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A beauty that was government's beast

The mummies were not Chinese, but they weren't Uighur either - although their descendents might have eventually been assimilated into the Uighur population, according to Mair, who consulted on that study. "We deflated that bubble," he said.

The result is that the mummies have shed some of their political sensitivity, allowing them to come out of the closet of China's ethnic troubles. For the first time this year, two mummies traveled to the United States as part of an exhibit, "Secrets of the Silk Road: Mystery Mummies of China," at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, Calif. The show is now at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, where it will remain until early next year, when it travels to the University of Pennsylvania.

The mummies are also star attractions within China, the centerpiece of the refurbished museum in Urumqi and another in the oasis town of Turpan, 140 miles from Urumqi, where ethnic Chinese mummies discovered in the region are on display.

A once hospitable land

Although the terrain nowadays is so dry and wind-swept as to be almost uninhabitable, this area known as the Tarim Basin was once laced with rivers and dotted with oases hospitable enough for settlement. As a crossroads between Europe and Asia, it was home at different times to an astonishing mix of peoples - Europeans, Siberians, Mongolians, Han Chinese.

There was a man who lived in the 3rd or 4th century who was 6 feet 6 and dressed in magnificent red and gold embroidered clothing; a 3-month-old baby (8th century) with a felt bonnet and small blue stones covering the eyes, which were possibly the same color. Some of the men have red beards; the women have long blond braids.

All the mummies tell a story. In an ancient graveyard in Astana, near Turpan, a man and a woman are buried together in an underground crypt that dates from the Tang dynasty (A.D. 618 to 906) and is one of the few places that the public can see mummies in their original graves.

The woman looks younger than the man. Her mouth is in a grimace; forensic specialists say her arm and neck were broken shortly before her death.

"We think she might have been beaten and buried alive to be with her husband. He died naturally," said Bai Yingcai, a tour guide and mummy expert who was taking visitors through the crypts.

Often, the mummies' accessories are more interesting than the bodies. Some have pointed hats; another, possibly a healer, was buried with a bag of marijuana.

In one Hami cemetery in northeastern Xinjiang, archaeologists found plaid fabric similar to what you'd see on a Scottish kilt. Elizabeth Barber, a professor emeritus at Occidental College and an expert on ancient textiles, used the cloth to surmise that the mummies shared Celtic ancestry with the Scots. In fact, the cloth was almost the same as samples found in ancient salt mines in Hallstatt, Austria, an area once inhabited by early Celtic tribes.

Wang, the Chinese archaeologist, says people have been too distracted by ethnic issues to focus on what the mummies can teach about ancient lives: "You can study the mummies to learn what these people ate, how they dressed, their social life, their standards of beauty, how they interacted with others. This information is very precious."

The Loulan beauty, despite her features, lived a hardscrabble life.

Her shoes and clothing had repeatedly been mended. Her hair was infested with lice. She had ingested a considerable amount of sand, dust and charcoal, and lung failure most likely caused her to die in her early 40s.

"You can see that even back then, pollution was a problem," Wang said.

- Los Angeles Times

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