Chemistry Reveals the Story of an Ancient Dancing Horse Sculpture | Smart Messages

An X-ray of dancing horse Earthenware sculpture dating from 608 to 907 AD during the Tang Dynasty of China
Cincinnati Art Museum / Gift of Carl and Eleanor Strauss, 1997.53

A curator and a chemist work together to uncover the mysteries of an ancient Chinese horse sculpture at the Cincinnati Art Museum. When the curator questioned whether a decorative tassel on the horse’s forehead was an original of the artwork, the museum brought in a team of scholars to help analyze the piece.

The earthenware horse sculpture dates to between 608 and 907 AD during China’s Tang Dynasty. During the reign of Emperor Xuanzong in the 8th century, horses became a symbol of prosperity across the country, he writes IFLScience Kathie Spalding.

A stoneware sculpture of a horse with one hoof in the air and decorative tassels on the body and one on the forehead.

The sculpture dancing horse dates from the Chinese Tang Dynasty between 608 and 907 AD. It is made of earthenware with pigments.

Cincinnati Art Museum / Gift of Carl and Eleanor Strauss, 1997.53

Emperor Xuanzong owned more than 40,000 horses, Hou-mei Sung, curator of East Asian art at the Cincinnati Art Museum, said in a press release. The horses were taught to dance or follow the beat of a drum, and sculptures were made of them to be buried with kings after they died, Sung says.

This particular horse sculpture has been in the Cincinnati Museum since 1997. She is 26.5 inches tall and appears to be standing mid-dance with one hoof held up. Ten cone-shaped ornamental tassels are attached to its body, which are the same reddish color as the horse’s tail and mane.

But one of those tassels was in an unusual place—on the horse’s forehead, just below its mane. Sung says in the press release that she has seen many dancing horse sculptures, but none of the others had a forehead tassel.

“I believed it was a mistake. The tassel wasn’t in the right position,” she says in the press release. “These pieces are so old. They often go through many repairs.”

To determine the provenance and authenticity of the tassel, the museum allowed University of Cincinnati chemist Pietro Strobbia and other researchers to take a closer look. “Many museums have a conservator, but not necessarily scientific facilities needed for this type of investigation,” Strobbia says in the press release. “The forehead tassel looks original, but the museum asked us to determine what materials it was made from.”

Researchers in a lab pointing at a laptop screen

Chemists Pietro Strobbia (left) and Lyndsay Kissel (right) from the University of Cincinnati. Researchers used molecular, chemical, and mineralogical tests to examine samples of the horse sculpture.

Andrew Higley / University of Cincinnati Marketing + Brand

The researchers used a drill to collect 11 tiny powder samples from different parts of the horse, each weighing just a few milligrams, the authors write Washington Post‘s Erin Blakemore. One technique used to study the samples was powder X-ray diffraction, in which the scientists measured how the powder diffracted an X-ray beam, revealing the composition of the sample. The researchers also used Raman spectroscopy, which measured how a laser beam scatters when it hits the powder post.

Analysis revealed that Sung’s assumption seemed correct: the tassel was made of plaster, not earthenware, and so was probably not original to the piece. It had been added to the sculpture with animal glue. Two other tassels on the horse’s body were also said to be non-original IFLScience.

The researchers published their findings in the journal in August science of heritage. Based on the research, the museum decided to remove the forehead jewelry post.

The results also indicated that the sculpture had been restored several times. Three other tassels showed signs of repairs, and X-rays showed fractures inside the statue, with dowel rods being placed around the neck, legs, and tail to hold it together.

“It has been restored at least twice in its lifetime,” says Kelly Rectenwald, the paper’s co-author and associate object conservator at the Cincinnati Art Museum, in the press release. “It’s really interesting to find something new about a work of art.”

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