Archaeologists Work to Save Chinese Site With Christian Traces
by Chicago Tribune

Posted: Wednesday, February 07, 2001 12:02 pm CST

DUNHUANG, China (Chicago Tribune) - Eleven years ago, while excavating a meditation cave in the northern part of Dunhuang's Mogao Grottoes complex, archeologist Peng Jinzhang made an exciting and puzzling discovery: four beautifully preserved pages of white-linen paper filled with a script he could not identify.

Scholars at Beijing University helped him solve the mystery.

The language was Syriac, and the pages were from the Psalms in the New Testament.

Passing through this oasis town eight centuries ago, Marco Polo may have met the owner of this Syriac Bible, dated to the Yuan Dynasty. "The people are for the most part idolaters, but there are also some Nestorian Christians and Saracens," he wrote in his "Travels."

Peng's find confirms that Christians did indeed live, pray and die in Dunhuang's Mogao Grottoes--one of Buddhism's most hallowed sanctuaries and an unparalleled repository for the cultures and creeds that funneled into the Silk Road here on China's doorstep.

The Syriac Bible find, announced recently, is only one of several illuminating discoveries made by Peng and his team during their six-year excavation of the northern part of the Mogao Grottoes.

The grottoes are a complex of 750 caves carved out of the sandstone cliffs along the Daquan River 15 miles southeast of Dunhuang in China's Gansu province.

Among the 243 excavated caves--the monks' living quarters and meditation and burial chambers--the team found movable wooden type for the Uyghur language, unique documents, Persian silver coins and countless other artifacts.

"Our work confirms that the Mogao Grottoes was an integrated complex, where monks lived as well as prayed and studied," said Wang Jianjun, a member of the archeological team.

Founded in the 4th Century A.D., the Buddhist cave temples at Mogao flourished for a thousand years as a haven for Buddhism, scholarship, meditation and artistic creativity. They were abandoned when the Chinese withdrew their garrisons in 1372 after the maritime route proved itself more reliable than the Silk Road.

In 1900, Taoist priest Wang Yuanlu stumbled upon the famous Hidden Library, where some 50,000 artifacts, including the Diamond Sutra, the earliest-dated printed book known, had lain untouched for hundreds of years.

In 1907, British-Hungarian archeologist Aurel Stein arrived in Dunhuang. Paying Wang only four silver pieces, Stein carted off thousands of manuscripts, silk scroll paintings and other artifacts that are housed in the British Museum, the British Library and the National Museum in New Delhi.

French, American, Japanese and Russian explorers followed.

By the 1930s, what remained at Mogao were 2,000 Buddhist sculptures and the caves' murals, which depict daily life, trade, customs, legends and sutras covering a span of 800 years.

Today, the Mogao Grottoes are the mainstay of Dunhuang's economy, attracting thousands of visitors to this remote outpost at the western end of the Great Wall each year, as well as the locus for an esoteric, thriving field of scholarship.

In the 1960s, the eroding cliff face was reinforced with an unbecoming but functional concrete facade. In 1987, the Mogao Grottoes was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

For the past decade, an international team of experts, led by the Dunhuang Reseach Academy in cooperation with the Getty Conservation Institute and other organizations, has been trying to save the caves' wondrous paintings.

A 3-mile-long windbreak fence has reduced by 60 percent the amount of sand blown over the cliff's face. Iron doors have been installed in all the caves to reduce dust and humidity. Up on the cliff, a solar-powered meteorological station records basic weather data, while substations in selected caves record information.

Other work focuses on documenting the paintings, analyzing the color pigments, understanding the reasons for their deterioration, and developing new materials and techniques to preserve them.

In one Tang Dynasty cave that has 16 illustrated sutras, Japanese tissue paper temporarily is being used to hold the flaking paint in place until a permanent solution is developed.

Nearby, a technician from Osaka University is measuring the underlying rock's moisture content, while an international group of experts huddles to examine the results of a thermography test, which identifies detachments in the plaster through the measurement of minute temperature differences.

"These paintings deserve the same kind of attention and preservation as a Rembrandt or a da Vinci. And they are much more threatened than paintings on canvas," says Neville Agnew, a conservation scientist from the Getty Conservation Institute.

Humidity and salt that leeches from the underlying rock are the main culprits in the deterioration and flaking of the murals. As Agnew and his colleagues race against an unforgiving clock to preserve this unique historical record, they face another foe.

The thousands of tourists from China and the rest of world who make their way to Mogao every year, bringing much-needed cash to the region, also pose a growing threat to the paintings.

Because of the deleterious effect of too many visitors, a standard tour of the Mogao Grottoes is restricted to brief visits to a few caves.

The conservationists are devising ways to light the murals without causing further damage, and in the adjacent museum, several well-made reproductions allow visitors to contemplate the murals' intricate, multifarious artwork at a more leisurely pace.

While the conservation work at the Mogao Grottoes is one of China's most successful international collaborations in this field, the dispersal of the Hidden Library's manuscripts around the globe, and their restitution to China, remains a controversial issue.

"From a moral point of view, the artifacts should be returned. The Chinese government should, at the appropriate time, through the appropriate legal and diplomatic channels, try to retrieve the artifacts," said Rong Xinjiang, a Dunhuang expert at Beijing University.

At the same, however, the dispersal of these treasures has turned Dunhuang studies into a global endeavor, with scholars from many countries laboring hours on end in musty libraries to decipher and interpret the manuscripts.

Written in rare, dead languages ranging from Tangut to Runic Turkic, the manuscripts deal with a gamut of concerns, including historical records, Buddhist sutras, Taoist tracts and medical treatises, calendars, astronomical charts, literature, poetry, folk songs, real estate deals, and even the model for an apology from a drunken guest to his host.

Prompted by the desire to see all Dunhuang artifacts in one place, the International Dunhuang Project was launched in 1993 at the behest of the British Library, and the treasures from the Hidden Library are now being made available through the project's Web site,

The Mellon Foundation also is spending $3 million to reunite a selection of the treasures from Mogao in cyberspace.

"The comprehensiveness of Dunhuang is its most outstanding feature: 800 years of pictorial history," says Dr. Sarah Fraser, an art historian at Northwestern University who heads the Mellon Foundation's project and who has studied the relationship between the sketch books found in the Hidden Library and the finished murals.

The Silk Road region where Marco Polo traveled is rich in many peoples' heritage.

If you have any related information or suggestions, please email them.
Atour: The State of Assyria. Terms of Use.