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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.

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.

Centuries-Old Knowledge

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.

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