What ARE the Buddhist Murals Made Of?

The questions most frequently asked of us while working on the Buddhist murals in the Chinese rotunda involve what the murals are made of. Often people presume they are frescoes. True fresco is done on wet plaster. The pigments used in a fresco are mixed with water and applied to a wet plaster surface. A binding agent (the liquid gel in which pigment is carried) is not required; the pigments are absorbed by the wet plaster and they dry and harden as a single layer. The Buddhist murals are painted on a mud surface and follow a basic mud-ground-paint construction pattern. They have several distinct layers, thus they are quite different from a fresco.

mural constructionv3

This is a simple illustrated cross-section of the layers present in the Buddhist Murals. The wood and plaster are modern layers added for support.

There are two different mud layers under these Buddhist murals. The first (closest to  the wall on which the mural was painted) layer is a thicker, coarse layer with large and frequent straw and seed inclusions. The second is a smoother, more homogenous mud (lacking the visible pieces of organic material present in the coarse layer) and it is less than a centimeter thick. Due to the deterioration and loss the murals have suffered over time, these two mud layers are visible and easily differentiated along the bottom of both murals.

Buddhist Blog Image_Mud

This particular area of loss shows the two distinct mud layers. The flat surface is the coarse layer with lots of straw and seed inclusions. The “walls” of the loss show the fine layer onto which the ground was put.
- click for larger image -


A ground layer, probably kaolin (a fine white clay), was applied over the mud surface. The ground is a bright, pure white color that created a “blank canvas” effect onto which the colored pigments were applied. The ground layer provides a smooth, white, level surface for the paint.

Buddhist Mural Ground

When small areas of paint are lost, they expose the white ground underneath. The ground is a very fine, powdery layer.
- click for larger image -

There is a wide variety of colors used on both murals. The paints used are made of pigments and a binding medium. The pigments themselves are probably mostly mineral based while the binding medium is likely organic. Identification of aged organic materials is difficult under the best of circumstances and we are not optimistic that we will be to determine what specific binding medium was used. We will be conducting analysis on the types of pigments used within the next few weeks, so check back in for those results. If you look closely at the colored robes of the Buddha, Bodhisattvas, and attendants, you can see carefully and delicately shaded areas indicating folds and creases. These and many other details in the compositions were achieved by using multiple layers of paint over one another in order to achieve depth.


Buddhist Mural Paint Layers

This is a close up of one of the attendant’s robes. A purple color was painted over the red to create a shadow effect. We know the purple was painted over the red since a bright red color is exposed in areas where the darker purple has been lost.
- click for larger image -

When the murals were taken off of the monastery walls, they were assembled into larger panels and backed with plaster and wood for support. These larger panels are the separate segments visible today. The panels were assembled and installed in the Chinese rotunda in the 1920s. There is no documentation illustrating how they were installed or what supports are behind them. As part of our analysis we are trying to outline the framework behind the murals.

The Buddhist murals, in their current condition, appear to be held in a wooden scaffolding type framework against the rotunda walls. The panels are comprised of modern and ancient layers as illustrated in the cross-section above. The wood and plaster are modern supports; the mud layers,ground, and paint are original; and we are slowly uncovering the metal framework behind each panel by means of metal detection. We’ll be posting about that process later so stay tuned for it as well!

Acknowledgements: Work on the Buddhist Mural Conservation Survey in supported by the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation and Michael Feng and Winnie Chin Feng.

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The Two Buddhist Murals from Guangshengsi Monastery

Mural showing Bhaisajyaguru, the Medicine Buddha. C688


Mural showing Tejaprabha, the Buddha of Blazing Light. C492

Two of the most fascinating objects in the Asian section are a pair of  murals reported to have come from Guangshengsi Monastery in southern Shanxi Province, China.   What makes them particularly interesting is the nature in which their provenance, date, and subject matter have fluctuated over the decades since they came into the museum.  This is partly due to the way scholarship works.  The murals came from a monastery that was believed to have multiple murals painted at different times.  When a scholar became interested in one of them, they would end up doing a survey of the other murals as well.  These other murals currently reside in the Royal Ontario Museum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Nelson-Atkins Museum, and the Cincinnati Museum of Art.  Sometimes insight about one mural shed light on information about another. This has led to many academic articles with differing opinions about where they came from, who painted them (and when), and what is actually being depicted.   Over the next few months the museum is going to be blogging about the digitization and conservation of these two incredible pieces.  Just having high quality images of every inch of these murals will help us to better understand some of the hidden meanings behind them.  It is my goal to shed some light on the larger ideas behind these two murals and fill in some of the background information about them.  What texts are they based on?  Who are each of the figures in the murals?  What are they holding and why? These are just a few of the topics I will try to cover.  I also hope to raise a few questions (based on some of the research I have done) which can only be answered by our conservation team with the help of some cool technology.  Stay tuned for more.

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Seeing with A Haida Master – Robert Davidson

Recording Robert Davidson at Penn Museum.

Jack Litrell recorded Robert Davidson at Penn Museum.

We recently spent the day with renowned Haida artist, Robert Davidson, looking at old Haida carvings in Penn Museum’s collection.  Having flown across the country from Haida Gwaii, British Colombia (Canada!), Robert and his wife Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson (a Haida attorney) arrived with their own photographer, Jack Litrell.  Their goal was to interview and record Mr. Davidson speaking on video camera about masterworks of Haida art in the Penn Museum.

In advance of their travel, Davidson had looked carefully at our website to find the finest early 19th century examples in the collection.  His video documentation will be used to teach students, apprentices, and Haida youth more broadly about the history, design, and artistic legacies of Haida carving traditions.  It will also be used in legal depositions to fuel Haida efforts to reclaim tribal lands.  Terri-Lynn works for White Raven Law Corporation, a Vancouver law firm lead by First Nations’ attorneys devoted to First Nations’ issues.  The Museum is always pleased to accommodate requests in support of cultural and educational goals, but can not comment on the role of Davidson’s video in possible future litigation.

Robert Davidson is a Haida master carver, painter, and print maker from British Columbia, Canada.  His art is in museums around the world, and his newest exhibition just opened at NMAI/NYC.  He and wife, Terry-Lynn, filmed at the Penn Museum in April.

Robert Davidson is a Haida master carver, painter, and print maker from British Columbia, Canada.  His art is in museums around the world, and his newest exhibition just opened at NMAI/NYC.  He and wife, Terry-Lynn, filmed at the Penn Museum in April.

They began filming in our new Native American Voices gallery where Mr. Davidson looked carefully at an antler club, an extraordinary food bowl made of carved mountain goat horn, and an elegantly carved wooden dance rattle with painted human and animal attributes.  After lunch, Davidson studied and then recorded his comments on the distinctive features of the Museum’s 30′ totem poles in the Kress Gallery Entrance.

Davidson described the distinctive features of Penn Museum's 19th century pole carvings from Masset, British Columbia.  His recordings will be used to teach Haida students and to support Haida legal efforts to regain tribal lands.

Davidson described the distinctive features of Penn Museum’s 19th century pole carvings from Masset, British Columbia. His recordings will be used to teach Haida students and to support Haida legal efforts to regain tribal lands.

After a second triple-shot of espresso in the Museum cafe, we moved into the Mainwaring Collections Study Room where, with assistance from Stephanie Mach and Bill Wierzbowski, Robert looked closely at a large and elegantly carved bentwood cedar chest.

Robert was especially excited about a set of ovoid patterns made of cedar bark collected by our early Tlingit curator, Louis Shotridge.

Robert examined a Tlingit cedar bark ovoid pattern set collected in 1905.

Davidson examined each side of the box with great interest, noting the presence and variation of the Grandmother Mouse Woman within the formline design.  He marveled at the carving of an unusually large raven rattle, and was inspired by a rare set of nearly 100 cedar bark oval shaped patterns used by neighboring Tlingit artists to map the “ovoid” shapes so distinctive in Haida and Tlingit formline design. Today Davidson makes his own ovoids out of paper, and just like the Tlingit example, folds his in half to ensure nearly perfect symmetry.

It was an honor to listen as Davidson generously shared his knowledge and to see his excitement as he experienced these old pieces.   Careful and deliberate, he was deeply impressed by the rich detail and quality of the 19th century craftsmanship, and humbled in the presence of the old master carvers.  Clearly Davidson is always learning.  Challenged and alert to the nuances of his ancestor’s individual carving styles, Davidson was amused and even surprised to learn that in a couple of instances his predecessors used design techniques that he thought he had invented on his own.

Davidson designed this cashmere button blanket in the Penn Museum collection in 1995 - you can see it on display in the Native American Voices Gallery.

Davidson designed this cashmere button blanket in the Penn Museum collection in 1995 -  see it on display in the Native American Voices Gallery.
Collection Object Number: 95-25-1


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Conserving the Buddhist Murals: An Introduction

Just because artifacts have been in our collections or even on display for a long time doesn’t mean we know all about them. A case in point is the large Buddhist Murals in our Chinese Rotunda, probably the largest artifacts in our collection, at least in area. Although they’ve been on exhibition there since the 1920s, there’s a lot we don’t know about them and even the things we think we know may not be true.


Details of the murals showing (left) areas on C 688 where mud plaster is powdering, and (right) lifting surface on C 492

As conservators, one thing we are sure of is that the murals are showing signs of instability: areas of lifting surface and areas where the mud plaster substrate is turning to powder. But identifying the cause of the instability and determining a method to conserve them is a job as big as the murals themselves. Starting last fall, supported by the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation and Michael Feng and Winnie Chin Feng, we’ve begun work on a survey of the murals’ current condition that will enable us to do just that. The first step was to take high resolution digital images of the murals current appearance. These photographs, taken by professional architectural photographer Joseph Elliott, form the basis of the condition documentation. Our methodology for the survey is based on advice from two conservators who have worked on similar murals in their own collections: Cathy Stewart of the Royal Ontario Museum and Kate Garland of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (NAMA). The NAMA mural is particularly similar in condition and type to ours and Kate Garland’s visit in December 2013 was invaluable in helping the conservators and conservation interns see the finer points of the mural construction and restoration.


Photographer Joseph Elliott taking high resolution digital images of the murals.

Since early February, two pre-program* conservation interns, Cassia Balogh and Morgan Burgess have been recording the current condition using a multi-layer photo editing program. Working with one area at a time, they closely examine each centimeter of the surface, documenting more than fifteen different condition phenomena, such as previous restorations, cracks, flaking surface, exposed ground, and others.

Pre-program interns Morgan Burgess (left) and Cassia Balogh (right) work recording the current condition of  the mural C 688

Pre-program interns Cassia Balogh (left) and Morgan Burgess (right) work recording the current condition of the mural C 688

*Pre-program interns are those who plan to pursue a career in conservation but have not yet been accepted to one of the graduate training programs. Acceptance into these programs is very competitive and candidates need to have a lot of relevant experience when applying. Cassia and Morgan have been working with the conservation Department as volunteers, paid Technicians and now paid interns while they gain the necessary experience.

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Archives Photo of the Week: Unearthed from the Archives


Advertisement for library shelving in the Elkins Library
Penn Museum Image #245775

This Friday at 2PM, the Penn Museum Archives will open it’s doors to show off some of our treasures as part of a new program called “Unearthed from the Archives”. Each week, the archivists will choose a different item from the archives to present. We’re blessed with the gift of gab here in the archives and love sharing what we work with.

In honor of this new program, this week’s image is an advertisement featuring our current room. Before becoming the archives, our space was the home to the museum’s library, the Elkins Library. Storage space is always an issue in the library/archives/museum world and at one point, the library invested in stacks for the room. The company who provided the stacks featured the library in an advertisement for their product. Eventually, the library completely outgrew the space and the archives was moved in. So this Friday, come join us to see what our room looks like now and to learn about some of the museum’s exciting history.

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“When the Sap Starts Running in the Spring, the Blood Starts Running in Our Men”

Probably one of the fastest growing games in the world, it seems that everyone wants to play lacrosse. The Iroquois Confederacy or Haudenosaunee will field a team at the World Outdoor Championship Games to be played this summer in Denver (July 9-19). In 2015 they will host 16-18 countries competing in the Indoor Box Lacrosse League on their home turf near Syracuse, New York. Their boys will be on the field with their flag, their anthem, and their colors against USA, Canada, and England, all those good old boys they have known for 500 years.

Oren Lyons at the Penn Museum in April 2014.

Oren Lyons at the Penn Museum in April 2014.

Oren Lyons, the Honorary Chairman of the Iroquois Nationals Lacrosse Team, and world renowned advocate for Native American and indigenous peoples around the globe, presented the 2014 Annual Elizabeth Watts and Howard C. Petersen Lecture at the Penn Museum last week as the inaugural guest speaker for our new exhibition – Native American Voices: The People – Here and Now. He explained that there are two kinds of lacrosse – games for fun, and games for healing, both called Deyhontsigwa’ehs (translated roughly from the Iroquois language as “we bump hips”). He spoke eloquently about the less familiar, medicine game and its sacred role in the community today.

Oren Lyons spoke to the Penn men's lacrosse team and Coach Mike Murphy on Franklin Field.

Mr. Lyons spoke to the Penn lacrosse team on Franklin Field before his lecture at the Penn Museum.

In the Spring we have a ceremony. We open it when the sap begins to move in the maple, generally in February. Maple is the leading tree of our cosmology. When that sap starts to move, the blood starts to move in our men, and they are getting ready for the game. The game is open now. When the sap finishes running we will close that ceremony.”

Holding a 170 year old Cayuga lacrosse stick in Penn Museum’s collection, he offered…“So this stick was made for somebody. I have no idea who, but somebody was not well and they called for a game. When that happens, when you call for a game, immediately it will go to a leader and an elder who will call in a speaker who will announce that we have a game. The word will go out to the players, and the community goes into full action. The women have a great deal to do with this game – they handle the feast side of it. If you are having a game for someone it will be a feast and a spiritual event. Everything has to be made that day including the ball. So you put the word out. We usually play 3, the first to 3 goals wins, and that’s the old style. No referees, no whistles, no nothing. You play fair, and you play hard. The harder you play the better it is for the person you are playing for. You represent the spiritual side of things. Everyone who picks up a stick is moving into a spiritual arena – our people love that medicine game. We played about 18 games last year at Onondaga.”

Cayuga medicine stick, ca. 1840, Six Nations, Ontario.

Cayuga medicine stick, ca. 1840, Six Nations, Ontario. The stick is carved of hickory and laced with rawhide. Penn Museum 53-1-17.

Cayuga wooden stick handle showing clasped hands.

Cayuga medicine stick handle showing clasped hands and ball.

This stick here, I saw sometime back around 1998 when we were looking at your Museum and at what you had in your collections and I saw this. It’s from 1840, not that old, but I saw it was a medicine stick – made for somebody who called for a game. I know because it has a ball here at this end, and I looked at the handshake, and I knew it was made for somebody. And if you look at it, it looks a little different that those used today. This was designed for big fields. I made a stick like this just to see what it was for, and I found out you could throw 150-200 yards with this – it was designed for lonnnng fields. Today the fields are short and sticks are short, designed for short passes…So this was made for somebody. I have no idea who, but somebody was not well and they called for a game…Before the game they build a fire and speak on behalf of the person it is for and all the players lay their stick on the fire and he will talk about why this game and why this tree is involved, why this lacing which represents all the animals in this world, how they serve the people and their duties. This is about the responsibility we have for this earth. Because this is representing the spiritual side. When the game is over the ball is the medicine – you don’t know where it’s going. You do your best to get it in the net or the goal. But the ball is the medicine and it is made that day from the leather of the deer. When the game is over, the ball is given to the person and they become part now of the society. They have a responsibility for the next person that is coming, the next person who asks.

So that’s what this stick was for. I don’t know the person it was for, but at one time it served a very strong purpose for an individual.”

Listen to Mr. Lyons’ entire lecture here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cZ1FReeRGAk

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Onondaga Nation and Swedish Engineers Join Hands on Global Food Production

Native American economic initiatives are influencing our world today…here is a terrific example!

A new economic initiative in Indian Country that moves beyond the sale of tobacco and casinos is Plantagon, an innovative international partnership with Native American principles at its core. We heard about it from Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper of the Onondaga Nation (in upstate New York), when he presented the 2014 Annual Elizabeth Watts and Howard C. Petersen Lecture at Penn Museum last week as the inaugural guest speaker for our new exhibition – Native American Voices: The People – Here and Now.

Oren Lyons at Penn Museum, April 16, 2014

Oren Lyons spoke at the Penn Museum on April 16. He is the Chairman of Plantagon International.

Lyons is a renowned speaker and advocate who works on behalf of indigenous peoples around the globe. You could hear a pin drop as he spoke in Penn Museum’s Rainy Auditorium.

The Onondaga Nation’s newest economic initiative – Plantagon International – is a partnership with the Swedish engineering firm, Sweco. Together, Onondaga and Sweco are developing innovative engineering solutions to food production in cities around the globe. The company’s ethics and practices are founded on two fundamental Iroquois/Haudenosaunee principals of a) looking ahead to make responsible decisions in support of future generations, and b) equity and sharing. By modeling sharing and sustainability, Plantagon wants not only to feed cities of the future, but to change the way business is done.

Plantagon’s product is highly engineered vertical greenhouses in cities – urban agricultural solutions to feed the future. The first vertical greenhouse is being built now, just south of Stockholm in Lingk?ping, Sweden, and will open in 2014.

Plantagon's first greenhouse will open in Lingkoping, Sweden later this year.  It is 54 meters high.

Plantagon’s first greenhouse will open in Sweden later this year – it is 54 meters high.

Right now, the company’s primary market is Asia and a second tower is planned in Singapore.

Learn more about Plantagon here:





Listen to Mr. Lyons’ full presentation here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cZ1FReeRGAk

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Ur Digitization Project: April 2014

Artifact of the month
Spotlight on Field Number U.10183 (Museum Number B17249)
‘goddess-handled’ jar

U.10183 (B17249), upright-handled jar found in PG778 at Ur

U.10183 (B17249), upright-handled jar found in PG778 at Ur

Photo of reconstructed U.10183 published in Ur Excavations 2: 1934 plate 187

Photo of reconstructed U.10183 published in Ur Excavations 2: 1934 plate 187

In our recent investigations of pottery from Ur housed at the Penn Museum we have seen more than 1300 pieces, measuring, describing, photographing, recording condition, and making repairs or other treatments for those in need. In some cases we are removing early restoration since it no longer appears to be accurate in light of more recent research (image below with reconstructed rim, at left same jar without reconstructed rim). All of this stems from our efforts to make artifacts from Ur digitally accessible and researchable.

Pottery is particularly important for archaeological investigations as it often forms the basis of relative chronologies; that is, styles change in ways that can give us an understanding of progression in time at a particular site and sometimes across sites. They can also indicate influence from other areas — indicating trade routes, or areas of control. Naturally we must be careful when inferring socio-political phenomena from the presence of pottery types and must bring more evidence to bear wherever we can.

At most ancient Near Eastern sites, pottery fragments (sherds in archaeology-speak) are particularly prevalent. So common are they that full collection and storage is almost always impossible. Therefore, archaeologists today record information in the field, such as count and weight of all sherds from each unit at each level, and they seek out ‘diagnostic’ sherds — those that are most identifiable as particular types of pottery — for closer recording. These include decorated pieces, rims, bases, and handles; plain body sherds are often unhelpful in typologies.

In Sir Leonard Woolley’s day (he was the excavator of Ur in the era of ‘big digs’) archaeologists uncovered so large an area that they rarely collected or measured the thousands upon thousands of sherds they encountered. This means that the majority of pottery we have from Ur today is made up of whole or nearly whole pots. Admittedly these are the best for typological considerations, but we have lost a good deal of information as to the larger distribution of pottery across the site. In fact, most of the whole pots come from graves since they are less likely to have been broken in daily activities or later processes.

One of the most interesting pots we uncovered in storage was museum number B17249 (original field number U.10183). This is an example of a type variously known as ‘upright-handled,’ ‘anthropomorphic-handled,’ or ‘goddess-handled.’ The distribution of the type has been analyzed by Jane Moon (Iraq 44, no. 1, Spring 1982, pp.39-70). [NB: Dr. Moon is currently co-directing an excavation in Iraq only some 20km away from Ur at Tell Khaiber]. She noted that this jar, U.10183, is the only example of the type at Ur (along with another possible handle fragment). Typically such pieces are found farther north in Mesopotamia, and in funerary contexts.

U.10183 is definitely from a funerary context, coming from PG778. Woolley noted the unique nature of the object and drew it on his notecard from the tomb. He drew it, however, in full profile despite noting that the rim was entirely missing. He also reconstructed the jar based on the model he drew. Whether the rim was as plain as he thought is a big question. Many of the upright-handled jars have much more flaring rims, and there seems to be no additional evidence for rim type on this example; therefore, we have now removed the reconstructed rim.

Bottom of Field card concerning PG778, containing drawing of U.10183

Bottom of Field card concerning PG778, containing drawing of U.10183

Example of upright-handled jar from Kish (after Moon 1982: 43 #9=IM2358 and #11=1925.168)

Example of upright-handled jar from Kish (after Moon 1982: 43 #9=IM2358 and #11=1925.168)

The handle on this type of jar was never attached to the rim as would be expected of a full handle. In fact, many (including Woolley) have likened it to a spout. But though it may be hollow inside, it is does not have a hole at the top and was not used as a spout. In many examples, the decoration on the handle clearly indicates a human figure, (when recognizable, it is always female, hence the term ‘goddess’ used in some descriptions). Our example does not have so clearly human characteristics but the comparative example from Kish at right should make the connection clear.

This has been a quick look at a particularly interesting jar from Ur. Much more research can and should be done on all of the pottery examples. Those in our storerooms have rarely been seen over the past 90 years and making them available to researchers will allow reinvestigations that will help us more clearly understand the city of Ur and its position in the ancient Near East.

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Archives Photo of the Week: Penn Relays


1767. [Diskobolos of Myron.]
Penn Museum Image #166422

April 24th marks the start of the 2014 Penn Relays. For those unfamiliar, the Penn Relays is the oldest and largest track and field event in the United States. The event is held annually at Franklin Field, which is directly across from the Penn Museum. The archives is one of the wings closest to the field, so we constantly hear the roar of the crowd over the entirety of the relays. Personally, I like to think that they’re cheering on our processing and cataloging.

In honor of the relays, this week’s image of the week is of the Diskobolos of Myron. This photograph is an albumen print taken by Giorgio Sommer. The Penn Museum Archives currently has a selection of Sommer prints on display in the archives hallway, particularly photographs from Pompeii. So while you’re visiting for the Penn Relays this weekend, stop in at the Penn Museum and see some beautiful historic prints, too!

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Would You Like to See Samoa?

It is spring break for some this week, but it definitely doesn’t feel like sunshine and Mai Tais today in Philadelphia. For those of us stuck at our desks, here is a short clip from our archival film collection to get you dancing and thinking of vacation!

Shot in 1940, this travelogue film documents the voyage of an avid traveler and amateur filmmaker, Mrs. J. Shipley Dixon, across the Equator to American Samoa, Apia British Samoa, Tahiti, Panama, Columbia, Haiti, and ending back in Philadelphia. Titled “Reel No. 4: Oceania (1940),” the silent film captures many colorful scenes throughout Dixon’s journey including a ship ritual play called “Neptunus Rex” in the first scene, a three toed sloth hanging around (at 20:28), a bullfight in Bogota, Columbia (at 27:23), and the trip ends with a beautiful sunset over the ocean. Jealous yet? Well wait, while Mrs. Dixon had an amazing vacation to the South Pacific and west coast of South America, she did return home to a snowy Philadelphia in mid-April!

Still what a vacation!

(Note: The full-length video does contain some nudity and suggestive content.)

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