Sunday, February 10, 2008
Bamian oil-painting murals - 5th to 8th centuries
May 7, 2007—In the remote highlands of Nepal, a local shepherd has made some unusual "additions" to his flock—an international team of archaeologists.
The sheepherder recently led researchers to an isolated complex of caves containing a massive treasure trove of Buddhist art, including a 55-panel mural of Buddha's life, one panel of which is seen above.
The shepherd had made the discovery by chance while seeking shelter from a rainstorm decades ago. But he had missed the significance until making a passing mention to scientists.
A full expedition of scientists, art experts, and climbers from the U.S., Italy, and Nepal then climbed high into Nepal's mountainous Mustang area, some 250 kilometers (160 miles) northwest of Kathmandu, locating the caves in March (map of Nepal).
It took ice axes and skillful mountaineering to clear a path to the caverns—set in a sheer 14,000-foot (4,300-meter) rock face in the Himalaya. But the results were more than worth it, experts say.
"What we found is fantastically rich in culture and heritage and goes to the 12th century or earlier," U.S. writer and conservationist Broughton Coburn told the Associated Press.
Included among the sprawling complex are manuscripts written in Tibetan, pre-Christian artifacts, pottery shards, and a number of smaller paintings.
The team plans to conduct limited excavations and search for additional archaeological sites nearby. But for now they have kept the site's exact location secret to prevent disturbances to the fragile artwork.
In the meantime there's still a lot of work to be done on the artifacts collected so far.
"Who lived in those caves? When were they there, when were [the caves] first excavated, and how did the residents access them, perched as they are on vertical cliffs?" Coburn said to BBC News.
"It's a compelling, marvelous mystery."
February 6, 2008—A newly discovered mural is one of many in 12 of Afghanistan's famed Bamian caves that show evidence of an oil-based binder. The binder was used to dry paint and help it adhere to rocky surfaces.
The murals—and the remains of two giant, destroyed Buddhas—include the world's oldest known oil-based paint, predating European uses of the substance by at least a hundred years, scientists announced late last month.
Researchers made the discovery while conducting a chemical analysis as part of preservation and restoration efforts at Bamian, which lies about 145 miles (240 kilometers) northwest of the Afghan capital, Kabul.
Seen in a 2005 photo, a towering alcove in Afghanistan's Bamian Valley cliffs shows the former home of a giant Buddha statue. Dating to between the fifth and ninth centuries A.D., the statue was one of a pair destroyed by Taliban officials in 2001 for allegedly insulting Islam.
The region also has as many as a thousand caves. About 50 contain the depictions of ornate swirling patterns, Buddhist imagery, and mythological animals that led UNESCO to name the area a World Heritage site.
Since 2003 Japanese, European, and U.S. researchers have been working to preserve the damaged murals. As part of that venture, the scientists conducted the first scientific analysis of the paintings since the 1920s.
Gas chromatography and mass spectrometry revealed that some of the murals contained oil- and resin-based paints—likely the earliest known use of either substance for painting.
Afghanistan's Bamian cliffs are probably best known for once holding two enormous Buddha statues, as seen in this February 2001 image.
Just one month after this photo was taken, Taliban officials began to destroy the mighty carvings as part of a hard-line crackdown on anything they considered anti-Islamic and idolatrous.
Scientists from around the world have since embarked on a painstaking process to collect the remnants of the dynamited statues and reconstruct them.
In the meantime, researchers have found that the paint used on the Buddhas, along with murals in 12 of 50 painted Bamian caves, contained oil-based binders—the world's oldest known examples of oil paintings.
A Buddhist mural dated to around the seventh century A.D. is one of many in Afghanistan's Bamian Valley that were recently found to contain oil- and resin-based paints.
The use of the substances at such an early date is a surprise, since they require sophisticated knowledge of chemical properties, scientists say.
Oil is used in paints to help fix dyes and help them adhere to surfaces. It also changes a paint's drying time and viscosity.
Europeans began using oil in their pictures by about 800 A.D., but the new research on the Central Asian pushes back the onset of oil-based painting by at least a hundred years.
Researchers hope to find even earlier examples by studying other Central Asian sites.
A mural from the Bamian cave Foladi 6 has been dated to the eighth century A.D. Its artists used an oil-based paint, scientists say, in an early example of mixing organic binding agents with pigments.
The murals were painted using a structured, multilayered technique reminiscent of early European methods, according to researcher Yoko Taniguchi of the Japan Center for International Cooperation in Conservation in Tokyo.
The painters first applied a white base layer of a lead compound. Then an upper layer—natural or artificial pigments mixed with either resins or walnut or poppy seed drying oils—was added.
"The discovery of the use of oil [in Afghanistan] is important, because it shows that these undervalued paintings are far more important and far more sophisticated than anyone might have thought," said Sharon Cather, a wall-painting expert from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London.
Earliest Oil Paintings Found in Famed Afghan Caves
for National Geographic News
February 6, 2008
Buddhist murals from Afghanistan's famed Bamian caves are the world's earliest known oil paintings, according to a new chemical analysis. (See photos of the paintings and the cliffs that housed them.)
The finds, dated to around the 7th century A.D., predate the origins of similar sophisticated painting techniques in medieval Europe and the Mediterranean by more than a hundred years.
The discovery may also provide insights into cultural exchange along the Silk Road connecting east and west Asia during that time period.
The UN World Heritage-listed Bamian Valley, which lies 145 miles (240 kilometers) northwest of Kabul, Afghanistan's capital, is best known as the home of two giant Buddha statues destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.
But murals depicting ornate swirling patterns, Buddhist imagery, and mythological animals also adorn 50 of up to a thousand caves in the region. The decorations date to between the 5th and 9th centuries A.D.
Since 2003 Japanese, European, and U.S. researchers have been working to preserve the damaged murals in a project partly funded by UNESCO. As part of that venture, the scientists tested the composition of the paint to aid restoration efforts—the first scientific analysis of the caves since the 1920s.
Using gas chromatography and mass spectrometry, scientists found that samples from 12 caves and the two destroyed giant Buddhas contained oil- and resin-based paints—likely the earliest known use of either substance for painting.
Yoko Taniguchi of the Japan Center for International Cooperation in Conservation in Tokyo presented the findings at a recent international symposium held there.
The analysis showed the murals were painted using a structured, multilayered technique reminiscent of early European methods.
The murals typically have a white base layer of a lead compound, followed by an upper layer of natural or artificial pigments mixed with either resins or walnut or poppy seed drying oils, Taniguchi said.
Oil is used in paint to help fix the dye and help it adhere to a surface. Oil also changes a paint's drying time and viscosity.
More complex than the standard mineral pigments and animal glue previously favored, the technique hints of Indian, West Chinese, and Mediterranean influences, Taniguchi said.
The murals were likely completed by teams of artisans, as was common in Asia until recent times.
The mixed layers of organic material such as oil and resins blended with pigments is quite a "sophisticated manner" of painting, she noted.
The Bamian murals might also be the first confirmed use of resins in paintings, Taniguchi added.
Drying oils have been identified in a number of medieval European and Byzantine paintings. Such substances, for instance, were being used throughout Europe by around A.D. 800.
But the Afghan research shows that the chemical properties of oils were known long before then.
"The use of drying oils in painting clearly shows an understanding of the properties of this material," said Ioanna Kakoulli, a materials archaeologist at the UCLA/Getty Conservation Program in Los Angeles, California, who was not involved in the analysis project.
Kakoulli and fellow researchers will soon announce the discovery of oil-based paint in a Byzantine mural in Cyprus dating to the 12th century A.D.
"... To date, the [Afghan] murals are among the earliest examples where drying oils have been identified as binding media in painting," Kakoulli said.
Sharon Cather is a wall-painting expert from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London.
"The discovery of the use of oil [in Afghanistan] is important, because it shows that these undervalued paintings are far more important and far more sophisticated than anyone might have thought," Cather said.
The method also "very probably reflects [the] prevailing painting practice in the region," she added.
Other paintings of similar technical complexity and age can be found along the Silk Road, which was "the avenue for the diffusion of Buddhist religion and Buddhist art," Cather said.
(Related photo: "'Stunning' Buddha Art Found in Nepal Cliff" [May 7, 2007].)
Not all of the cave murals contained oil-based paints, though, or used them in the same way.
"Some paintings from other caves were depicted with different materials and techniques," Japanese researcher Taniguchi said.
"This shows how different painting techniques were introduced in Bamian from different regions in different periods of time."
Further analysis of Central Asian sites might provide even older examples of oil-based paintings, Taniguchi said.