Art Historians Are Using Cutting-Edge Medical Technology to Study Sculptures

Researchers at the Art Institute of Chicago, partnered with the UChicago School of Medicine, used CT scanning to discover a set of Malian figures were older and more unique than believed.

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With the help of new, advanced medical technology, the Art Institute of Chicago has been able to more accurately identify five terracotta sculptures from present-day Mali, which are “among the oldest surviving sculptures from sub-Saharan Africa,” according to the institute. The Bakoni figures, believed to be from between the late 12th-century and 15th century, are named for the Malian village in which they were discovered.

To prepare the sculptures for a traveling exhibition, the Art Institute’s Conservation & Science department partnered with the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine to discover more details about the Bakoni figures’ histories. The sculptures were first believed to be pastiches, combining unrelated fragments to create a singular object, which is common for ancient ceramics.

“[W]e were able to use computed axial tomography or CT scanning — which is basically an X-ray but in 3D — to closely examine the ceramic,” says Rachel Sabino, Objects Conservator in the Department of Conservation & Science at the Art Institute of Chicago. “As each figure went through the scanner we were able to see immediately that they had all been created with the exact same clay and with the exact same fabrication methods. This confirmed for us that our five were conceived as a group from the start and that they aren’t figures from different places or different potters.” This is a particularly noteworthy discovery, as many similar groups of sculptures have been geographically dispersed over centuries.

The cutting-edge technology also revealed that the objects were between 500 and 800 years old, which is older than previous testing had indicated.

“These types of collaborations between museums and hospitals have expanded the conservator’s toolkit by giving them access to the most advanced technologies and to equipment that would be otherwise unavailable,” a press release announcing the discovery states. “Their medical partners’ specialized knowledge guarantees that conservators have the best instrumental protocol available to find answers to their questions and that the results will be interpreted accurately.”

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