UChicago institute helps reassemble ancient, rare art from first to 6th centuries

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The ceramic buddha statue are beautiful, by all accounts. First excavated by French archaeologists in the 1930s, and spanning 500 years of Afghanistan’s history between the first and sixth centuries A.D., they are an example of a rare art form unique to the region, often called the Gandharan style. Some stand alone and others in tableaus, ranging from life-size to others that can fit in the palm of a hand. But the task of reconstructing them is more than a puzzle.

The materials these ancient artisans used were primarily limestone, schist and stucco—which tend to crumble and disintegrate under duress, rather than simply crack. “It’s more like trying to assemble pieces from 30 different jigsaw puzzles that have all been dumped together—without the pictures from the boxes,” said Gil Stein, professor at the Oriental Institute and a leading expert on the rise of social complexity in the ancient Near East.

Stein heads the project, which is part of the OI’s ongoing work with the National Museum of Afghanistan Cultural Preservation Partnership. Begun in 2012, the partnership has helped restore the museum’s infrastructure, including developing a bilingual database to document the first full inventory of the museum’s collections, as well as training conservators in the latest techniques for preserving and restoring objects.

The collection is largely from the Hadda monasteries located in northwestern Afghanistan, near the modern-day city of Jalalabad. The region’s warm climate fosters citrus and pomegranate trees and helped it blossom as a center of trade on the Silk Road for centuries—thus its art influenced by both East and West.

‘The big puzzle’

Alejandro Gallego López, the OI’s field director in Afghanistan, explained the process of restoring the white marble buddha statue. First is to assess the collection—identifying and classifying features, such as archaeological motifs, and visible parts of bodies, like legs, heads or arms. This census can help them estimate how many objects there were originally (they think it was between 350 and 500).
 
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