiest, most adorably artistic little “warriors” ever… and consequently very hard for me, at least, to take seriously as warriors!