Earliest Oil Paintings Found in Famed Afghan Caves

Carolyn Barry
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.

(Related: "World Heritage Status a Mixed Boon" [February 3, 2003].)

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.

"Sophisticated" Find

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.

Continued on Next Page >>


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