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8th of January 2020
ATNF Colloquium
From Astronomy to the use of machine learning to analyse Buddhist cave paintings along the Silk Road
Haida Liang (Nottingham Trent University)
Abstract: The world heritage site of Mogao caves, along the ancient Silk Road, consists of 492 richly painted Buddhist cave temples dating from the 4th - 14th century. Cave 465 at the northern end of the site is unique in its Indo-Tibetan tantric Buddhist style, and like many other caves, its date of construction is still under debate. The geopolitics of a historical period determines the accessibility of artistic materials through trade and the likelihood of technological and cultural exchanges through communication. To resolve a long-standing debate on the date of Cave 465, ranging from the Tibetan period in the 9th century, the early Tangut period in the 11th century to the Mongol/Yuan period in the 13th/14th century, the painting materials were analysed. Automatic remote reflectance spectral imaging of large painted areas in high resolution, from distances of tens of meters, a concept borrowed from Astronomy, has made the imaging of entire architectural interior feasible. However, it has significantly increased the volume of data. Here we present a machine learning based method to automatically detect ‘hidden’ writings and cluster the data into a materials cluster map. Each spectral cluster was then analysed with non-invasive complementary spectroscopic techniques for material identification. The date was narrowed down to late 12th century to 13th century based on the material combination, paleographic analysis of the revealed Sanskrit writings and archaeological evidence. This study demonstrates a holistic interdisciplinary approach which can be applied to all painted architectural interiors in the future.

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