Art meets science in an analysis of an ancient dancing horse statue

1,300 years old Sculpture The Dancing Horse – a priceless relic from China’s Tang Dynasty – captures an ancient tradition of trained horses performing for emperors.

But curators at the Cincinnati Art Museum were unimpressed by one feature of the 8th-century lifelike statue: the tassel on the forehead, which they suspected was not original.

How to investigate without harming precious art?

Scientists helped discover it.

The artist’s stone mosaics are a life-size homage to the Renaissance anatomist

Sophisticated analytical techniques helped solve the mystery—and revealed more about the material’s history.

To get answers, conservators must agree to give up some of the irreplaceable 26-inch pieces of art in the name of science. An international team of researchers examined 11 tiny perforated samples weighing just a few milligrams. Samples taken from different sites on the terracotta horse were subjected to a battery of different tests.

By analyzing everything from the samples’ chemistry to their molecular makeup, the scientists made the most of the tiny piles of powder.

One technique, X-ray powder diffraction, studies how an X-ray behaves when it is trained on a mineral or other material that has been ground into a powder. Different materials bend rays in different ways, and the technique can help identify mixtures of materials or the makeup of very small samples.

Other techniques include Raman spectroscopy, which looks at how light from a laser beam scatters when it hits a sample.

Researchers describe them Investigation In the journal Heritage Science.

The tassel isn’t made from terracotta, scientists have learned — it’s plaster pasted with animal glue. Other tassels on the horse’s saddles revealed evidence of repair over generations.

Eventually, it was discovered that the tassel was not original, leading the museum to remove it.

This study will help keepers better decide how to keep the horse in good condition. In a message liberationPietro Strobia, an assistant chemistry professor at the University of Cincinnati who led the research, says he will continue to study the material for museums across the Midwest.

There will be other depictions of horses throughout the recovered statue and China’s long history display Opens October 7 at the museum.

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