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Oldest Oil Paintings | Bamiyan, Afghanistan
(National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, Tokyo)

An international team of conservators and archaeologists found the world's oldest-known oil paintings in a maze of caves in Afghanistan's Bamiyan Valley, where the Taliban blew up two gigantic stone Buddha statues in 2001. The team started work in the area five years ago, investigating ways to preserve Buddhist art in some 1,000 caves that had been ravaged over the years by the harsh natural environment, rampant looting, and the infamous explosions. They found that about 50 of the caves were once adorned with glistening murals depicting images of Buddha, bodhisattvas, and female devotees. One unique scene shows the Persian solar deity Mithra, riding a chariot driven by four winged horses.

In 2008, their research revealed that paint samples from 12 of the caves contained "drying oils," most likely walnut and poppy-seed oils, which are key ingredients in oil-based paints. In the ancient Mediterranean world, drying oils were used in medicines, cosmetics, and perfumes. Scholars long believed they were first added to paints much later in medieval Europe. "There was no clear material evidence of drying oils being used in paintings before the 12th century A.D. anywhere in the world, until now," says Yoko Taniguchi, a Japanese conservation scientist on the team. The murals at Bamiyan, which lay on the Silk Road where goods and ideas flowed between East and West, date to the mid-seventh century A.D. "This is one of the most important art-historical and archaeological discoveries ever made," she says. "It indicates more complicated material and technical interconnections in this area than previously thought."

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