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Art meets science in the analysis of an ancient dancing horse statue

A 1,300-year-old sculpture of a dancing horse – a treasured relic from China’s Tang dynasty – has captured an ancient tradition of trained horses performing for emperors.

But curators at the Cincinnati Museum of Art weren’t charmed by one feature of the animated 8th-century statue: a tassel on the forehead that they suspected wasn’t original.

How to investigate without harming precious art?

Scientists have stepped in to help figure it out.

The artist’s stone mosaics are life-size homages to the Renaissance anatomist

State-of-the-art analytical techniques helped solve the mystery and reveal more about the object’s history.

To get answers, restorers had to consent to abandoning parts of the irreplaceable 26-inch art in the name of science. An international team of researchers analyzed 11 tiny drilled samples that weighed just a few milligrams each. Taken from different sites of the terracotta horse, the samples underwent a battery of different tests.

By analyzing everything from the chemistry of the samples to their molecular makeup, the scientists made the most of the tiny piles of powder.

One technique, X-ray powder diffraction, studies the behavior of an X-ray when it is formed on a mineral or other substance that has been ground into a powder. Different materials bend rays in different ways, and the technique can help identify mixtures of substances or the composition of even very small samples.

Other techniques included Raman spectroscopy, which examines how light from a laser beam scatters when it hits the sample.

The researchers describe their investigation in the journal Heritage Science.

The pom-pom wasn’t clay, the scientists learned – it was plaster stuck on with animal glue. Other tassels on the horse’s saddle revealed evidence of multiple repairs over generations.

Ultimately, discovering that the pom pom was not original led the museum to remove it.

The study will help restorers better decide how to keep the horse in good shape. In a press release, Pietro Strobbia, assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Cincinnati who led the research, said he would continue to analyze objects for museums in the Midwest.

The restored statue and other depictions of horses throughout China’s long history will be on display at the museum from Oct. 7.