True colors. This artist's conception shows how the Bamiyan Buddhas may have appeared after their construction in the 6th century C.E.

Arnold Metzinger

Destroyed Buddhas Reveal Their True Colors

Ten years ago tomorrow, the Taliban began to systematically destroy the great Bamiyan Buddhas of Afghanistan—two giant statues that watched over the Bamiyan Valley for 1500 years. Now, extensive studies of the rubble have revealed new details about the creation and appearance of these statues, including their original colors.

Bamiyan was an important monastic complex at a time when Buddhism began to spread from India and Pakistan into Central Asia and China. But dating the massive statues—38 and 55 meters high, respectively—that were carved into the sandstone cliffs has proved problematic. Based on the style of the robes, art historians have long believed the monuments were made as early as the 3rd century C.E.

But the new analysis indicates that they were made a few hundred years after this. Drawing on organic material in the clay layers in the rubble of the destroyed Buddhas, a team led by Erwin Emmerling of the Technical University of Munich in Germany used mass spectrometry analysis to date the smaller Buddha to between 544 C.E. and 595 C.E. and the larger Buddha to between 591 C.E. and 644 C.E. These later dates may show that the complex remained vibrant longer than scholars once thought, even after the advent of Islam in Afghanistan starting in the 7th century C.E.

Early travelers, including Chinese monks, described the Buddhas as painted, one red and one white, according to an 11th century visitor. But material evidence was lacking until Emmerling's team analyzed the remains. "The Buddhas once had an intensely colorful appearance," he said in a statement. And he adds that they were painted over several times. The outer robes on one were pink and later orange on the outside, with a pale blue lining, whereas the other was white. The researchers also found "an astonishing degree of artistic skill" in fashioning the statues, which were carved from the rock but had garments made out of clay as smooth as porcelain, Emmerling says. Straw, chaff, animal hair, and quartz were part of the mixture that protected and strengthened the clay material, as did ropes attached to wooden pegs at the bottom layer. "These have survived not only nearly 1500 years of history but even the explosion in some parts," adds Emmerling.

Smaller fragments are now stored in warehouses in the Bamiyan Valley, and larger pieces remain at the bottom of the niches, covered in tarps. But Emmerling warns that the porous sandstone, now exposed to the air, may crumble within a few years. His team suggests that at least the smaller Buddha might be partially rebuilt with existing fragments injected with a synthetic material designed to halt weathering. Those fragments—more than 1000—would have to be sent to Germany for treatment, and Emmerling declines to say what such an effort would cost.

There appears, however, to be little support for reconstruction. Tomorrow in Paris, a team of United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) experts will meet to commemorate the disaster and hear the team's results. But Brendan Cassar, a UNESCO representative in Kabul who is attending the meeting, says that the focus at Bamiyan remains on stabilizing the niches and on preparing a modest open-air museum at the site rather than reconstructing the statues.