The Cosmos in Storage

 I know I’m not alone when I say that I get excited on Sunday nights to sit down and watch Cosmos. The re-envisioned Carl Sagan classic airs on Fox on Sunday nights with Neil deGrasse Tyson as host. I’m not going to gush about how he’s been my favorite astrophysicist since I basically learned what an astrophysicist was, but lets just say we’re glued to the TV when this show comes on each week.

This past week opened with a lot of great objects featured while he discussed not only Mesopotamia in general, but Enheduanna in particular. This screen shot features objects I work with every day–from a variety of places in ancient Iraq. I thought I’d take the chance to show off our awesome collection.

Ubaid columns, Enheduanna, and jewelry from the Royal Cemetery at Ur

Ubaid columns, Enheduanna, and jewelry from the Royal Cemetery at Ur

 The first thing you really see is that beautiful inlaid column. Its from the site of Ubaid, excavated by Leonard Woolley on behalf of our museum and the British Museum. We have one, and the BM has one as well. Ours was recently loaned to an exhibit in Spain, and it was such a great addition, that their head of exhibits and I posed with it when finished.

La Caixa's head of exhibits Carles, Katy Blanchard (NE keeper), and Anne Brancati (loans registrar) pose with the Penn Museum's Ubaid column

La Caixa’s head of exhibits Carles, Katy Blanchard (NE keeper), and Anne Brancati (loans registrar) pose with the Penn Museum’s Ubaid column

I can see what led the Cosmos designers to include it in their fictional Cosmos world. While shown indoors in the program, we know they were found on the exterior of a building, likely flanking the top of a grand stairway. The columns would have originally stood outside the entrance of the Ninhursang Temple at the site of Tell al Ubaid. Dating to about 2400-2250 BCE, they are made of small pieces of shell, pink limestone, and black shale cut into shapes. They had a small wire on the back of each one that was set into a layer of bitumen which covered the log at the center of each column.

The next thing I really notice is her jewelry. One of our most famous set of artifacts is the jewelry of Queen Puabi. While Puabi is indeed a queen and has more jewelry than any other person excavated at the Royal Cemetery, her grandeur really gives you an idea of the types of materials found on the buried individuals.

Queen Puabi's burial jewelry includes more than 10 pounds of gold and lapis on her head.

Queen Puabi’s burial jewelry includes more than 10 pounds of gold and lapis on her head.

Our Cosmos-imagined Enheduanna clearly doesn’t have all this. One of the graves at Ur, PG1237, is known as The Great Death Pit. In this one grave, 74 bodies were found, most of which were women. They were dressed as “hand maidens” and would have included a muted version of Puabi’s jewelry. So you see a hair comb, which is made of silver as well as three flowers of gold, paste and shell. You see that she wears a single wreath of gold leaves. She wears two large lunate earrings. Around her neck, you see what is affectionately called a “dog collar“: a band of interlaced lapis and gold triangles worn tight against the neck. Below that? You see lovely strands of beads, made of carnelian, lapis, and gold–all imported materials. We date Puabi as to the time period slightly before the Ubaid column, from about 2600-2450 BCE.

And we can’t forget Enheduanna herself! She’s lovely in her traditional flounced skirt, seen below on the disk that bears her name,  as she writes her poetry. Enheduanna was indeed a real person, discussed fully by my colleague Brad Hafford, here on the blog. Our disk dates to about 2300, so we date her dedications to about that time.

Enheduanna is third from the right on this disk that bears her name (on the back). Her face is still preserved

Enheduanna is third from the right on this disk that bears her name (on the back). Her face is still preserved.
Museum Object Number: B16665


All in all? Cosmos did an amazing job this week, using real objects almost in their correct context, and dating close enough to the same date that I would love to have seen them all together, kind of like this.

All of the objects featured on Cosmos this week, can be found in the storeroom here at the Penn Museum.

All of the objects featured on Cosmos this week, can be found in the storeroom here at the Penn Museum.

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How We Do What We Do

“Can you please explain what you’re doing?”

is a question we hear daily. From a visitor’s perspective it doesn’t look like we’re doing much. Basically, we observe and document. A thorough condition report is the first step in any conservation treatment; we need to know what we’re dealing with. These murals are so large that a written document consistently describing the location and details of each condition would be too long and arduous to read, let alone write. So instead of written documentation, we use high resolution digital images and Adobe Photoshop.

Buddhist Blog Project Photo

This is a shot from the scissor lift. Cassia Balogh is visible in the bottom right corner working on a lower portion of the mural.

The first step of the Buddhist mural condition survey was photography. Architectural photographer Joseph Elliot worked with Cassia Balogh to take digital images of every section of each mural. Each photo is typically of a panel (or two). We then set ourselves and our computers (with images of the mural) in front of the corresponding areas of the mural with the help of a ladder and the scissor lift. We have fifteen different conditions and each one has been assigned a specific color. We have organized these conditions and their respective colors as separate layers on Adobe Photoshop, this way each condition can be edited and viewed separately from the others.


This image details how Photoshop layers can be viewed separately and together. We chose three layers to detail out of the total of fifteen.

The different layers can be separated into three categories: previous restoration, structural conditions, and issues pertaining to the original painted surface. In the previous restoration layers we look for areas that may have been patched or painted. These areas differ in texture to the original surface.

The structural conditions vary between each panel; some have hardly any. These layers mostly show where there are cracks and where the original surface is delaminating from the supports behind it. There are several layers of support behind each panel, including metal frameworks, and so one of the layers is “Metal Detection.” Check back for a post that details our metal detecting process.

Most of the conditions affecting original painted surface describe areas of paint loss and actively flaking surfaces. However, one layer indicates graffiti; there are Chinese characters in both red and black inks that were written on the murals.


This screenshot shows a lower portion of the mural with a single visible


This screenshot shows the same lower area of the mural as the image above and how multiple layers can be viewed simultaneously. Each color corresponds to a specific condition.


Once we have examined every centimeter of every panel of the mural and all of the photos have been marked up, we compile the photos and their layers into one giant photo-mosaic that depicts the entire mural and the conditions. This provides us with a big picture (literally) of just how the various conditions are concentrated on the mural and how the conditions vary from panel to panel.

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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Dispatches from Iraqi Kurdistan: On the Road Again

May 14

Driving in the United States does little to prepare you for the fluidity, and occasional terror, of driving in the Middle East. In major cities, like Cairo, Damascus, or Tehran, traffic ebbs and flows independent of the restrictions of lane designations and traffic laws. These exist, but they often appear to serve as guidelines rather than rules. The experience is similar outside of the cities. Because there is less traffic, everybody drives faster. However, most of the roads are two-lane, which leads to a lot of leap-frogging as faster drivers pass their slower compatriots. At times like this, traveling cross-country is its own special thrill.

As part of RAP, I spend a large amount of time on the road at the start of the dig. We enter Iraq in Erbil, but we work in Soran, about two hours away. Since Erbil is the capital of the Kurdish Regional Government, we try to handle most of our bureaucratic necessities at their source. However, the wheels of the bureaucracy grind slower here than elsewhere, so we often have to travel back and forth between the two cities to get everything resolved. As of this writing, I’ve made the Erbil-Soran trip twice, with another planned for tomorrow.

The route between Erbil and Soran

The route between Erbil and Soran

The trip itself is pleasant and provides a great snapshot of the diverse topography of the region as well as its rapid economic development. I’ve produced a short video of our first trip into the mountains to give you an idea of what it entails. You start on the crowded streets of Erbil. From there, you head northeast through growing suburbs into the foothills of the Zagros Mountains. You continue on this track, going up over ridges and back down into valleys, until you arrive in the Harir Plain, where the road turns to the northwest. During the Neo-Assyrian Empire, this plain was the end of Assyrian control in the area until the last century of its existence.

The road runs northwest across the plain until it turns back to the east at Spillek Pass. The top of the pass has a dominating view of the plain, which makes it a great place for brigands. In the early twentieth-century, the British built a fort at the top of the pass, which is still present. Unsurprisingly, a modern KRG military outpost is in front of it.

From Spillek Pass, the road leads to Khalifan. This town sits at the west end of the Rowanduz Gorge, which towers majestically over it. For most of history, the path through the gorge consisted of little more than narrow dirt tracks. In the early twentieth-century, A.M. Hamilton built a road through the base of the gorge that leads to Soran. Later, Saddam Hussein built a high road that leads directly to Rowanduz in order to improve the access of his tanks. The gorge and the towns around it are now popular tourist destinations. The waterfall at Gal-i Ali Beg, featured on the 5,000 Iraqi dinar, is particularly well-known.

The falls at Gal-i Ali Beg

The falls at Gal-i Ali Beg

Rapid economic development is visible all along the road between Erbil and Soran. Unfinished cinder-block buildings sit side-by-side with tall, modern-looking hotels. Tourism and oil exploration are driving much of this development. The pace of the construction is quickly destroying the natural landscape that makes this area so popular as well as destroying cultural heritage. However, the population in the area is only likely to increase. A road system with tunnels through the mountains is currently under construction that will cut forty-five minutes off of the trip to Soran. This development will undoubtedly lead to better economic conditions for locals, but the environmental and archaeological repercussions of this development are hard to calculate.

Construction near Shaqlawa

Construction near Shaqlawa

Tunnel construction on the north side of the Harir Plain

Tunnel construction on the north side of the Harir Plain

**Read all of Darren’s posts from his field work in Iraqi Kurdistan**

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Nurturing Philly Teachers

I didn’t know it, but each Spring Penn offers four full-fledged courses to Philadelphia schoolteachers. K-12 educators vie for a seat in late afternoon courses designed to nurture, inspire, and energize their classroom teaching. Spring 2014 offered Robotics, the Biology of Food, and Teaching the Holocaust… and now Dr. Alan Lee (who heads up the Teacher Institute of Philadelphia Program, aka TIP) wanted one more – a new class on Penn Museum’s upcoming exhibition, Native American Voices: The People – Here and Now.

I have little experience creating school curricula for kids, and as a full time Curator and Keeper, I am not a Penn professor… so my first inclination was ”

“Sorry, I don’t think that’s for me.” “But, wait!” said Alan, “the teachers will create their own curriculum units – that’s not your job. Your job is to get the teachers informed and excited about your topic, which is entirely relevant in our Philadelphia schools… Philly teachers need to hear your message and to learn about Native Americans today.”

Well ok, that was the only arm twisting I needed. Helping educators teach about Native America today! Amazing! What an incredible opportunity to break stereotypes and to begin to shape the next generations’ attitudes about American Indians. There are so many living Native leaders, communities, and important issues to introduce, and so much that Philadelphia school kids need to know!! I was hooked, and now, eight months later as the teachers are finishing up their projects, I can’t say enough about the TIP program.

TIP offers teachers the opportunity to  expand their knowledge and develop a new curriculum unit for their school.

TIP offers teachers the opportunity to expand their knowledge and develop a new curriculum unit for their school.

We met in January, after the teachers had applied and were accepted into the program, and two months before the exhibition opened.Twelve pair of eyes stared at me across the table, and honestly, I was completely terrified.But with a little help from my TIP teacher adviser, Terry Anne Wildman, an experienced and award winning instructor from Overbrook Elementary, things quickly got rolling. And now, thirteen weeks later, the program has surpassed my expectations and has been incredibly rewarding. You might hear that the Philadelphia school system is broken, but let me tell you, the dedication, talent, and creativity of the teachers is truly inspiring.

From January to May we met on Tuesday evenings from 4:30-6:30pm. Twelve dedicated educators made their way to the Museum after an already long day in their elementary, middle, and high schools around the city. After getting settled and a quick snack of chocolate and clementines, we discussed what was going on in the city schools and questions inspired by the week’s assigned readings. Then the group came behind the scenes into Penn Museum’s Collections Study Room to look closely at Native American objects.With paper and pencil, they were asked to draw what was before them as we discussed what we were seeing…Oneida birchbark decorated with porcupine quills, Hopi katsinas carved of cottonwood root, purple and white wampum beads made of quahog shell, and ceramic water jars from San Ildefonso Pueblo. Drawing requires quiet and careful observation, contemplation, and reflection, and this simple exercise keyed them into the materials objects are made of, construction techniques, and elements of design – all entryways into the many stories and meanings material objects hold.

We looked closely at Hopi katsina carvings with our Hopi guest, journalist Patty Talahongva.

We looked closely at Hopi katsina carvings with our Hopi guest, journalist Patty Talahongva.

Most evenings we had a Native American speaker who brought a living, dynamic perspective to the rich and diverse topic of Native America today. Guests included Tina Pierce Fragoso, Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape from nearby Bridgton, New Jersey; Penn History Fellow Dr. Douglas Kiel, Oneida of Wisconsin; Dr. Margaret Bruchac of Penn’s Department of Anthropology, an Abenaki ethno-historian with an interest in Northeastern wampum; Patty Talahongva, a Hopi journalist who spoke about the importance of language and offered a close read of contemporary Hopi Katsina spirit carvings; Pueblo archaeologist and Penn graduate student, Joseph (Woody) Aguilar shared his insights on ceramics from his home community of San Ildefonso, New Mexico; and the world renowned Haida artist and wood carver from British Columbia, Robert Davidson. Other speakers included Penn Museum’s Director Dr. Julian Siggers, a specialist on ancient lithic technologies, who showed us how to make stone tools with a flint knapping demonstration; and my own presentation about NAGPRA, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, which is important to all tribes across the country. Each conversation offered Native perspectives and new understandings about objects in Penn Museum’s collection.

While the exhibition’s major themes of Local Nations, Sacred Places, Celebrations, and New Initiatives shaped the teachings of the course, TIP requires that each student research and develop a unique and substantive curriculum unit for their school. Many of the teachers have incorporated object learning into their new lesson plans, and all are presenting new information about today’s Native peoples and topics of concern in Native communities today. Here is a list of what they are working on:

  • Erin Bloom for Wagner Middle School: Children of the Earth: Native American Identity, Sacred Places, and Ties to the Landscape.
  • Matthew Bryne for High School of the Future: Pueblo History and Art for the Spanish Classroom
  • Rich Holms for the Philadelphia Juvenile Justice Service Center: Code Talkers and WW II
  • Sydney Coffin for Edison High School: The Spirits Still Among Us: Native American Poets and the Voices of History in the Present Tense.
  • Cynthia Lee for Middle Years Alternative: Native American Music and Living Legends
  • Keysiah Middleton for Longstreth Elementary School: Stories of Black Seminoles
  • Pat Mitchell-Keita-Doe for Tilden Middle School: Whispering Rivers: Whatever Happened to the Lenape of Pennsylvania?
  • Peter Morse for Overbrook High School: The Lenape Diaspora
  • Tiffany Moyer for Overbrook Elementary School: The Cherokee and the Trail of Tears
  • Kathlene Radebaugh for Lea Elementary: Fact Versus Fiction: Comparing Primary and Secondary Sources on Christopher Columbus and the Colonization of the New World.
  • Cara Wallin for Shawmont Elementary School: Math Inspired by Ancestral and Contemporary Pueblo Culture.
  • Terry Anne Wildman for Overbrook Elementary School: The Lenni-Lenape People, Yesterday and Today.

The TIP Program is a unique academic professional development partnership between the University of Pennsylvania and the School District of Philadelphia. Built upon a successful model of partnership practiced by Yale University and the New Haven (CT) School District, Dr. Alan Lee heads up Penn’s Teacher Institute of Philadelphia. The goal of the Teachers Institute is to improve the quality of classroom teaching in public schools in West and Southwest Philadelphia, through a sustained academic professional development effort. Read more about the program here:

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Dispatches from Iraqi Kurdistan: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

May 11

Good morning from Doha in Qatar! Every field season starts with getting to where you work. Often, this seemingly simple task can become its own odyssey. Many research projects are located in the countryside, far from the international airports of the cities. Depending on their situation, archaeologists in the Middle East use a combination of planes, buses, and automobiles to get where they need to be.

Iraqi Kurdistan, northeast Irac

Iraqi Kurdistan, northeast Iraq

RAP is a good example. To get to Rowanduz, you first need to fly to Erbil in northeastern Iraq. From the United States, there are two main routes to Erbil, either connecting in Europe or the Persian Gulf. The northern route passes through any number of European cities, depending on which carrier you choose. From there, these flights travel through Turkey and then curve down towards Erbil from the north. In my six years of summer excavations, I’ve always taken the northern route. It’s usually relatively painless. You sit for six to seven hours as you cross the Atlantic and then another four to five to get to your destination, with a nice stretch and a snack in between.

I say usually painless, but the one year that my dig director sent me through Moscow on Aeroflot, the Russian national carrier, is seared into my brain. On the transatlantic flight, I sat in front of an American businessman who had drunk too much vodka. Halfway through the flight, he came over the back of my chair with his hands, yelling “Arrrrrrrgh,” like a pirate. He remained equally entertaining (and carefully watched!) for the rest of the flight. During my seven-hour layover in Moscow, there were few chairs available for transfer passengers, so I spent a lot of time sitting on the floor. People who clearly took this route more than me had planned ahead and brought blankets; lesson learned. Finally, I spent my flight south in terror of being crushed by the luggage of my neighbor, whose suitcases were piled high between us. So much for Aeroflot. As I recall, the dig director took a different carrier.

Route two takes you through Qatar or the United Arab Emirates, which is what four of us did this year. It’s a much longer flight to Doha, roughly twelve hours, but Qatar Airways has high-quality service and good entertainment. We’ve got a seven-and-a-half hour layover, which I’m using to write this post, and then it’s a quick two-and-a-half hour trip through southern Iraq to Erbil. Luckily, we’re flying during the day, so we should be able to see some of the famous archaeological sites, like Ur, Uruk, and Assur, as we pass overhead. Once in Erbil, we’ll deal with residency issues and then drive north to Rowanduz, but more on those adventures later. For now, it’s time to buy another coffee and slowly persuade my body that it’s 9:30 am, not 2:30 am.

**Read all of Darren’s posts from his field work in Iraqi Kurdistan**

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Archives Photo of the Week: Mosquee Assan Pacha, fontane des Ablutions. Caire.


57 Mosquee Assan Pacha, fontane des Ablutions. Caire. [Assan Pacha Mosque, Fountain of purification. Cairo.]
Penn Image #166024

 I came across this week’s photo by chance and was just mesmerized by it. Taken by Maison Bonfils, it depicts a fountain inside of the Sultan Hassan Mosque in Cairo, Egypt. The photograph was taken in the late 1800s and is an 8.75″ x 11″ albumen print. The fountain and mosque still exist today and you can view an image of the restored fountain here. 

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Dispatches from Iraqi Kurdistan: The Rowanduz Archaeological Program 2014


This summer, faculty and students from Penn are excavating at the site of Gird-i Dasht and burned settlements around Sidekan in Iraqi Kurdistan. Pictured: Dr. Brad Hafford (bottom left), Dr. Richard L. Zettler (top left), Darren Ashby (bottom right), Marshall Schurtz (top right). Not Pictured: Katherine Burge, Daniel Patterson.

May 10

Like swallows returning to San Juan Capistrano, archaeologists are once again arriving at excavations all over the world. This summer, Penn students and faculty are back in Iraqi Kurdistan for the second season of the Rowanduz Archaeological Program (RAP). As a field director, I’m one of the first to arrive and one of the last to leave. Throughout the season, I’ll be blogging regularly about our excavations as well as daily life on an archaeological dig.

Our project seeks to shed light on the history and archaeology of Erbil Province, part of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). For over a century, warfare and political strife have limited archaeological exploration in the region. However, in the past few years archaeologists from many countries have started research projects in the KRG in cooperation with their Iraqi colleagues.


Rowanduz Gorge

RAP is headquartered in Soran-Rowanduz, two cities located in the mountain valleys to the northeast of Erbil. Nestled among the snow-covered peaks of the Zagros Mountains, Soran and Rowanduz differ strikingly from the Iraqi cities along the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers further west. During much of the year, the countryside is verdant with tall grasses and trees on the hillsides. In Rowanduz, people’s homes overlook deep gorges cut by mountain streams over millennia. Just over the hill, Soran sits in a river valley at the point where the river enters the Rowanduz Gorge. As the district capital, Soran has grown over the last decade, merging with the neighboring city of Diyana, which has a substantial Christian population.

This year, we’re pursuing two related goals. First, we’re continuing to excavate at the site of Gird-i Dasht, a mound located along a stream just outside Soran. The site consists of both a fortified high mound, which rises 20 meters above the plain, and a low mound that surrounds it. Last summer, we briefly excavated at both the top and the bottom of the high mound. Material recovered from these areas indicates that people lived at this site at least as far back as the 2nd-millennium BCE and as recently as the 19th-century AD. This summer we will work on both the high and low mounds in order to learn more about when people lived at Gird-i Dasht and what they were doing.


Gird-i Dasht

Second, we will work on a series of burned settlements in and around the town of Sidekan, located near the Iraq-Iran border. At the end of last summer, two settlements were uncovered during road construction. More recently, the construction of a bank in Sidekan led to the discovery of more burned remains. We’re very excited about the potential for these sites. Archaeologists love burned remains, because they often contain materials in their primary contexts. If your house is on fire, you’re unlikely to take much if anything before you flee, so remains found in burned deposits are often where they were used or stored rather than where they were thrown away. For the archaeologist, who wants to reconstruct the past, these types of deposits are very important. Additionally, we think that all of these burned sites might be the result of an attack by the Assyrian king Sargon II. In 714 BCE, Sargon II invaded the mountain kingdom of Musasir, plundering the countryside and sacking the capital city. This attack has been known about for a long time thanks to Assyrian inscriptions; however, the exact location of the kingdom is unknown. Some scholars have suggested that the area around Soran and Sidekan was once Musasir and the scant material recovered from these settlements so far dates to the right time period for this kingdom. Whether or not these remains belong to Musasir, their excavation will do much to clarify our understanding of occupation in this area.

As the start of the season finally arrives, we’re all very excited to be back in the field. Part of the appeal of archaeology is the feeling that each pull of the trowel could reveal something you never expected.

***RAP is sponsored by Boston University, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Cambridge, Ludwig-Maximilians Universität München, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Dr. Michael D. Danti (Boston University) is the General Director. Dr. Richard L. Zettler (Penn) serves as the Associate Director.***


Map of northeastern Iraq

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Getting the Murals to the Museum

It’s important to understand how an object actually comes into the museum. The Buddhist murals in the Rotunda are comprised of many different sized panels which entered the museum in stages.  The mural depicting Tejaprabha Buddha came into the museum incomplete in 1926.  You can see the panels are actually framed in large wooden borders showing that some parts of the complete image are missing:

C492 - 1926

Tejaprabha mural showing the three main sections from 1926

It is not until 1929 that the rest of the mural arrives at the museum and is installed with the other sections thus completing the image.  Since each section came in as a separate object, they each have different object numbers.  These are:  C492, C493,C494, C495 and C692.  To complicate matters more, C692 is actually two sections.

C492 with accession numbers

This is important to note because we may not actually have the entire mural.  Therefore any analysis of what is actually depicted and the significance of the number of deities represented and who they represent should be approached with caution. Indeed when this mural came into the museum the central Buddha was believed Sakyamuni, the historical Buddha, not  Tejaprabha, with Guanyin to his right (note the Amitabha Buddha in the headdress) and Maitreya to his left.  The murals didn’t come into the museum  with a label attached to them explaining the meaning behind each figure.  The curator at the time Helen E. Fernald, needed to start working out what she was seeing, not only with everything cut into pieces but without the entire mural present.  It is actually reasonable to think this is Sakyamuni because he is sometimes seen as a triad with Guanyin and Maitreya.  The surrounding figures were thought to be Taoist  Moon and Sun gods, not unreasonable given some of the syncretism between Taoism and Buddhism and the iconography of the headdresses.  The correct identification of the Buddha and his surrounding deities came a few years later.  It will take an entire post to unpack that story.

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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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