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Student groups on Locust Walk Credit: Mirela Zaneva

Although the exhibition is not set to open until February, museum-goers got their first taste of the “Secrets of the Silk Road” last night.

The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology began its lecture series Wednesday with a presentation by Nancy Steinhardt titled “Great Sites on the Silk Road.”

Steinhardt, who is the museum’s curator of Chinese Art as well as a professor of East Asian Art, presented an overview of important locations and discoveries along the Silk Road to set the stage for future lectures and for the opening of the exhibition on Feb. 5.

As well as the geography and history of the trade routes, Steinhardt discussed the complexity of studying the Silk Road, which linked Eastern Asia to the Middle East and Europe.

“Potpourri, melting pot — these words hardly do justice to what was happening in these towns,” Steinhardt said.

The lecture series, which continues through June, will highlight different aspects of the exhibition and provide a context in which to view the items, said Victor Mair, curatorial consultant for the museum and a professor of Chinese language and literature.

Over 150 items comprise the exhibit, including two mummies from the Tarim Basin in China as well as jewelry, tapestries, figurines and even ancient food, preserved for thousands of years by the environmental conditions of Central Asia.

“This is like the King Tut exhibit,” Mair said. “It’s that important. It’s one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of the past 100 years.”

It was Mair who brought the mummies to the attention of the world through his research in the 1990s.

“I hope everyone realizes what an extraordinary opportunity it is that these artifacts are here, not just in Philadelphia but at Penn,” Steinhardt said. “This is the biggest thing in Asian art that Penn has attempted in a long time.”

This is the first time the mummies have been shown in the Americas and the museum expects the exhibit to draw more visitors than any previous show, Mair said.

“If the pictures tonight seemed exciting,” Steinhardt said, “they hardly prepare you for what you’ll see in February.”

The lecture series will continue Nov. 3, when Mair will speak about the Tarim mummies.

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