Santa Ana, Calif. Mystery, dazzle and awe unite the mummies of a man, woman and child who were found in China’s Tarim Basin at different times in different places for an exhibition so rich in history it contains some of the earliest known baby bottles, trousers, sunglasses and pasta.
“Secrets of the Silk Road: Mystery Mummies of China,” opened Saturday at the Bowers Museum. Ten years in the works, it will be the first time the mummies will be seen outside of Asia.
“The Beauty of Xaiohe” is around 3,800 years old and is one of the most perfectly preserved mummies ever discovered, says exhibit catalog editor Victor Mair, a professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania.
“I call her the Marlene Dietrich of the desert. She is stunning,” he says.
A reddish, dishwater blonde, the beauty has long, full eyelashes and is wearing a rakish corded hat with a feather. She probably died in her early 30s, Mair says.
Because of her eyelashes, “I keep joking we ought to get Maybelline to sponsor this,” says Peter Keller, president of the Bowers.
Her remains were found at Small River Cemetery No. 5 (Xaiohe means small river). Bluebonnet Baby, around 9 months old, and Yingpan Man, about 55 when he died, were found at different burial sites a couple hundred miles apart in the Tarim Basin in the Far Western Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China.
They were all discovered along what would become known as the Silk Road, the rambling, braided trading route between Central Asia and China named for the luxurious fabrics that exchanged hands, along with spices, gold, exotic animals, furs and jade.
None of the mummies are Asian-looking, Mair says. They are light-skinned with round eyes, long noses and red or blonde hair.
The beautiful woman lived nearly 1,800 years before the Silk Road was established. “They were just isolated people. They are not trading on a large scale. They’re just subsistence, just making do. I call them egg roll pastoralists. They have sheep and goats and cattle, all of which came from western Asia,” Mair says. They also know how to grow wheat, he says, another Asian product.
China is protective of its ancient mummies, so many tests have yet to be done, including CT scans and other tests that could tell scientists about the people’s last meals, intestines, hair follicles, diet, cause of death, lungs and other factors.
The exhibit comes with more than 150 pieces of clothing, implements, coins, documents, masks, jewelry, coffins and other items found at the burial sites.
“Everything is beautifully preserved. There’s a pair of shoes in the exhibit that you could wear today, made out of cattails. I could see a designer actually copying them,” Keller says.
The child, about 2,800 years old, is displayed next to a sheep’s udder shaped into a conelike drinking vessel. “You can say it’s the world’s first baby bottle,” Mair says.
“He’s wrapped in a beautiful purply, red, brown blanket, which has a different color from whatever side you look at it. They have used red dye on natural brown wool, so you get the same effect as a woman with brown hair who hennas her hair,” says Elizabeth Barber, a member of the curating team, a prehistorian and noted textile expert from Occidental College in Los Angeles.
Barber was impressed with how much the ancient people did with so little. “The baby blanket has a texture stripe in it. By overspinning the yarn and putting three rows of it in every once in a while, it gnarls up in the cloth and makes the texture stripe,” she says.
“The face is just beautiful. You can see these long eyelashes and these little reddish brown eyebrows and this little ski-jump nose,” she says, but the mouth is covered by a layered cashmere bonnet.
Baby Bluebonnet was found next to a tomb in the south Tarim Basin that held a man and three women, Barber says. Three adults were mummified and one was a skeleton, but the colors and cording on their clothing identified them as a family.
About 10 percent of the bodies found in the cemetery were mummified and the rest were not.
Natural mummification occurred in the winter, when temperatures dipped to 60 degrees below zero, while dying in the summer, when it was 110 in the shade, ensured deterioration, Barber says.
The bodies that were mummified had freeze dried, then when spring and hot weather came, there was no moisture left to aide decomposition.