Exquisite Corpses at the Bowers

The road mentioned in the impressively thorough Bowers Museum exhibition “Secrets of the Silk Road” is not silk or even a road, but a series of trade routes crisscrossing the mountains and deserts of China. The routes allowed individuals unfazed by (or unaware of) the vicious terrain to travel from as far west as Europe and the Mediterranean to as far south as Somalia and Java. As East met West and places in between (Persia, India and Egypt, among others), nomads could find a new home; traders could buy and sell rare goods for import/export; and entrepreneurs could set up food shops, brothels and rest stops to cater to the basic needs of the lonely travelers.

Money changed hands; bodily fluids were shared; bubonic plague hitched a ride; and the literature, music, dance and religion of many cultures found their way into the collective consciousness. As individuals intermingled, died and were buried along the Silk Road, they left an overwhelming amount of historical—and genetic—data about themselves in graves scattered throughout the Tarim Basin of what is now Xinjiang. Dating of the remains suggests that the first inhabitants of that part of China were Caucasian or European—not East Asians or the Turkic Uighurs, who claim the mummies as their precursors, despite the fact that they don’t share the same bloodline.

The depth of preservation is startling, owing to the extremes of weather in the region: freezing cold and searing heat, salt, sand, and a general lack of humidity—an archaeologist’s wet dream. Admiring the statuary, textiles and textile fragments, masks, hats, tiny toys, jewelry, mirrors, and makeup accessories—there is even a pair of metal sunglasses—it’s easy to forget just how ancient many of the pieces are. Although hundreds and hundreds of years old, many of them look like they were made very recently.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the colorful grave clothes of Yingpan Man, a wealthy trader of Sogdian (a province of Persia) origin. Dating back to the 3rd or 4th century, the mummy itself isn’t in the exhibition, but while his funerary finery has some age damage to it, it’s really no more than would be evident if you discovered a great-grandparent’s set of clothes hidden away in an old cedar chest, sans mothballs. At a glance, his silk clothing looks Chinese, and without closer examination (or the aid of the informative audio tour), that’s all you’d see. A further look at the deep red-and-gold brocade and the fat little angel boys (Italian putti) design on the robe, and it becomes obvious that what you’re seeing is the 4th-century equivalent of Versace.

An entrancing section of tapestry—a centaur at top in what looks to be part of a huge border surrounding the visage of a man holding a spear—dates back to 100 B.C. and also reveals the melting-pot blurring of cultures. Despite its Greek design influences, the nomadic warrior’s clothing and appearance—a red jacket, white headband, hair combed back and cascading down in curls around his neck—show him to be Iranian nobility.

If your main focus is the mummies, there are only two, but you won’t be disappointed: The tiny figure of an infant buried in the 8th century, bundled into swaddling, rests under one glass display case. A wisp of hair peeks out from its blue bonnet, tiny blue stones hiding its sunken eyes. Wool has been stuffed into its nostrils; by its side is a tiny sheep’s-teat milk bottle.

The exhibition’s most prestigious display lies in the final gallery. The Beauty of Xiahoe isa young Caucasian woman, buried during the Bronze Age, around 1,800 B.C., likely of European descent, though DNA results haven’t been finalized. Press hyperbole states she’s breathtakingly beautiful and looks like she’s sleeping; a less poetic description is that she looks like a dried-out corpse. Her eyes have long rotted away, but you can see her lips and very long eyelashes, the sweep of her cheekbone under the leathery skin, as well as a long mane of red hair. Wrapped in blankets and a hood to keep her warm on her final journey, she brings a quiet tranquility to the room in which she lies.

“Secrets of the Silk Road” at the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art, 2002 N. Main St., Santa Ana, (714) 567-3600; www.bowers.org. Open Tues.-Sun., 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; fourth Thursday of every month, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Through July 25. $9-$12.



This review appeared in print as “Exquisite Corpses: The mummies and funerary trappings of ‘Secrets of the Silk Road’ offer a haunting glimpse into Eurasia’s multicultural past.”

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