February 22, 2008

Oldest Oil Paintings Found in Afghanistan

Rosella Lorenzi, Discovery News

Earliest Oil Paintings
Earliest Oil Paintings

Feb. 19, 2008 -- The oldest known oil painting, dating from 650 A.D., has been found in caves in Afghanistan's Bamiyan Valley, according to a team of Japanese, European and U.S. scientists.

The discovery reverses a common perception that the oil painting, considered a typically Western art, originated in Europe, where the earliest examples date to the early 12th century A.D.

Famous for its 1,500-year-old massive Buddha statues, which were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, the Bamiyan Valley features several caves painted with Buddhist images.

Damaged by the severe natural environment and Taliban dynamite, the cave murals have been restored and studied by the National Research Institute for Cultural Properties in Tokyo, as a UNESCO/Japanese Fund-in-Trust project.

"Since most of the paintings have been lost, looted or deteriorated, we are trying to conserve the intact portions and also try to understand the constituent materials and painting techniques,"
Yoko Taniguchi, a researcher at the National Research Institute for Cultural Properties in Tokyo, told Discovery News.

"It was during such analysis that we discovered oily and resinous components in a group of wall paintings."

Painted in the mid-7th century A.D., the murals have varying artistic influences and show scenes with knotty-haired Buddhas in vermilion robes sitting cross-legged amid palm leaves and mythical creatures.

Most likely, the paintings are the work of artists who traveled on the Silk Road, the ancient trade route between China, across Central Asia's desert to the West.

The researchers analyzed, with different methods, hundreds of samples. Three different centers -- Tokyo's National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in France and the Los Angeles-based Getty Conservation Institute -- carried out the tests.

Infrared microscope, micro X-ray diffraction, and micro X-ray fluorescence produced accurate chemical images of the paintings. Gas chromatography confirmed and refined the identification of organic compounds.

"We discovered that a particular group of caves were painted with oil painting technique, using perhaps walnut and poppy seed drying oils. They also have multi-layered structure as if they were like canvas paintings of Medieval period,"
Taniguchi said.

Synchrotron beam analysis made it possible to identify the compounds used in the different layers of painting.

"These layers are very thin, and it was really important to analyze each of them selectively. Indeed, the paintings are done with a mixture of several ingredients. They are never present as a pure compound,"
Marine Cotte, a researcher at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble, France, told Discovery News.

Analysis showed the layers were made up of natural resins, proteins, gums, oil-based paint layers and, in some cases, a resinous, varnish-like layer.

"It is amazing how the ancient people knew the nature of materials well, such as protein, gum, resin, oil, pigments and dyes, and also how to prepare and combine them effectively,"
Hidemi Otake, a painting conservator at the National Research Institute for Cultural Properties of Japan, told Discovery News.

Murals in many of the Bamiyan caves featured various painting materials and techniques that had been employed through the ages.

"Some caves have rough wall surfaces and matte finishes, and others have very smooth surface, and some have a transparency and shininess. Some paintings have glaze-like layers on top of paint,"
Otake said.

According to top Afghan archaeologist Zemaryalai Tarzi, president of the Association for the Protection of Afghan Archaeology, the discovery is important as it testifies Afghanistan's rich cultural heritage.

"My Japanese colleagues are conducting scientific research and an inventory of these fragments with courage and perseverance. But the discovery is yet not as important or significant as what the murals of Bamiyan used to be before their disappearance and destruction,"
Tarzi said.

Tarzi was Afghanistan's director general of archaeology and preservation of historical monuments until 1979, when he was forced to flee the country a few months before the Soviet invasion. He believes further research is necessary to establish the possible role of India and China in developing the technique.

"It would be very important to know if one can attribute this invention to Bamiyan alone,"
Tarzi said.

Related Links:

Rossella Lorenzi's blog

National Research Institute for Cultural Properties

European Synchrotron Radiation Facility

Association for the Protection of Afghan Archaeology

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