Caretakers are turning to computers to save the frescoes of
China's Dunhuang caves on the ancient Silk Road from half a million
tourists a year, the Bloomberg reported.
Officials will scan 45,000 square meters (54,000 square yards)
of frescoes, or about the area of 10 football fields, and 3,390
Buddhist statues. The images will form a virtual-reality tour for
visitors to see before they enter the grottoes. The project, a
collaboration with the Mellon Institute in Pittsburgh, may take
five years to record the first 20 of 492 caves, said Fan Jinshi,
director of the Dunhuang Research Institute.
"Because tourists must use flashlights when they enter the
grottoes, they get vague impressions of what they see,'' Fan said.
"The digital displays give them a better-informed tour and save
them the trek to caves they're not interested in.''
Reducing the time visitors spend inside the caves helps cut the
levels of carbon dioxide and moisture, emissions that break down
the delicate dye-on-plaster of the murals and statues.
Dunhuang was a trade hub on the Silk Road during the Sui Dynasty
(AD 581-618) and Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), when caravans bearing
Chinese tea and silk for Persia and Europe stopped at its oases.
The area was also a religious center, where the aesthetics of
Buddhism, Islam, Tibetan sects, Sogdian and Tangut cultures were
displayed in clay sculptures and cave murals.
Construction of the caves began in the fourth century by a monk
called Yuezun and continued until the 14th century. The earliest of
Dunhuang's grottoes at Mogao date to the Northern Liang period
(366-439). One of the largest caves features a 26- meter (85-feet)
sitting Buddha made during the Tang Dynasty.
Tourists are not the only threat to the relics. Caretakers have
been working since 1989 with Los Angeles-based Getty Research
Institute to preserve 16 large sutras in cave 85, a chamber
commissioned in 867 depicting the life stories of King Divi before
he reached enlightenment to become the Buddha.
The murals, painted in mineral and plant dye over plaster, have
been peeling away from their bedrock because of increasing moisture
and mineral salts that crystallize from seeping rain water, Fan
said in the April 30 interview.
There are a total of 812 caves along a 1.7 kilometer (1 mile) of
cliff face, hewn into the sandstone of the Mingsha Mountains in the
Gobi desert. The Mogao caves were designated in 1991 as a World
Cultural Heritage Site by the United Nations Education, Scientific
and Cultural Organization. Tourists to Mogao reached 550,000 last
year, from about 200,000 in 1998.
"I'm sure we'll easily top the 2006 numbers this year,'' said
Fan, 68. "The number of visitors jumped especially after 1998, with
improved highways, faster trains and a larger airport in
Some efforts already are under way to regulate visitor numbers
to Dunhuang. Caretakers open as many as 80 caves to tourists during
the peak season from July to September, leaving 30 caves opened
during the rest of the year. Tour operators must reserve in advance
and follow designated routes, she said.
The Dunhuang digital archive will include images from the caves
as well as frescoes and scriptures from the area that now reside in
the world's museums, including the British Library.
The new technology "will allow a clearer view of every detail of
the frescoes before you pick your route through the grottoes," Fan
said. "It lets us preserve while allowing access."
(Agencies via CRI.cn May 31, 2007)