The Bamiyan Murals – An Early Example of Drying Oil Medium?

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Bamiyan, also referred to as the “Shining Light” and “Valley of Gods”, is one of the oldest cities in central and South Asia. It lies at the heart of ancient silk road, once connecting Chinese commerce with Europe and the broader Mediterranean region. It brought languages, believes and tradition together and is home to the world’s tallest standing Buddha statues, carved in the 6th century into the red rock cliffs and blown up in March 2001 by the Taliban. The ancient Buddha figures, along with thousands of man-made caves in the cliffs, have made Bamyan one of the biggest and most ancient archaeological sites in the region.

Remains of wall paintings and seated Buddha figures were found inside several of the caves and niches often linked by galleries.

A chemical study of paint samples carried out by The Getty Conservation Institute in 2008 identified drying oils, leading to consider the Buddhist paintings to be the world’s earliest example of drying oil as a binding medium.

Surprisingly, this astonishing discovery did not drive them – or any other institution – to investigate the use of oil painting in ancient times any further, and to question why it was never again used until the 15th century in Europe.

Even more surprisingly, they didn’t pick up on the content of beeswax and soap in their infra-red spectroscopy analysis of the paint samples.

Jorge and Pedro Cuní, at the time themselves involved in academic research of ancient paint medium, followed Getty’s research closely. Once they were shown the research results, they concluded from the infra-red spectroscopy that the analysed paint samples could only be water soluble encaustic. 

In October 2011, the Getty Conservation Institute invited the Cuní brothers to Los Angeles for them to give a lecture at their institute about the use of water soluble encaustic in Roman times. The Cuní brothers used this opportunity to discuss their research analysis of the Bamiyan’ samples with Getty’s scientific researchers, who ended up sharing their opinion.

Getty’s researchers agreed to discuss this new found thesis with their superiors, with the aim to get the research results amended – but in the end the rush to publish won. They published the research results again in 2022, but no adjustments were made, despite being in full agreement that the infra-red spectroscopy clearly pointed towards water soluble encaustic.

At present, effective academic research is endangered due to ever mounting time pressures to share research results in scientific journals. Institutions are constantly judged by the amount of published research papers – the more they publish, the more prestigious they are considered to be. Unfortunately, quantity seems to be more important these days than quality.