Daily Video

July 12, 2011

Science Meets Chinese Art in Ancient Cave Mystery

Located in a remote area of northern China, the Xiangtangshan caves once contained shrines to religious figures called Buddhas and Bodhisattvas,containing statues and carvings that date back more than 2500 years. Over the years, however, the caves were repeatedly looted and many of the pieces were lost or ended up in different private collections across the world.

In 2004, a team from the University of Chicago (with cooperation from another team from Peking University), used advanced imaging technology to photograph and scan the caves, along with over 100 artifacts that were believed to be from Xiangtangshan. The scans captured details that allowed researchers to match the pieces with the cave, and allowed them to digitally recreate the original structure.

Now, an exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. has re-created the cave as put together by researchers, who meticulously scanned each item and researched where it used to sit in the cave. The re-creation is likely the only way to see the cave as it originally stood, because art historians say it would be too difficult to find and send all of the looted items back to China and place them in their original locations.

“The digital cave allows us to see these elements back in place,” says Keith Wilson, the curator of ancient Chinese art at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of Art.

Quotes

“All of a sudden, these objects that were created as religious icons and really seen by many Westerners in the 19th century as idols or icons of religious worship, all of a sudden, these were considered fine art.” – Keith Wilson, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of Art

Warm Up Questions

1. What is your definition of art?

2. What is religious art?

3. What part of the world is China in? What do you know about art and religion in that part of the world?

Discussion Questions

1. According to the museum curator in the video, why were the caves at Xiangtangshan looted? Do you think religious icons should be considered art? Why or why not?

2. Why is it important to re-create this cave? What can scientists and historians learn from doing so?

3. Why is art valuable?

Additional Resources

Video Transcript

The Art of Economics or the Economics of Art

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