Peeking Into the Past

An exhibition at a Philadelphia museum features magnificent mummies from China

Feb 28, 2011 | By Suzanne Zimbler

The mummy at the center of an exhibition at the Penn Museum, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is more than 3,500 years old. And yet she is so well-preserved that she is known as the Beauty of Xiaohe (she-ow-huh). Unlike Egyptian mummies, this mummy was preserved by accident, due to the dry weather and salty soil in the area where she was buried.

The Secrets of the Silk Road mummies are on view until March 15.
MATT ROURKE—AP
The Secrets of the Silk Road mummies are on view until March 15.

That area is known as the Tarim Basin. It is a desert region in western China that in recent years has proved to be a treasure trove of incredibly well-preserved mummies and artifacts. Two mummies and more than 150 of these ancient items are on display in the United States for a short time as part of the exhibition Secrets of the Silk Road. "It is extraordinary to have so many important pieces all in one place," said Victor Mair, a University of Pennsylvania professor who helped develop the exhibit.

Silk Road History

Thousands of years before there were trains, planes and cars, people managed to travel long distances over land. The Silk Road is the name for a series of routes that connected Asia with Europe and the Middle East. Merchants traveled along the Silk Road on foot, alongside camels piled high with goods.

Along the way, they exchanged more than silk and gunpowder. As they crossed paths in the Tarim Basin, people shared parts of their culture, from food to fashion. How do we know this today? The objects found buried in the sands there provide clues about the past.

Amazing Artifacts

One set of objects that showcases this mingling of cultures belongs to a mummy called Yingpan Man. Though the mummy was too fragile to travel from China, his burial clothes are part of the show. His clothes are thought to come from Europe. But he was also buried with a glass bowl that was likely made in the Middle East. And the pillow he rests on? It shows the influence of Chinese culture.

Also on display are masks, pottery, silk robes, woven baskets and perfectly-preserved pastries that were prepared more than 1,000 years ago. The exhibition "allows us to look at the history of our globe in a totally new way," museum director Richard Hodges said.

The show already appeared at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, California, and the Houston Museum of Natural Science, in Texas. Philadelphia is the final stop before the artifacts return to China. To learn more about the exhibition, visit penn.museum/silkroad.