Dunhuang, China Cave 85, Detail
Dunhuang, China Cave 85, Detail

For a thousand years, merchants and pilgrims travelling the Silk Road made the short detour from the thriving oasis town of Dunhuang to offer prayers at the extraordinary Mogao grottoes, the 'Caves of the Thousand Buddhas’. Dunhuang marks the eastern end of the most arduous stretch of the caravan route, where the two 800-kilometre roads skirting the northern and southern fringes of the unforgiving Taklamakan Desert begin for the western-bound traveller and end for the eastern-bound. Accordingly, prayers of supplication or thanksgiving were offered up to the Buddhist pantheon painted and sculpted in the myriad caves. This fabulous site flourished from the 4th century, reached its apex of magnificence under the Tang emperors in the 7th and 8th centuries, and then fell into gradual decline and eventual abandonment from the 14th century.

Despite five centuries of neglect and the ravages of the unremitting desert, 45,000 m2 of wall painting and 2,000 painted sculptures survive in nearly 500 rock-cut caves that extend a kilometre along the rugged cliff face. Perhaps equally remarkable was the discovery in 1900 by the self-appointed abbot, Wang Yuanlu, of a cache of tens of thousands of manuscripts and paintings in a hidden chamber that had been blocked up, plastered and painted over about the year 1000.

After an initial Hungarian expedition in 1879, a race began among westerners to explore the site and take away the treasures. Among the earliest to arrive was the Anglo-Hungarian Aurel Stein in 1907. He persuaded Wang Yuanlu to sell him 24 cases of manuscripts and paintings, now in the British Library. His French competitor Paul Pelliot — who had the advantage of being able to read Chinese — fared even better in 1908. Having scanned all the remaining manuscripts (apparently at the rate of about 1,000 a day), he selected the most important, arranged their purchase (for about £90), and sent them of to Paris. In 1909 the Chinese authorities clamped down, and what remained of the original 50,000 objects was sent to Beijing.

With the portable treasures safely out of the way, at Mogao the westerners then sought to cart away the 'immovable’ art, as they had already done with impunity at Kizil, where the painted caves remain mutilated by their pillaging. In 1924 the American art historian Langdon Warner detached 20 areas of wall painting and a statue and took them back to the Fogg Art Museum. But the tide was turning and subsequent forays by westerners were repulsed by the Chinese.

All this is history. With the establishment in 1944 of the Dunhuang Academy, the protection, study and conservation of the Mogao grottoes was assured. They were listed as a cultural treasure by the Chinese government in 1961 and in 1987 inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

In 1988 the Getty Conservation Institute and the Dunhuang Academy (under the State Administration for Cultural Heritage) began a major collaborative project that aims to approach the conservation of the site as a whole and focuses on preserving its multiple values — historic, artistic, religious, social, and landscape. It has been developed in parallel with the China Principles project, a joint initiative of the Chinese government, the GCI, and the Australian Heritage Commission to develop and promote guidelines for conservation and management of China’s cultural heritage sites. Leading both these projects for the GCI is Dr. Neville Agnew, whose experience in site conservation spans several continents.

At Mogao, this holistic approach encompasses values assessment, site management, and a preference for addressing causes rather than symptoms of deterioration — a daunting task when the desert constantly storms sand, rain and even snow down the friable cliff face. The first projects executed were designed to address precisely such problems, and included a four-kilometre 'wind fence’ to intercept much of the 3,000 m3 of sand that blows off the desert plateau each year, eroding the cliff face. Gradually this fence will be superseded by the parallel 'living fence’, composed of a variety of desert-hardy plants that after only 10 years provide a rich habitat for wildlife.

In addition to such ambitious preventive conservation measures, one cave — Cave 85 — is being conserved as a demonstration of current methods of interdisciplinary conservation. This magnificent cave, commissioned in 862, is typical in the complexity of the original technique, including multiple layers of earthen plaster and a wide range of pigments and organic glazes. It is also typical in its present condition, with widespread salt deterioration, large losses back to the weak conglomerate rock, flaking, blistering, and pigment alterations and typical in its past conservation that here — as in the West — focussed on surface treatments that tended to conceal rather than solve the underlying problems.

And the Courtauld on the Silk Road? Of the four professionally qualified wall painting conservators participating in the conservation of Cave 85, all were educated at the Courtauld: Francesca Piqué, Zheng Jun, Lisa Shekede and Stephen Rickerby.

A Florentine, Francesca Piqué of the GCI, who heads the conservation team for Cave 85, was exposed to both mural painting and conservation from an early age. After studying chemistry at the University of Florence, she came to the Courtauld and completed the postgraduate diploma in 1991. She followed this with a Courtauld MSc in 1992 on the sculptural polychromy of Yungang (the other main Buddhist site in China), undertaken partly at the GCI, where she has remained as Project Specialist for wall paintings and mosaics, supervising programmes as far afield as Benin and Prague.

On the initiative of Professor Roderick Whitfield of SOAS, the Chinese government selected one of its national conservators, Zheng Jun, to undertake the 1991-94 Courtauld course, with generous funding from the Society of Antiquaries of London. Also a chemist by training, he returned to his post in Beijing in 1994 and has since been active throughout China, vetting and supervising mural painting conservation programmes at sites listed on the national register.

Lisa Shekede undertook all her education at the Courtauld. Following her BA, she completed the wall painting course in 1994. After research in the field of laser applications in conservation, she returned to her long-term interest — earthen materials — for her 1997 MA. Active as a private conservator based in London, her expertise in this field has taken her to Egypt and Mexico as well as China, and she is also currently joint supervisor of Courtauld conservation programmes in Malta and Cyprus.

Stephen Rickerby’s involvement in GCI projects extends back to 1987 when, as a postgraduate student at the Courtauld, he first worked on tomb paintings in Egypt. He has since divided his time between Getty projects in Benin, Egypt, China and Los Angeles, private work in England, and supervising Courtauld conservation projects from Winchester Cathedral to Ibiza. In a recent year he spent all but five weeks on site. Although Stephen hangs his hat in London, it is rarely there.

Sharon Cather Department of Conservation of Wall Painting

Further Information

For the story of the site, its art and their conservation, see the lavishly illustrated recent publication: R. Whitfield, S. Whitfield and N. Agnew, Cave Temples of Mogao: Art and History on the Silk Road, Getty Conservation Institute, Los Angeles, 2000 [published simultaneously by the British Library as Cave Temples of Dunhuang]. On the Mogao Grottoes project see http://www.getty.edu/conservation/activities/mogao/ , and for the China Principles project http://www.getty.edu/conservation/activities/china/