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Digital Dunhuang: how cutting-edge cameras are preserving ancient art

Picture yourself a fourth-century trader, traveling the Silk Road through northwestern China, waves of buffeting, blinding sand whipping off the dunes. Suddenly, you’re upon an oasis unlike any other in the world. Statues, paintings, ornaments, and manuscripts decorated with cultural influences from Beijing to Aleppo bedeck the Buddhist caves of Dunhuang, a gem of ancient heritage situated in the western reaches of the Hexi Corridor, in China’s Gansu province.

Constructed from the fourth to the fourteenth centuries, Dunhuang held a strategic position on the Silk Road for more than two thousand years. It is home to the Mogao Caves (or grottoes), a World Heritage Site unlike any other cave site in the world. At 1,680 meters long, it boasts 735 caves housing more than 2,000 painted sculptures and some 45,000 square meters of superbly decorated wall paintings.

"The Mogao Caves are a rare treasure of culture and art in China. This treasure, however, faces two serious threats: natural disasters and human destruction,” says Jinshi Fan, director of Dunhuang Academy. “Cultural relics are neither renewable nor everlasting. However, with the aid of new technologies, they have the chance to exist for future generations.”

Gang Chen, engineer from Microsoft Research Asia, captures Mogao Cave’s statues with a gigapixle camera Gang Chen, engineer from Microsoft Research Asia, captures Mogao Cave’s statues with a gigapixle camera

Vulnerable to the elements, the caves, statues, murals, manuscripts, and artifacts at the Mogao Caves are under threat. Furthermore, human contact—which has increased in recent years due to Mogao’s reputation for historical significance—also ironically accelerates deterioration. This is where Microsoft Research Asia comes in.

On July 17, 2013, researchers from Microsoft Research Asia, members of the Dunhuang Academy, and the Dunhuang Foundation gathered in Seattle, Washington, to share the beauty and significance of the Mogao Caves and discuss efforts underway to protect them. Microsoft Research Asia hopes to promote the use of cutting-edge technology to protect historical relics and sites. Microsoft Research Asia developed a gigapixel camera to capture large-format images of such high resolution as to show details invisible to the naked eye. The highly-detailed images allow scholars to preserve these valuable cultural artifacts, giving future generations the opportunity to appreciate and learn about a fascinating time in human history. The camera is called the Apsara, named for the female spirit of the clouds and waters in Buddhist and Hindu mythology and famously featured in the Mogao Caves.

“We have been tirelessly devoted to preserving Dunhuang,” says Xudong Wang, vice director of Dunhuang Academy. “Thanks to Microsoft Research, our wishes have come true.”

The Apsara features advanced hardware and software that was specially designed for museums and cultural heritage sites. It is able to capture many different focus points and stack them, which is especially useful for non-two-dimensional subjects, like Mogao Caves’ frescoes and statues.

Dunhuang will continue to benefit from Microsoft Research’s advanced technologies in the years to come, and Microsoft Research Asia’s efforts to create a “Digital Dunhuang” will preserve its beauty, digitally, for future generations. The caves themselves have withstood the ravages of time for a millennium, but what about the next thousand years? “We have made some measures to repair murals and sculptures, building detection and warning systems and a visitor center,” says Xudong Wang. “But the fragile murals continue to fade irreversibly. Protection of the Dunhuang Grottoes continues to face serious challenges.”

These caves join other World Heritage Sites as key examples of human ingenuity, creativity, and cultural exchange from which we can learn, enjoy, and draw inspiration. Digital preservation represents only one element of making sure these sites are able to fulfill their capacities to contribute to human understanding. Their physical restoration and protection remain vital requirements to preserve them for future generations.

To learn more about our work and the Mogao Caves, please visit UNESCO World Heritage, The Friends of Dunhuang, and watch the Microsoft Research video presentation.