Secrets of the Silk Road
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Victor Mair. Bowers Museum, 223 pp., $39.95
After three and a half weeks the “Secrets of the Silk Road” exhibition at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology—a collection of some 125 astonishing artifacts from the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in China—continues as a ghost of its former self. Life-size photos now replace the original artifacts that have been sent back to China, and wooden replicas (constructed by the museum’s modeler) mimic its vanished mummies. The Chinese unexpectedly withdrew their exhibits. Yet in the brief weeks of its showing, the full exhibition was seen by an unprecedented 42,000 visitors, the opening hours were extended, and whatever politics prompted the Chinese decision resulted in more—but baffled—publicity.
On the face of it the exhibition is more specialized and narrow than its Silk Road name implies. (The trade routes of the Silk Road interwove across all Asia from China to the Mediterranean.) Yet paradoxically the exhibition is also more ambitious. For it concentrates almost exclusively on the ancient civilizations of China’s giant northwest province of Xinjiang, a land divided between high northern grasslands and—crucially—southern desert, whose sands have preserved many artifacts eerily intact.
The provenance of this region’s early peoples is controversial. Traces of their presence date back to at least 2000 BC, and the direction from which they first reached the edges of Xinjiang’s bitter Taklamakan Desert is still uncertain. Some scholarly opinion locates their origins in the Andronovo culture of the Eurasian steppe, or perhaps still farther west on the fringes of Europe itself—and recent DNA analysis appears to support this.
But around the third century BC, the westward counterflow of Mongoloid peoples began in earnest, and some of the early sites in Xinjiang now lie a thousand miles within the borders of modern China. The complex ethnicity of the region’s inhabitants, the scattered sites of their settlement, and the intermittent centuries of their arrival all militate against their being better known. The culture and even the appearance of the earliest settlers—locked in uncannily preserved mummies—are not Chinese at all, but Caucasoid. They belong, astonishingly, with the West.
If there is a guiding theme in the museum’s presentation, it is the insistence on Western origins and influence. One of the most striking exhibits is a kneeling bronze warrior from the fifth century BC, a figure of Scythian extraction perhaps, or even Hellenic. The remains of a handsome tapestry (later sewn into a pair of trousers) feature a warrior of fleshy Europoid features and wide blue eyes, with a centaur cantering across the panel above (see illustration on page 18). The exhibition’s early robes, it is pointed out, have their closure on the left, contrary to the Chinese style; gold belt plaques echo those of Caucasoid …