Remains of Bamiyan Buddhas yield additional details about statues' origins

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By Andrew Lawler
Saturday, March 5, 2011; 8:33 PM

Ten years ago, the Taliban destroyed the great Bamiyan Buddhas of Afghanistan, two giant statues that watched over the Bamiyan Valley for 1,500 years. Extensive studies of the rubble have revealed new details about the creation and appearance of these statues, including their original colors.

Early travelers, including Chinese monks, described the Buddhas as painted - one red and one white, according to an 11th-century visitor. But material evidence was lacking until a team led by Erwin Emmerling of the Technical University of Munich analyzed the remains. Smaller fragments are stored in warehouses in the valley and larger pieces remain at the bottom of the niches, covered by tarps.

"The Buddhas once had an intensely colorful appearance," Emmerling said in a recent statement. And he adds that they were painted over several times. The outer robes on one were pink and later orange on the outside, with a pale blue lining, whereas the other was white.

The researchers also found "an astonishing degree of artistic skill" in fashioning the massive statues - 38 and 55 meters high, respectively - which were carved from the rock but had garments made out of clay as smooth as porcelain, Emmerling says. Straw, chaff, animal hair and quartz were part of the mixture that protected and strengthened the clay material, as did ropes attached to wooden pegs at the bottom layer.

"These have survived not only nearly 1,500 years of history but even the explosion in some parts," Emmerling said. But he warned that the porous sandstone, now exposed to the air, may crumble within a few years.

The researchers suggested that at least the smaller Buddha might be partly rebuilt with existing fragments injected with a synthetic material designed to halt weathering. Those fragments - more than 1,000 - would have to be sent to Germany for treatment, and Emmerling declined to say what such an effort would cost.

Bamiyan was an important monastic complex at a time when Buddhism began to spread from India and Pakistan into Central Asia and China. But dating the statues carved into the sandstone cliffs has proved problematic. Based on the style of the robes, art historians have long thought the monuments were made as early as the 3rd century A.D.

But the new analysis indicates that they were made a few hundred years after this. Drawing on organic material in the clay layers in the rubble of the destroyed Buddhas, Emmerling's team used mass spectrometry analysis to date the smaller Buddha to between A.D. 544 and A.D. 595 and the larger Buddha to between A.D. 591 and A.D. 644. These later dates may show that the complex remained vibrant longer than scholars once thought, even after the advent of Islam in Afghanistan starting in the 7th century A.D.

A team of experts from the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization met recently in Paris to hear the results. Brendan Cassar, a UNESCO representative in Kabul, said that the focus at Bamiyan is on stabilizing the niches and on preparing a modest open-air museum at the site rather than reconstructing the statues.

This article was produced by ScienceNOW, a daily online news service of the journal Science, which can be read at news.sciencemag.org.


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