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Reconstructive archaeology and conservation of mural painting for the restoration of their past glory

Numerous mural paintings of highly significant historical values across Thailand are suffering rapid and severe deterioration as a result of high level of humidity, wall dampness due to seepage of underground water, roof leaks, and subsidence cracks due to aging building materials and obsolete construction techniques.

Conservation of priceless mural paintings that are considered national art heritages requires the use of the correct traditional art techniques previously employed to create such works to copy, repair and restore them to their original conditions. At present, modern technologies have increasingly been adopted as an alternative for the conservation of art heritages. They are employed to keep virtual records and to duplicate mural paintings of a specific period onto ceramic pieces of the same size to produce duplicate copies that are as close to the original paintings as possible. The results can then be kept for permanent storage and exhibition in museums, art galleries or learning centers which will be useful for knowledge dissemination and future conservation efforts. The replica pieces can be kept as evidences and data, especially for mural paintings that are under serious threats of disappearance and where their preservation or restoration may not be possible.

Deteriorated sections of some mural paintings may be enhanced or reconstructed through comparison with recorded evidences of the original paintings as in the case of the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves murals. Some of these world-renown art heritages were selected and restored for appreciation by the present generation. Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves are one of the remaining Buddhist religious sites in Xinjiang Uighgur Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China. The discovery of mural paintings in these caves provides significant evidence that the Muslim Uighurs of today were once Buddhists. 

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The original rock painting in this picture was cut up, removed and reassembled for display at an art museum in Germany. It was subsequently destroyed during the World War period. Fortunately, photographic records of this rock painting are available.


Another Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves mural was completely reconstructed with its details and colors, based on data from existing archaeological evidence, adjusted through the use of computer technology. The result was then printed on large ceramic boards, 3.06 x 2.26 m. in size. The finished artefact is currently on display at Ryukoku University in Kyoto, Japan.

Application of such reconstructive archaeology approach to mural paintings in Thailand will effectively contribute to the creation of knowledge and conservation of archaeological evidences for future generations.

The mural paintings in the ordination hall or Ubosot walls of Wat Yai Suwannaram, Phetchaburi Province, which depict five overlying rows of seated heavenly beings, are priceless works of art and cultural heritages that should be copied and preserved. They are widely recognized by art scholars and archaeologists as masterpieces of painters in the Phetchaburi school of art at the time when Ayutthaya was at the apex of its prosperity. Although many sections of these mural paintings have faded away and almost disappeared, some traces of their remarkable beauty are still apparent. Only master artists who lived during the time when classical Thai art reached its peak in aesthetic form could produce such exquisite works of art. It is most important that these masterpieces be preserved and not allow to further deteriorate with the passing of time. Reconstructive archaeological method, based on a comparative study of the surviving parts of paintings, can enhance the missing, discoloring and fading parts and restore complete images. A special computer technique can be used to create the restored images on large ceramic boards. (This technique projects predicted missing parts that match existing patterns of the image and transfers the duplicate copy on a computer screen without interfering with the actual mural painting). The duplicate copy is then recorded and printed onto ceramic boards that can be assembled and put on display. Through this technique, the brilliant colors of mural paintings can be permanently preserved for hundreds of years.

In addition, there are many other valuable paintings produced by master artists in other schools of traditional Thai art that should be duplicated and preserved, such as the mural paintings in the Lai Kham Vihara of Wat Phra Sing, Chiang Mai Province. These exquisite and outstanding mural paintings were the works of master painters in the reign of King Rama V, which are rarely found elsewhere in Thailand. They are a combination of early Rattanakosin and Burmese art styles which depict traditional Lanna customs and lifestyles through images of characters from popular literature. These paintings differ from most mural paintings which mainly depict stories from the life of Buddha or Jataka tales. Paintings on the northern wall of Lai Kham Vihara at Wat Phra Sing depict scenes from the tale of Sang Thong while those on the southern wall come from the tales of Suwannahongse or Suwanna Sangkha Jataka. Although the paintings on both walls had undergone many conservations, environmental factors and humidity continue to cause deterioration to the paintings over times. Paintings on some walls, particularly the southern wall, have almost all faded away. Application of reconstructive archaeology method will be able to revive the vitality and beauty of these paintings to their original states.

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Mural paintings in the Ubosot of Wat Yai Suwannaram, Phetchaburi Province.

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Mural paintings in the Lai Kham Vihara of Wat Phra Sing, Chiang Mai Province.

Application of reconstructive conservation approach, both through virtual duplication or reconstructive archaeology, to restore priceless traditional Thai paintings in various sites is a conservation alternative that should be concretely adopted to breathe life into nationwide valuable paintings of the past and to revive the national pride in traditional Thai paintings.

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