The murals—and the remains of two giant, destroyed Buddhas—include the world's oldest known oil-based paint, predating European uses of the substance by at least a hundred years, scientists announced late last month.Researchers made the discovery while conducting a chemical analysis as part of preservation and restoration efforts at Bamian, which lies about 145 miles (240 kilometers) northwest of the Afghan capital, Kabul. researchers have been working to preserve the damaged murals.The team plans to conduct limited excavations and search for additional archaeological sites nearby.But for now they have kept the site's exact location secret to prevent disturbances to the fragile artwork.A full expedition of scientists, art experts, and climbers from the U.S., Italy, and Nepal then climbed high into Nepal's mountainous Mustang area, some 250 kilometers (160 miles) northwest of Kathmandu, locating the caves in March (map of Nepal).It took ice axes and skillful mountaineering to clear a path to the caverns—set in a sheer 14,000-foot (4,300-meter) rock face in the Himalaya.But the results were more than worth it, experts say.
"The discovery of the use of oil [in Afghanistan] is important, because it shows that these undervalued paintings are far more important and far more sophisticated than anyone might have thought," said Sharon Cather, a wall-painting expert from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London.Europeans began using oil in their pictures by about 800 A.D., but the new research on the Central Asian pushes back the onset of oil-based painting by at least a hundred years.In the meantime there's still a lot of work to be done on the artifacts collected so far. When were they there, when were [the caves] first excavated, and how did the residents access them, perched as they are on vertical cliffs? "It's a compelling, marvelous mystery." —Aalok Mehta 6, 2008—A newly discovered mural is one of many in 12 of Afghanistan's famed Bamian caves that show evidence of an oil-based binder.
The binder was used to dry paint and help it adhere to rocky surfaces.
Scientists from around the world have since embarked on a painstaking process to collect the remnants of the dynamited statues and reconstruct them.