Houston Lookers

Mummies in limbo: Stars of HMNS Silk Road exhibit caught in international incident

Mummies in limbo: Stars of HMNS Silk Road exhibit caught in international incident

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The Silk Road mummies AP Photo

Among the items on view in the Houston Museum of Natural Science's Secrets of the Silk Road exhibit was a pair of near-perfectly preserved corpses who died in modern day China's most inhospitable region. After more than 3,800 years, even the eyelashes on these figures remained intact.

The full exhibition (which closed in Houston Jan. 2) was slated to appear at Philadelphia's University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, but unexpectedly, the Chinese government has stepped in, leaving the mummies stranded. An HMNS spokesperson says contrary to other published reports and radio reports, the mummies are no longer in Houston and haven't been since soon after the exhibit's closing.

No one will say exactly where the mummies are, though.

According to an NPR report, the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C. insists that any archaeological exhibit cannot travel overseas for more than eight months, and the mummies have already been gone for longer than that — which would preclude them from appearing in Philadelphia.

The New York Times has suggested another layer: The mummies were unearthed in the Tarim Basin of western China; other preserved bodies from this region have been indicated as Caucasoid, with long noses and light hair, giving a voice to the separatist movement of nationalist Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim population. Uighur nationalists claim that these mummies are evidence of their historic right to the region.

Some feel the Chinese government is concerned that the mummies in Secrets of the Silk Road could foster Uighur sympathy in the United States.

The secrets of Secrets of the Silk Road are accumulating, so CultureMap went directly to Dirk Van Tuerenhout, curator of anthropology at HMNS.

"It's especially tragic," he says of the exhibition's interruption, "because ultimately, the work that was done on getting the word out to the Western world about the existence of the mummies was done by Dr. Victor Mair at the museum in Philadelphia." Van Tuerenhout argues that Mair and the museum worked directly with the Chinese government, and HMNS coordinated their hosting of the exhibition with Houston's Chinese consulate.

"It is totally bizarre," Van Tuerenhout says. "I can only imagine what is happening at the museum. If the potential for unrest in China was a problem, it never would have opened here."

He insists that the particular mummies on view in Silk Road aren't indicated as immediate ancestors of the Uighur people. In the meantime, papier-mâché mummies have replaced the authentic originals at the Philadelphia museum.

Listen to the NPR report here:

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