Thursday, 11 February 2016

A Siberian "Tutanchamon"- Wonderful new discoveries in Tuva in South Siberia

FOCUS ON TUVA: Stunning treasures - and macabre slaughter - in Siberia's Valley of the Kings

The Siberia Times by Olga Gertcyk  11 February 2016

Pictured: the gleaming riches no-one was meant to see belonging to an ancient nomad potentate, and his queen...or was she his concubine? 

In all, some 9,300 decorative gold pieces were found here, not including the 'uncountable golden beads'. Picture: Vera Salnitskaya
The royal tomb known as Arzhan 2 in the modern-day Republic of Tuva - to many, the most mysterious region in all Russia - is some 2,600 years old but its valuables match any trove from any era anywhere in the world. 
Here inside a mound 80 metres wide was buried a warrior tsar with a sway that plainly reached over a vast territory of mountains and steppes, and whose magnificent possessions indicated close contacts with other civilisations.
Forget the notion of barbaric Siberian nomadic tribes in this epoch: well, don't quite forget. These ancient warriors used the skulls of their vanquished foes as drinking cups, according to no less an authority than Greek historian Herodotus.
And this queen or concubine was almost certainly sacrificed to that she could be buried beside the dead ruler. And yet, as the pictures show, their exceptional artwork predates the influence of the Greeks, and displays a high degree of sophistication. 
Arzhan 2 excavations site

Arzhan 2 excavations site

Arzhan 2 modern look
Unknown warrior was found literally covered in gold alongside with his woman. Pictures: Konstantin Chugunov, Anatoli Nagler and Hermann Parzinger; Vera Salnitskaya
The unknown monarch - a Siberian Tutankhamun - was entombed in this ancient necropolis with 14 horses, a defining symbol of wealth in these Scythian times; each animal was from a different herd. 
Alongside him lay the woman in his life, his queen or, as is suspected, his favourite concubine, but in any event a woman held in great esteem who was ethnically distinct from this monarch's retinue also buried alongside him which included 33 others, including five children. She was in all likelihood not alone in being sacrificed  to accompany him to the afterlife...
The most breathtaking aspect of this Tuvan find are the contents of the burial chamber of this royal couple - pictured here - located by archeologists some two or three metres beneath the surface.
In all, some 9,300 decorative gold pieces were found here, not including the 'uncountable golden beads'. Put in another way, there was more than 20 kilograms of gold, including earrings, pendants and beads, adorning the bodies of the royal couple all made in what is known as Animal Art style. 
King's golden necklace

King's golden necklace

Gorit - Quiver
The ancient ruler was buried with a heavy necklace made of pure gold and gold quiver with fish scale decoration. Pictures: Vera Salnitskaya
Ancient robbers had sought to raid vast burial mound, just as they had successfully looted the neighbouring Arzhan 1 site, which was perhaps 150 years older. It could be that specially built 'decoy' graves threw these ancient looters' off the scent. 
Here in Arzhan 2, thieves had left a trail which archeologists unearthed but fortunately the raiders gave up shortly before reaching these treasures, which are made from iron, turquoise, amber and wood as well as gold.
So valuable are they that it is rumoured these wondrous objects - now held mainly in local capital Kyzyl but also in St Petersburg - cannot be exhibited abroad because of the cost of insurance. 
The find has been described by Dr Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the Hermitage Museum as 'an encyclopedia of Scythian Animal Art because you have all the animals which roamed the region, such as panther, lions, camels, deer...' It includes 'many great works of art - figures of animals, necklaces, pins with animals carved into a golden surface', he told The New York Times.
'This is the original Scythian style, from the Altai region, which eventually came to the Black Sea region and finally in contact with ancient Greece. And it resembles almost an Art Nouveau style.'
Reconstruction of clothes
The reconstruction of the costumes made by the experts from Hermitage Museum. Picture: Hermitage Museum
Covered with two layers of larch logs, the royal burial chamber was carefully constructed like a blockhouse and stood inside a second, outer burial chamber of the same construction. 
The four walls were presumably adorned by some kind of curtain. Long wooden sticks were found along the walls, which could have been used like curtain rails. The curtains themselves, as well as any other textile remains, were not preserved. On a carefully made boarded wooden floor - likely softened by felt - were the bodies of this sovereign and his companion.
The skulls had dislocated from the bodies because they had probably been placed on a kind of pillow, now decayed. The ancient ruler was buried with a heavy necklace made of pure gold and decorated all over with the carvings of animals. 
His outer clothes, probably a kind of kaftan, had been decorated with thousands of small panther figures, each 2-to-3 centimetres in length, attached in vertical rows, also forming motifs such as wings on his back. 
Queen's necklace

Queen's cup

Queen's cup
A gold pectoral in Animal Style decoration, golden earring with turquoise and a miniature gold cup. Picture: Vera Salnitskaya
On his boots, maybe originally of felt or leather, thousands of mini-beads - in diameter only about 1 millimetre - had been stitched; on the upper part they ended in golden turndowns. Alongside and under the skull were gold plaques with animal-shaped inlays: four winged horses and one deer originally attached to the headgear.
The total weight of his jewellery - including minute glass beads on his trousers - was 2 kilograms. The man's weaponry consisted of an iron dagger, poorly preserved, on his right hip. This was connected to the belt by a strap, and both had been decorated with numerous golden adornments. 
Beside the dagger was a miniature gold cup. On the left side of the deceased was a gold quiver with fish scale decoration. The wooden arrow shafts were painted in black and red. His arrow heads were made of iron, but also showed the remains of golden encrustation. The golden adornment on the belt - used for carrying his quiver into the afterlife - was extremely rich. 
Below the quiver lay the wooden bow itself, studded with pieces of golden decoration. Between the quiver and the north-eastern wall of the burial chamber were two picks, one of iron with golden encrustation. To the left of the man's head lay a bronze mirror.

Close view
His outer clothes, probably a kind of kaftan, had been decorated with thousands of small panther figures, each 2-to-3 centimetres in length. Pictures: Vera Salnitskaya
A second, slightly larger bronze mirror was located to the left of the woman's head, a little bigger and with a gold handle. Below the woman's head were three gold plaques in the shape of animals - two horses and a mystical winged creature - associated with the woman's headdress.
Beside her head was a pair of gold pins, decorated with carvings in Animal Art style. The decoration of the woman's dress corresponded to the man's kaftan: thousands of golden panthers form different motifs, again, notably, wings on her back. Around her breasts, archeologists found golden earrings and many small beads of gold, amber, garnet, malachite and other precious materials. 
Near her feet were thousands of mini-beads made of gold, which must have been fixed onto felt or leather boots which had been inlaid with golden ribbons and granulation. 
On her right hip hung an iron knife, poorly preserved but with numerous excellent gold belt adornments. Her wrists were adorned with gold bracelets. Here, too, lay two bronze kettles, seen as exceptionally valuable for these times.
In the western corner of the burial chamber were three large amber beads, a wooden cup with a golden handle, a gold comb with wooden teeth, and a heap of various seeds. Within the heap of seeds was a gold pectoral in Animal Style decoration and a small bronze cup, still inside a small leather bag.
Tiny details

Tiny details

Tiny details
'It's hard to imagine that these fine pieces were made by nomads living in tents.' Pictures: Vera Salnitskaya
In other burials, which surrounded the prominent couple,  bronze knives, an axe-type weapon, known as a Raven's beak, arrowheads, bronze mirrors, belts, and much jewellery - beads made of glass, stone, amber, and golden earrings - were found. So too were fragments of  cloth - felt, fur, and fabric. 
Here too were discovered bridle sets made of bronze, mane ornaments and tail decorations cut from gold sheet.
What can we discern of the personal stories behind these ancient royals and their entourage found in Uyuk hollow, northern Tuva, and excavated by a joint Russian-German team between 2001 and 2004? 
Professor Konstantin Chugunov, highly respected senior researcher at the world famous Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, who headed the project, said DNA analysis of the group indicated those buried here were from the Iranian ethno-linguistic group.
According to the analysis of strontium isotopes in the bones, all those buried were locals except for one person - the 'queen', and it gives reason to think about  dynastic marriage,' he said. 

Arrow heads
Weapon: an iron dagger and iron arrowheads with golden encrustation. Pictures: Vera Salnitskaya
Totally 35 people - 16 men, 13 women, five children along with bones which cannot be identified by gender, were buried here, as were 14 horses.
The 'king' was between 40 and 50 years old and analysis of his remains revealed that he died of prostate cancer. 'This is the earliest documentation of the disease,' said Michael Schultz, a paleopathologist at the University of Gottingen. It is believed that in the last years of his life, this potentate could not have walked.
His female partner, accorded pride of place alongside him, was around 30 years old. Who was she?
We don't know if the woman was a queen or a concubine,' said Professor Hermann Parzinger, president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, and a joint leader of the excavations, 'but since their ornaments were similar, both must have had high status.'
No cause of death can be detected for her, leading to a theory that she could have been poisoned or strangled, to be buried beside her liege, and to travel with him into the next world: willingly or not, she was a human sacrifice, according to this version. 
'Maybe she was poisoned,' said Chugunov, 'or maybe she chose to die to be with her husband.' We may never know how she died, by natural causes around the same time as her master or in more sinister fashion, but others in the tsar's entourage certainly had gruesome demises. 



Early Scythians were people who knew good artwork when they saw it, and used contacts to obtain, or commission, jewellery and decorations. Pictures: Vera Salnitskaya
The scene archeologists uncovered here appears to match with remarkable accuracy a description by Herodotus of the macabre Scythian burial rite.
'Based on accompanying burials, we also found evidence of phenomena described by Herodotus when the living would follow the deceased,' Parzinger has explained. 'Herodotus wrote that when a military leader died, his close circle - wife (or concubine), bodyguards, advisers, servants - were killed. As they were the property of the leader, they had to follow him to the tomb. And we identified particular evidence of their murder.'
Herodotus, who lived later, from 484 BC to 425 BC, wrote: 'The body of the king is laid in the grave, stretched upon a mattress. Spears are fixed in the ground on either side of the corpse and beams stretched above it to form a roof.
'In the open space around the body of the king they bury one of his concubines, first killing her by strangling, and also his cup-bearer, his cook, his groom, his lackey, his messenger, some of his horses... and some golden cups, for they use neither silver nor brass.'
It is believed that when the king died, he was mummified and his body travelled for 40 days across all his lands. And all expressed their sorrow. Then at some sacred place a burial mound was constructed and his entire entourage were slaughtered and buried there.

Cups: wooden cup with a golden handle and small golden cup. Pictures: Vera Salnitskaya
Herodotus did not describe how the ruler's entourage were killed. While the queen or concubine shows no sign of a violent death - the assumption is that she was poisoned - one woman's skull in Arzhan 2 was pierced four times with a war pick. 
A man's skull still retains the splinters from a wooden club used to kill him. In some cases archaeologists see evidence of blows to the head with kind of poleaxe: in other case, they suppose strangulation or poison.
Separately, on these human remains was found evidence of 'battlefield surgery' conducted on these warriors during earlier conflicts. Next to the burial mound, to the north, was found a separate burial where 'chipped' human and horse bones were mixed. 
A 'guess' is that this fits another Herodotus description of the burial mound being guarded by dead horses pulling wagons with their wheels removed on which were placed dead horsemen.
The Greek historian described 50 young men, who were set around the mound. Those, who made the burial, went away and the mound remained. The corpses of the horses and riders were pecked by birds, eaten by animals, and all this decayed. 
'Chinese' style

'Chinese' style

'Chinese' style
Decorations on the akinak - or short sword - show similarities to patterns used in Eastern Zhou (Eastern China). Pictures: Vera Salnitskaya
More can be understood about these nomads from the riches lying beside this noble couple, although these ancient people left no written records, and hardly any sign of settlements that - some archeologists suspect - must have existed.
A royal burial such as this gives the 'quintessence of information' because the achievements of the culture at the time were laid to rest with the dead king, it has been said. As Parzinger has said: 'It's hard to imagine that these fine pieces were made by nomads living in tents.' Chugunov concurs: 'In Arzhan 2, the gold jewellery was clearly not made by nomadic artists.' 
They fought and pillaged but as Dr Anatoil Nagler, from the German Archeological Institute, told National Geographic: 'The people were excellent craftsmen. This puts the Scythian quality of life in a new light. It rejects the stereotype that Scythians were just wild horsemen and warriors, migrating and destroying other people. They had a high level of cultural development.'
Or so it seemed at the time when the discoveries were first made. Now it is seen as more likely that these early Scythians were people who knew good artwork when they saw it, and used contacts to obtain, or commission, jewellery and decorations that matched their needs and tastes. Not that anyone was meant to see these treasures encased in the burial tomb.
Golden details

Golden details


Golden beads

Golden deer
The gleaming riches no-one was meant to see. Pictures: Vera Salnitskaya
Some probably originated on the territory of what is now present-day China; others owe their origins to the Near East, with more seemingly made by Scythians in non-nomadic settlements. Some treasures came from a distance of between 4,000 and 5,000 kilometres from this burial mound, yet at this point there were no contacts with the Ancient Greeks.
Even so, the treasures suggest the lost civilisation of Scythians were culturally more advanced that was once supposed. The experts surmise that it was Scythian craftsmen who cast the daggers, arrowheads, and gold plaques found at this site. 
Decorations on the akinak - or short sword - show similarities to patterns used in Eastern Zhou (Eastern China) at around the same period. Bronze jars found in Inner Mongolia are compatible to a small bowl with horizontal a loop-like handle from the main burial in Arzhan 2.
The same applies to methods used in embroidery and the manufacture of earrings, the latter resembling a technique used close to the Aral Sea, some 3,600 km distant. Remains of fruit and seeds of plants found at Arzhan 2 had also come from far afield.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Princess Ukok not to be reburied

Legal bid fails to rebury remains of 2,500 year old tattooed 'ice princess'

After archeologists dug up the ancient mummy - preserved in permafrost - natural disasters were unleashed in Siberia, court told.
A mannequin - an exact replica - is displayed in the museum but on 'special occasions' VIPs would be 'provided the opportunities to see the real mummy'. Picture:
An appeal will be launched after a court this week rejected a demand by the the leader of the Teles ethnic group in the Altai Mountains to order the reburial of the world famous tattooed remains of 'Princess Ukok', dug from her tomb in 1993 by leading Russian archeologists. 
A court in Gorno-Altaisk rejected his lawsuit, allowing the relic to remain in the care of the National Museum in the city, capital of the Altai Republic.
Akai Kine, leader of the Teles ethnic group and president of the Spiritual Centre of the Turks, Kin Altai, demanded that the 'archeological complex' Ak-Alakha-3, where the mummy was found on the Ukok Plateau, should be recognised as a cultural heritage monument and the remains of the 'ice princess' classified as an integral part of the tomb. The 'integrity' of the burial site should be restored before her 2,500 year old remains should be reburied. 
Akai Kine
Akai Kine vowed to continue his fight to rebury the remains on the Ukok Plateau. Picture: Facebook
'We have the cult of ancestors,' he told the court. 'The dead cannot be disturbed, and especially they cannot be held on public display and carried around the world. After she was dug out, we immediately saw earthquakes, floods, and hail which were not known previously.'
He described her as the White Lady, a priestess guarding 'the umbilical cord of the Earth'. 'She stood as a guard at the gates of the underworld, preventing the penetration of evil from the lower worlds. However, after archaeologists removed the mummy, it has lost its strength and can no longer perform its protective function. So evil started to penetrate, natural disasters and human conflicts began.'
He accused local politicians of going back on election promises given in 2014 to rebury the mummy.
Sergey Kireev
Sergey Kireev insisted: 'The mummy will be safely kept in our museum, without going to public display.' Picture: Gorno-Altaisk Info
His move was opposed by academics involved in research on the remains, and by state bodies. The director of the National Museum Sergey Ochurdyapov said: 'We keep her in the form in which she reached us. Now the technologies are changing, a new equipment appears - and every time the mummy tells us something new.'
A senior fellow at the museum, Sergey Kireev, insisted: 'The mummy will be safely kept in our museum, without going on public display.' 
Earlier, when the remains were returned from Novosibirsk - where they were held for two decades  - there were reports that the ice princess would be put on public display. Later it was said that a mannequin - an exact replica - would be displayed but that on 'special occasions' VIPs would be 'provided the opportunities to see the real mummy'.
The chairman of the Union of National Cultures, Artem Ignatenko, also spoke out against a reburial. 'Now she is in decent place, she's treated respectfully, and her soul has calmed down,' he said. 'It simply does not make sense to do something with her body. People who want to bury her, are engaged in self-PR.'
Ukok mummy mausoleum

Mausoleum for Ukok princess
If the reburial will be approved it is planned to build a moument on the Ukok Plateau. Pictures: Spiritual Centre of the Turks Kin Altai
After the verdict at Gorno-Altaisk city court, Akai Kine said that state power including the interests of academic science and the judiciary had been pitted against him. He vowed to continue his fight to rebury the remains on the Ukok Plateau.
'We will to stop on this, our struggle continues. We will keep the filing the claims and lawsuits, demanding the reburial,' he said. 
After the mummy was removed from the burial site, archaeologists called in Moscow experts who had worked on preserving Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin's body to ensure that there was no further deterioration of the 'ice maiden's' remains.
Elders in the Altai republic had voted to rebury the remains and plans were build for a monument on the Ukok Plataeu. However, scientific research has found new and intriguing details about the ancient woman. 
For example in 2014 it was revealed after an MRI scan that the woman, believed to have been aged around 25 when she died, had suffered from breast cancer, while she is believed to have used cannabis for medical reasons to ease her suffering. 
Altai mummy MRI scan

Ukok mummy MRI scan

Ukok mummy MRI scan
Dr Andrey Letyagin: 'We are dealing with a primary tumour in the right breast and right axial lymph nodes with metastases.' Pictures: The Sberian Times, Andrey Letyagin
Studies of the mummified remains extraordinary advances in our understanding of her rich and ingenious Pazyryk culture. The tattoos on her skin are works of great skill and artistry, while her fashion and beauty secrets - from items found in her burial chamber which even included a 'cosmetics bag' - allow her impressive looks to be recreated more than two millennia after her death. 
It is believed that she was not in fact a royal but that her use of drugs to cope with the symptoms of her illnesses may have given her 'an altered state of mind', leading her kinsmen to the belief that she could communicate with the spirits. Her lavish grave suggests she was someone of singular importance. 
The MRI, conducted in Novosibirsk by eminent academics Andrey Letyagin and Andrey Savelov, showed  that the 'princess' suffered from osteomyelitis, an infection of the bone or bone marrow, from childhood or adolescence. Close to the end of her life, she was afflicted, too, by injuries consistent with a fall from a horse: but the experts also discovered evidence of breast cancer.
Tattoed 2,500 year old Siberian princess 'to be reburied to stop her posthumous anger which causes floods and earthquakes'

Tattoed 2,500 year old Siberian princess 'to be reburied to stop her posthumous anger which causes floods and earthquakes'

Tattoed 2,500 year old Siberian princess 'to be reburied to stop her posthumous anger which causes floods and earthquakes'

Princess Ukok

princess Ukok
Studies of the mummified remains extraordinary advances in our understanding of her rich and ingenious Pazyryk culture. Pictures: Alexander TyryshkinInstitute of Archeology and Ethnography, Siberian Branch of Russian Academy of Science
'When she was a little over 20 years old, she became ill with another serious disease - breast cancer. It painfully destroyed her' over perhaps five years, said a summary of the medical findings in 'Science First Hand' journal by archeologist Professor Natalia Polosmak, who first found these remarkable human remains in 1993. 
'During the imaging of mammary glands, we paid attention to their asymmetric structure and the varying asymmetry of the MR signal,' stated Dr Letyagin in his analysis. 'We are dealing with a primary tumour in the right breast and right axial lymph nodes with metastases.'
'The three first thoracic vertebrae showed a statistically significant decrease in MR signal and distortion of the contours, which may indicate the metastatic cancer process.' He concluded: 'I am quite sure of the diagnosis - she had cancer. 
'She was extremely emaciated. Given her rather high rank in society and the information scientists obtained studying mummies of elite Pazyryks, I do not have any other explanation of her state. Only cancer could have such an impact.' 

Friday, 29 January 2016

China completes renovation of historical courier station (Yam station)

China completes renovation of historical courier station
The 800-year-old courier station in North China's Hebei province. [Photo/IC]
The renovation of an 800-year-old courier station has been finished in North China's Hebei province, a local official said Friday.
Liu Zhimin, an official with the provincial cultural relics department, said repairs to the station's 22 ancient temples, shops and residential homes have been completed recently in the 2022 Winter Olympics co-host city of Zhangjiakou.
Jiming dak, over 100 kilometers from Beijing, originally served for letter carriers to change horses and rest when carrying imperial decrees from Beijing's Forbidden City to northwestern regions. It later developed into a town now known as Jimingyi, home to more than 1,000 residents.
The repair of the town wall was finished in 2011. Renovation work started in 2009 with an expected cost of 500 million yuan (around $81 million).
Jiming Courier Station was built in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) and continued to function until 1913, when the then government abandoned all courier stations in favor of modern post offices.
"The station represents Zhangjiakou's role as a traffic hub in the past, and the renovation will bring more tourists to the city," said Wu Zhengshan, 70, a local tourist guide.
The station was put on the country's national relics protection list in 2001.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Approaches Asian steppe history from a "within Asia" perspective, rather than a China-focused perspective

Inner Asia and the Spatial Politics of Empire

Archaeology, Mobility, and Culture Contact

by William Honeychurch

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Springer; 2015 edition (6 Nov. 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1493918141

  • Approaches Asian steppe history from a "within Asia" perspective, rather than a China-focused perspective
  • Uses theory of spatial politics and mobility along with archaeological evidence to create a comprehensive view of inner Asia
  • Analyzes the development of societies in pre-history inner Asia to comment on current socio-political conditions in inner Asia

This monograph uses the latest archaeological results from Mongolia and the surrounding areas of Inner Asia to propose a novel understanding of nomadic statehood, political economy, and the nature of interaction with ancient China. In contrast to the common view of the Eurasian steppe as a dependent periphery of Old World centers, this work views Inner Asia as a locus of enormous influence on neighboring civilizations, primarily through the development and transmission of diverse organizational models, technologies, and socio-political traditions. This work explores the spatial management of political relationships within the pastoral nomadic setting during the first millennium BCE and argues that a culture of mobility, horse-based transport, and long-distance networking promoted a unique variant of statehood. Although states of the eastern steppe were geographically large and hierarchical, these polities also relied on techniques of distributed authority, multiple centers, flexible structures, and ceremonialism to accommodate a largely mobile and dispersed populace. This expertise in “spatial politics” set the stage early on for the expansionistic success of later Asian empires under the Mongols and Manchus.
Inner Asia and the Spatial Politics of Empire brings a distinctly anthropological treatment to the prehistory of Mongolia and is the first major work to explore key issues in the archaeology of eastern Eurasia using a comparative framework. The monograph adds significantly to anthropological theory on interaction between states and outlying regions, the emergence of secondary complexity, and the growth of imperial traditions. Based on this approach, the window of Inner Asian prehistory offers a novel opportunity to investigate the varied ways that complex societies grow and the processes articulating adjacent societies in networks of mutual transformation.

The Cosmic Buddah in 3D

Body of Devotion: The Cosmic Buddha in 3D

Body of Devotion: The Cosmic Buddha in 3D
January 30, 2016 – December 2016
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
1050 Independence Ave., SW
Washington, DC
Location: Sublevel 3, S3 Gallery
Like all Buddhas (fully enlightened beings), the Cosmic Buddha, a life-size limestone figure of Vairochana, is wrapped in the simple robe of a monk. What makes this sixth-century Chinese object exceptional are the detailed narrative scenes that cover its surface, representing moments in the life of the Historical Buddha as well as the Realms of Existence, a symbolic map of the Buddhist world. With help from the Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office, the Cosmic Buddha also exists as a 3D model, enabling scholars to study the work as never before and providing worldwide access to this masterpiece of Buddhist sculpture. Body of Devotion is an interactive installation that explores not only the work itself, but also the evolving means and methods of studying sculpture, from rubbings and photographs to the technological possibilities of today.
From the site of the Smithsonian

“The Cosmic Buddha in 3D” Exhibition To Open Jan. 30

Sixth-Century Sculpture Highlighted Through New Technology in Interactive Exhibition
January 11, 2016

Related photos: 

Smithsonian X 3D - Cosmic Buddha (Buda cósmico)

Cosmic Buddha
Image courtesy of Smithsonian Digitization Program Office (Imagen proporcionada por la Oficina del Programa de Digitalización del Smithsonian)
Through cutting-edge digital technology, previously    hidden meanings of a masterpiece of ancient Chinese sculpture may now be accessed by museum visitors, students and scholars. A new interactive installation presents the original sixth-century work alongside the evolving methods used to study it—from rubbings and photographs to the technological possibilities of today. “Body of Devotion: The Cosmic Buddha in 3D” will be on view in the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Jan. 30–December 2016.
“The Cosmic Buddha,” an icon of the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art collection, has been 3-D imaged by the Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office, which uses a variety of tools to record and share unique Smithsonian treasures. The exhibition includes the ancient sculpture itself, ink rubbings, a digital flat map of the surface and touchscreen monitors that allow visitors to manipulate the digital images of the object and explore information about it. “Body of Devotion” offers a special opportunity to understand the ancient sculpture and evolving methods of research.
“3-D scanning is an amazing process that brings new details to light,” said Keith Wilson, Freer|Sackler curator of the exhibition. “I can continue adding findings to the digital model and easily share information with other researchers. The exhibition is a great opportunity to feature this compelling work and show how advances in digital technology open up channels to new research and information.”
The Sculpture   
In Chinese Buddhist art, the sixth century was a pivotal moment with theological debate and artistic transformation. During this dynamic period, the religion enjoyed both imperial patronage and popular support.
“The Cosmic Buddha” or “Vairochana,” a life-size headless limestone figure, is wrapped in the simple robe of a monk, but the garment is covered with incredibly complex illustrations of Buddhist stories. These low-relief images represent a symbolic map of the Buddhist world, including everything from the tortures of hell to enlightenment and paradise. When first created in north China, the scenes were probably embellished with paint, which would have made the subjects easier to discern.
“The Cosmic Buddha” was acquired by Carl Whiting Bishop, the museum’s first Chinese art curator, in 1923. He bought it in Beijing on Christmas Eve, and it has been an iconic object in the museum collections ever since.
Evolution of Research Methods
The low-relief narrative illustrations have made the work a challenge to study through the ages. Before being acquired by the Freer, scholars made rubbings of the sculpture’s surface using ink on paper, which gave stronger contrast to the inked elements against the white paper. This process, however, risked leaving ink stains on the surface of the artwork.
Now, 3-D scanning, along with a wide variety of digital tools, can be used to clarify the sculpture’s designs. Using a laser-arm scanner, the ancient work was scanned and its color recorded through more than 300 photographs of the work. The combined surface and color data creates a 3-D model made of 20 million triangles.
This digitized model now available on the Smithsonian X 3D website offers users the ability to study the work in unprecedented detail and provides worldwide access to anyone interested in this masterpiece of Buddhist sculpture. The website includes a tour functionality, allowing Freer|Sackler curators and conservators to use the 3-D data as a starting point for exploring various aspects of this sculpture, including information on what it looked like when it was first created and how it has been conserved since. This digital data may also be used to replicate the sculpture through 3-D printing.
“3-D imaging is a non-invasive method, and it has the added benefits of capturing a great depth of information and allowing broad access to treasures without the risk of harm to the object,” said Günter Waibel, director of the Digitization Program Office.
“The Cosmic Buddha” is at the forefront of the pioneering digital work underway at the Freer and Sackler galleries. They have made digital images of their entire collections available online since January 2015 providing unprecedented access to one of the world’s most important holdings of Asian and American art. The free public resource—called “Open F|S”—can be visited at, allowing anyone to explore and create with the collections from anywhere in the world. The vast majority of the 40,000 artworks have never before been seen by the public, and more than 90 percent of the images will be in high-resolution and without copyright restrictions for non-commercial use. The Freer and Sackler galleries are the first Smithsonian and the only Asian art museums to digitize and release their entire collections, and in so doing, join just a handful of museums in the U.S.
About the Freer and Sackler Galleries
The Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., together comprise the nation’s museum of Asian art. It contains one of the most important collections of Asian art in the world, featuring more than 40,000 objects ranging in time from the Neolithic to the present day, with especially fine groupings of Islamic art, Chinese jades, bronzes and paintings and the art of the ancient Near East. The galleries also contain important masterworks from Japan, ancient Egypt, South and Southeast Asia and Korea, as well as the Freer’s noted collection of works by American artist James McNeill Whistler. The Freer Gallery of Art, which will be closed during the exhibition, is scheduled to reopen in spring 2017 with modernized technology and infrastructure, refreshed gallery spaces and an enhanced Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Auditorium.
About Smithsonian Digitalization
The Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office helps integrate digitization into the core functions of the Smithsonian. With 138 million objects and specimens, 157,000 cubic feet of archival materials and 2 million library volumes housed in 41 facilities, 19 museums and nine research centers, the scale and diversity of Smithsonian collections presents a unique digitization challenge. The DPO establishes metrics that track digitization progress across the Smithsonian, runs mass digitization projects to cost-effectively image entire collections and uses 3-D digitization to bring iconic Smithsonian collection objects to the world.