Archeology Art Culture

World’s Earliest Oil Paintings Depict Buddhist And Hindu Deities 

Ancient oil paintings discovered in famed Afghan Caves by international team of researchers 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.

A genuine treasure was hidden behind the two giant Buddha statues destroyed by the Taliban in 2001: caves decorated with 1000-year-old paintings depicting various scenes from Buddhist mythology. The UN World Heritage-listed Bamian Valley lies 145 miles (240 kilometers) northwest of Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital.

Secrets of the Bamiyan Buddhas

It all goes back to March 2001, when the Taliban destroyed two giant Buddha statues, probably dating from between the middle of the 6th and 7th centuries AD. The destruction of this heritage–a crime against culture–shocked the world. Yet behind the two stone giants, a hidden treasure of a different kind was uncovered: around 50 caves with walls decorated with religious frescoes that must have been made between the 5th and 9th centuries AD. Probably painted by monks or travellers passing through on the Silk road, they represent Buddhas, patterns and scenes related to Buddhist mythology. To the scientists’ surprise, some of them are oil paintings–a technique believed to have been born between the 14th and the late 15th century in Flanders and Italy.

Paintings of Buddhas decorate many caves that were used as temples. The paintings are now the oldest oil paintings ever discovered, dating back to the middle of the 7th century.© National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, Tokyo (NRICPT)

Scientific analysis of the caves

The investigation revealed that the paints in the Bamiyan caves are made up of very finely powdered inorganic material, which are the pigments that provide color. Since they couldn’t stick to the walls on their own, they were mixed with liquids in a paste that could adhere: these were organic binders like oil, resin, or glue.

A detail of a painting in the cave. Credit: National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, Tokyo (Japan)

Two types of routine analyses were used to identify the various ingredients: X-ray diffraction and infrared spectroscopy. Using the first method, scientists discovered various pigments, and a large amount of white lead. The oldest of the manufactured pigments, white lead is a white powder that has been used since ancient times in paints and cosmetics.

Fragment of one of the Bamiyan paintings made up of several layers, similar to paintings from medieval Europe. © National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, Tokyo (NRICPT)

The second method confirmed the identity of some of the pigments, and above all revealed the presence of organic matter. Several of the organic substances found, such as resins, plant gums, animal glues (proteins), and oil, were used as binders to make the paint stick to the walls. This method has been widely observed in wall paintings in Central Asia (such as the Sogdiana paintings). Further work carried out by an American team suggests this may be an oil manufactured from walnuts or poppy seeds.

For years, political conflicts and wars have taken precedence over archaeological research in Afghanistan, and now scientists are hopeful that future research may provide deeper understanding of the painting techniques along the Silk Road and the Eurasian area.

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