There's an ancient mystery buried in China's Taklimakan Desert, a forbidding waste north of Tibet. It's mummies. Mummies of white people. In the middle of a Chinese desert, amidst a bizarre necropolis of phallic symbols, miles and miles from the nearest settlement. White, sex-obsessed mummies, many of whom were remarkably well-preserved by the dry air, saline sand and freezing winters. Their origin and identity are unknown, but clues about their ancestry and way of life have been emerging. Even more remarkably, several of the mummies and their grave goods were lent to a museum in the United States -- the Bowers, which just happens to be about an hour from my house. Last weekend I checked out the exhibit, "Secrets of the Silk Road," and brought along my camera (actually, my iPhone, since photography is officially frowned upon in the Bowers ... but I couldn't resist).

This is the cemetery, discovered in 1934, its location forgotten for 66 years, and finally rediscovered and excavated beginning in 2003.

That forest of poles? Well, because the dead were buried in what appeared to be overturned wooden boats, it was first assumed that the poles represented oars or paddles, almost like a Viking burial. But once they opened a few of the coffins and found life-size wooden phalluses lying on the lady-mummies' stomachs, they realized that the poles were really giant phalluses and giant wooden vulvas. No joke! Here's the Bowers' recreation of a burial site, with the boat in the foreground, the phallus to the back-right, and the vulva to the back-left.

Below: one of the merely life-sized wooden phalluses discovered in the females' coffins.

Also adding to the risque-ness was the fact that beneath the stylish woolen capes, hats and boots they were buried in, the mummies are wearing what one NY Times writer described as undergarments supplied by "a Bronze Age salesclerk from Victoria's Secret," which is to say, skimpy string skirts for the ladies and the equivalent of thongs for the guys.

As if that weren't enough, then there are the mummies themselves, which aside from being remarkably well-preserved -- dessicated, really -- are pretty easy on the eye, as dead people go. The centerpiece of the exhibit was unquestionably the mummy they call "the beauty of Xiaohe," a six-foot-tall woman in her early thirties with long, flaxen hair, high cheekbones, a dainty, upturned nose, and long eyelashes, who one noted archaeologist has dubbed "the Marlene Deitrich of the Desert." You be the judge -- though my crappy iPhone pictures don't quite do her justice.

I don't know about Marlene Deitrich, but she could definitely give the cast of Sex and the City 2 a run for their money. (Zing!) Not bad for a 3,978-year-old.

Also discovered in the graves were fun bits of statuary like this one, of a woman with no discernible facial features but a huge butt and prominent breasts. I guess they wanted to take some porn into the afterlife?

It wasn't ALL about sex, though. Also featured was this beautiful, stunningly colorful mummy of an infant. Balls of red yarn were placed in each nostril, and flat, rectangular stones over the eyes. (No phalluses, thank goodness.)

DNA tests have revealed that these people come from Siberian and European stock, which likely intermarried before settling in the deserts north of Tibet some 4,000 years ago. More tests, studies and excavations are being performed, and soon hopefully we'll know more about these fascinating people.

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