Jan. 7, 1998 Tuesday, January 20, 1998 at 8pm ET on PBS
Chinese archaeologists in the remote deserts of Central Asia are exhuming perfectly preserved 2,400- to 4,000-year-old mummies that shed startling new light on the contact between East and West in the ancient world.
In the first in-depth coverage of these remarkable discoveries, believed to be some of the most important human remains ever found, NOVA follows the ongoing excavations and the unexpected controversy surrounding them, in “Mysterious Mummies of China,” airing Tuesday, January 20, 1998 at 8pm ET on PBS (check local listings).
Preserved from decay by extreme summer heat and aridity, bitter winter cold, and salty soil, the fully-clothed corpses look astonishingly lifelike. Most surprising of all, their physical features and clothing do not in the least resemble those of the Chinese of the period. In fact, they are almost certainly Europeans, with features like blonde or red hair, prominent noses, mustaches and beards, tartan-weave garments, and jaunty feathered caps.
The physical evidence flies in the face of long-held Chinese views that their own civilization developed independent of outside influences. Consequently the new discoveries are being downplayed and even suppressed by the present Chinese regime.
Nonetheless, intense speculation focuses on what the “mummy people” were doing so far from their homeland, and what became of them and the isolated civilization they built over the course of many centuries.
NOVA tours the excavations with the scholar who first called the mummies to the world’s attention, Professor Victor Mair, an expert in early Chinese history at the University of Pennsylvania. Accompanying him are Chinese archaeologists as well as American specialists in ancient nomads and physical anthropology.
With Dr. Mair, NOVA also investigates evidence of the probable successors of the mummy people, called the Tocharians, who left a written language that is clearly Indo-European in origin. The Tocharians also created enigmatic cave paintings that show distinctly Celtic-looking people venerating a Buddha, a sign of the multicultural aspects of their society, one which signalled the crossroads of East and West.
NOVA viewers also learn how the mummy people and the Tocharians lived along a key portion of what became the Silk Road, a trading link connecting China with the West that developed about 2,100 years ago. As the great imperial powers of East and West reached outward, they met here, in this windswept, rocky plain, home to a lonely vanguard of wanderers…a people who are just now coming vividly to light.
“China’s Mysterious Mummies” is a co-production of NOVA and Channel 4 by Union Pictures Ltd, written, produced, and directed by Howard Reid. Executive producer for Channel 4 is Charles Furneaux.
Now in its 24th season, NOVA is produced for PBS by the WGBH Science Unit. The director of the WGBH Science Unit and executive producer of NOVA is Paula S. Apsell.
Major funding is provided by the Park Foundation, Inc., dedicated to education and quality television. Additional funding is provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and public television viewers.
Paul Marotta, WGBH Boston, 617-492-2777 x4427
Lisa Cerqueira, WGBH Boston, 617-492-2777 x5334
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