When the Cincinnati Art Museum’s curator of East Asian art, Hou-mei Sung, questioned the authenticity of a decorative tassel on an ancient horse sculpture, she turned to the department of chemistry from the University of Cincinnati for answers.
Now, after nearly two years of speculation and a series of scientific tests, the mystery is solved.
Colleague Kelly Rectenwald, Associate Conservator of Objects, worked with UC Assistant Professor of Chemistry Pietro Strobbia to determine the pompom, which made the horse look like a unicorn, had no place. It was of a different material and added much later to the sculpture, which dates from the Tang dynasty 1,300 years ago.
The art museum has since removed the pom pom from the horse.
The findings were published in the heritage science journal.
The “Dancing Horse” and other horse sculptures were commissioned for the express purpose of burying them with royalty. Sung says the 8th-century Emperor Xuanzong loved horses so much that he owned over 40,000. For a birthday party, he invited a troupe of 400 dancing horses.
“During the dramatic finale, a horse would bend its knees and squeeze a cup in its mouth and offer wine to the ruler to wish him longevity,” Sung explains. “It has become a ritual.”
The Cincinnati Museum of Art obtained the “Dancing Horse” from a private collector in 1997. The sculpture had been broken and repaired several times, according to Rectenwald, including the time it fell off a table.
“So we have this damage story and Pietro said, ‘We can figure that out for you. We can let you know what they are made of and if they are recent additions. “
How scientists determined the pom pom wasn’t genuine
Rectenwald, a chemistry and anthropology graduate, drilled out tiny samples from the acorn and the horse and handed them over to Strobbia.
“The drill hole for each of the samples we took was so tiny that I didn’t even go and fix them afterwards,” says Rectenwald. “They’re still there. They’re so small you can’t see them at all.”
Strobbia grew up in Italy and always had an interest in art. “I think I grew up a bit spoiled coming from Rome,” he says.
He and his fellow researchers used cutting-edge techniques like X-ray powder diffraction, ion chromatographyand Raman spectroscopy to determine the pompom was plaster, not terracotta, and was added to the sculpture using animal glue.
You can see the “Dancing Horse” in the Gallop through dynasties exhibition at the Cincinnati Art Museum until January 1, 2023.
The Cincinnati Art Museum plans to continue its collaboration with UC. The next mystery he wants to solve involves an object called Magic Mirror. You may remember WVXU talking about it earlier this year. When placed in sunlight, the mirror appears to become transparent and projects a decorative Buddha design.