Wiz­ard mum­mies: ‘ high’ so­ci­ety

China Daily (Canada) - - FRONT PAGE - By ERIK NILS­SON in Xin­jiang

Tur­pan is where pot-puff­ing war­lock corpses gaze back at us through mil­len­nia.

It’s no ac­ci­dent the city’s cel­e­brated mum­mi­fied shaman was en­tombed with a sup­ply of mar­i­juana.

But al­most cer­tainly no dou­ble en­ten­dre was in­tended when the Tur­pan Mu­seum’s sign was trans­lated into English, say­ing the un­usual grave goods prove the man oc­cu­pied a “high po­si­tion” in so­ci­ety.

The sorcerer was buried with nearly a kilo­gram of cannabis, be­lieved to be the plant’s ear­li­est known psy­choac­tive use.

He was also in­terred with a leather bas­ket, a bronze bell and an ax, a har­ness and a harp — ap­par­ently ev­ery­thing a high-rolling mystic needs to make eter­nity en­chant­ing.

The sooth­sayer and eight other mum­mies still com­mand pres­tige among China’s most cel­e­brated arche­o­log­i­cal dis­plays.

Four were buried as cou­ples. They of­fer a sac­cha­rine yet sepul­chral de­fi­ance — or a su­perla­tive ad­her­ence — to the mat­ri­mo­nial mantra: “’till death do us part”. Take your pick. Across the ages Look­ing at them, you re­al­ize that when mod­ern peo­ple gawk at mum­mies, mum­mies gawk back. We stare at each other through the ages, bit only one of us blinks.

Tur­pan’s hot and dry cli­mate has pre­served not only Silk Road-era ar­ti­facts and build­ings but also the peo­ple of the pe­riod.

The ca­dav­ers were parched to be­come hu­man jerky in the fur­nace­like heat that bakes the foot of the Flam­ing Moun­tain, out­side an­cient ru­ins that still stand, although weath­ered by the sand­blasts of time. They’re ba­si­cally mum­mies of cities — they haven’t de­cayed to dust, but they have seen bet­ter days. They sur­vive as car­casses. In­ci­den­tally, they’re sur­rounded by present-day struc­tures that pre­serve primeval tech­niques of des­ic­cat­ing grapes in use since the days when mum­mies were alive. (If you think about it, raisins are es­sen­tially grape mum­mies.)

The mu­seum’s mummy ex­hi­bi­tions en­sure that not only the ca­dav­ers’ physiques but also their life his­to­ries are pre­served — at least as much as arche­ol­o­gists can de­ci­pher. In a sense, they’re the liv­ing dead. The Silk Road node “left us the largest amount of an­cient corpses of var­i­ous eth­nic groups and coun­tries in a sin­gle place”, the mu­seum’s in­tro says. The old­est lived 3,200 years ago. The youngest died in the Qing Dy­nasty (1644-1911).

The hands of the Subeixi mum­mies (3rd-5th cen­turies AD) are adorned with geo­met­ric tat­tooed pat­terns. Ex­perts point out their burial at­tire is akin to that used at the same time in south­ern Siberia.

The thing is, this dis­play is just hands — as in crin­kled, dis­em­bod­ied ones. Think Thing. Then think creepier. The Xin­jiang Uygur au­ton­o­mous re­gion’s sec­ond-largest mu­seum, at 10,000 square me­ters — in­clud­ing 4,200 square me­ters pre­sent­ing nearly 7,000 col­lec­tions — paints Tur­pan’s Silk Road her­itage as a mo­saic of peo­ples.

The litany of pop­u­laces is a lot to wrap one’s tongue, let alone mind, around.

The five main Silk Road civ­i­liza­tions were the Greco-Ro­man, An­cient Chi­nese, In­dian, Per­sian-Ara­bian and no­madic Eurasian steppe cul­tures.

Dur­ing the era, the Tur­pan Basin hosted Cheshi, Han, Hun, Tochar­ian, Tur­kic, Ti­betan, Uygur, Mon­go­lian and In­dian denizens and so­journ­ers.

They left a legacy of Shaman­ism, Bud­dhism, Zoroas­tri­an­ism, Manichaeism, Chris­tian­ity, Is­lam and Con­fu­cian­ism, not to men­tion lan­guages to over­stock a Tower of Ba­bel.

The area to­day is home to Uygur, Han, Hui, Kazak, Tu­jia, Manchu, Tu, Ti­betan, Miao, Zhuang, Dongx­i­ang and eth­nic­i­ties.

Dis­em­bod­ied hands of Tur­pan’s an­cient mum­mies are cov­ered with geo­met­ric tat­toos.

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