Xiaohe is a beauty; she has long eyelashes, a button nose, auburn hair that falls across her shoulders and has been dead for 3,800 years.
The now famous mummy, known as The Beauty of Xiaohe, was discovered by a Swedish archeologist in 1934 in China’s Tarim Basin, in the western province of Xinjiang, a remote arid land once off limits for outsiders. “Now they’re pulling mummies out of the ground like it’s an Abbott and Costello movie,” notes one article. But the mummy has led to controversy, part of an exhibit touring the US called “Secrets of the Silk Road”, her travels were halted last February by the Chinese government.
Chinese officials said the mummy had been away for too long and needed to return home to China, but some scholars speculate the real reason she was pulled from the show was because of her looks. Xiaohe’s Caucasian features suggest Europeans had actually been living within China at a time thousands of years earlier than was previously thought, debunking Chinese narratives of how the history of their own country developed. The existence of a mummy like Xiaohe, says Spencer Wells, a geneticist and anthropologist at the National Geographic Society is “as though a group of Celts or Vikings had been mysteriously transported into the middle of a Chinese desert.” One thing officials in both countries can agree on is her beauty; but Xiaohe does have a rival, a mummy discovered in Egypt’s Saqqara pyramid complex, about 16 miles south of Cairo, in 2005.
The 2,300 year old Egyptian mummy dates to the 30th dynasty, a reign that included the Pharaohs Nectanebo I, Teos, and Nectanebo II. The mummy, discovered by an Egyptian archaeological team, was in a cedar sarcophagus and buried in sand at the bottom of a 20 foot shaft. The sarcophagus’s colors are brilliant; bright blue, red and gold. The face is cloaked by a gold gilded mask with sharp black eyes and a blue wig. The shoulders and shins are covered by a plain textile but the body and feet are brightly painted; toenails are gold upon slender red toes. “We have revealed what may be the most beautiful mummy ever found in Egypt,” said Zahi Hawass, chief of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities.
On the sarcophagus are vivid illustrations of the mummification process. There is Ma’at, the goddess of truth and balance, hovering with outstretched wings across the stomach region of the sarcophagus, holding two tall feathers, one dark blue and one light. Banding across the neck imitates elaborate necklaces that in real life are made of jewels and gold beads interspersed with blue faience and Afghan lapis lazuli, a rare shimmering blue gemstone. Banding across the torso and upper legs shows deities connected with the Egyptian Book of the Dead and the transition to the afterlife; a winged scarab pushes the sun disk, a reference to the beetle’s habit of rolling its eggs in a ball of dung and burying them until they are hatched, a symbol of rebirth. In another scene, Anubis, the jackal-headed god of embalming, lies on a funerary couch.
Included in the exhibit with Xiaohe is another beauty contender, the 2,800 year old Baby Blue, an eight month old boy buried under a reddish purple blanket with rectangular blue stones eerily covering his eyes. He wears a blue cashmere cap with a red felt lining encircling a tiny face that is covered with paint. Several strands of brown hair with reddish highlights stick out from under his bonnet.
Xiaohe, also known as Beauty of Small River, was found in China’s otherworldly Lop Nur Desert, and represents a mummy from the Lopnur group, the oldest and most diverse of the Tarim Basin mummies. She was found within a large oval mound that contained five layers of mummies. The gender specific graves were marked with wooden poles; coffins were shaped like bottomless poplar boats with hide-top coverings. The mummies were in a reclining position, and wrapped in wool cloaks and string undergarments. Hats and ankle-high boots were lined with fur and a white milky covering had been placed on the hair and body. Xiaohe’s tomb also included intricately woven baskets, wood combs, masks and ma-huang. a Chinese stimulant.