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60-Second Science

World's Oldest Oil Paintings

High-tech analytic methods show that cave paintings of Buddhas in Afghanistan are the world's oldest known that include oils. Cynthia Graber reports.

Podcast Episode: The Taliban destroyed international treasures when they wrecked the ancient Buddha statues in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan region. But new treasures have now been revealed.  Cave walls behind where the statues stood are adorned with paintings from the fifth and sixth centuries. The paintings depict sitting Buddhas surrounded by palm trees and mythical creatures. Scientists recently published a study showing that some of these works were painted with oils, centuries before the technique was employed in Europe. The study was published in the Journal of Analytical Atomic Spectrometry.

To figure out the materials used, researchers employed a combination of infrared micro-spectroscopy and various X-ray methodologies. The beams separated out the layers of paint, and the different techniques allowed researchers to analyze the variety of materials. They discovered oils in the mix of layers, probably either walnut or poppy seed oil. Art historians date the earliest use of oils in Europe to about the 15th century. Scientists say the new findings place the Bamiyan paintings many hundreds of years earlier, giving the Bhuddha images the honor of being the earliest known oil paintings in the world.

--Cynthia Graber

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