Story of the stones: Digital protection of China’s cultural heritage

  • 2,000-year-old stone carvings are being brought to life in a project to protect China’s cultural heritage.
  • The stones are fragile, so researchers from China University of Mining and Technology are exhibiting them in a digital museum.
  • The group is using artificial intelligence and ‘cloud refinement’ to create the world’s largest database of the stones.
  • Making them digitally accessible and licensing the images for artistic and research purposes should also make the stones appeal to younger generations.

It’s hard for modern audiences to appreciate great works of art if they are hidden in museums in far-away places, so a team of researchers in China is working on a project to make cultural artefacts more accessible and help to popularise them for future generations.

Researchers from China University of Mining and Technology are creating a digital museum of 2,000-year-old stone carvings from the Han dynasty. Largely unknown today, the stone reliefs were carved in intricate detail on the walls of tombs and shrines. Some stones are now in museums, but others are displayed outside where they are vulnerable to erosion.

The research team is collecting and digitally processing images and information about the stones to create a database that will help to record, protect, and popularise a piece of China’s cultural history that might otherwise be lost.

Scenes from a golden age

China’s Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) was a golden age of art, science, and civilisation. Among many other things, it saw the introduction of paper-making and important developments in mathematics and astronomy, as well as in the arts.

“The team combines digital processing with AI, electronic informatisation, computer programming, and three-dimensional printing to record, protect, and preserve the images.”

The elaborately carved stones used to build tombs and shrines are a particular example of Han dynasty sculpture. Relatives would commission designs, which were often about the life of the deceased as well as ancient Chinese deities and myths. The stone reliefs therefore tell us much about everyday life and culture. Painters first drew the images onto the surface of the stones and stonemasons then engraved the outlines. The detail of the carved images is remarkable and the shallowness of the engraving makes them look like paintings, but because the stone is porous limestone, the reliefs are especially vulnerable to damage by weather and improper handling.

Han Dynasty stone reliefs are vulnerable to damage by weather and improper handling.

Little Orange Lamp Group

Researchers from China University of Mining and Technology are now working on a project involving the sculptured stones of Han dynasty tombs and shrines. They want to protect these important works of art and the historical information they contain. They also want to make the stone reliefs accessible to a wider public and raise awareness of their cultural heritage and significance.

Known as the Little Orange Lamp Group, the innovation and technology team includes research staff, students, and more than 100 volunteers from across several disciplines, including science, engineering, and art, as well as artificial intelligence (AI) and computing. In the digital protection of Han stone reliefs, this team has developed a close collaboration with Xuzhou Han Terracotta Warriors Museum, one of the core storage and exhibition centres of Han dynasty stone reliefs in Xuzhou (a city in the north-western province Jiangsu).

The interdisciplinary team has been convened by Dr Difei Zhao, the director of the Innovation, Incubation and Entrepreneurship Centre at the Artificial Intelligence Research Institute, and supported by Associate Professor Haiyan Zhu and other researchers from different disciplines of the university.

Technology to the rescue

The Little Orange Lamp Group has so far processed more than 5,000 documents about the sculptures to create the world’s largest database of Han dynasty stone reliefs. The documents include academic literature from ten countries worldwide, from 1915 to the present day, as well as 1,000 images of stone rubbings made in the same period. In addition to making digital copies of the rubbings, the researchers have refined and enhanced the images to improve their definition and visibility.

The digital protection of Han dynasty stone reliefs carried out by the Little Orange Lamp Group has caught the media’s attention.

The electronic database includes more than 10,000 new images which the team has gathered and digitally processed following their field research into the sculptured stones. Taken from sites in ten cities, including Xuzhou, Tengzhou, Yinan, and Anyang, the new images are superior to the rubbings in many ways, particularly because they are in three dimensions instead of two. This makes it easier for people to appreciate the stones’ surface details, for example the way fine lines are cut into the stones to create patterns and decorations.

Taking and preparing the images is a complex, high-tech process. The stone reliefs are first scanned using high-precision, high-resolution, three-dimensional scanners. In a process they call ‘cloud refinement’, the team then combines digital processing with AI, electronic informatisation (using communication technology to manage information), computer programming, and three-dimensional printing to record, protect, and preserve the images.

“The group’s work exemplifies the importance of integrating modern technology into the protection of cultural heritage, which relies on the collaboration between universities and cultural departments.”

If a stone carving has suffered damage or is worn, the team consults experts to discover what it would have looked like originally. Researchers then ‘repair’ the digital image by restoring missing elements or refining details that have become indistinct.

Besides the reliefs, the team has also extended the use of these digital technologies into the protection of Han terracotta warriors. In the future, they will also integrate laser engraving technology into the project to duplicate the pattern information on rocks, allowing for the reproduction of cultural relics. The group’s work exemplifies the importance of integrating modern technology into the protection of cultural heritage, which relies on the collaboration between universities and cultural departments.

Preserving the terracotta warriors as part of the project to protect China's cultural heritage
3D scanning and digital modelling of Han stone reliefs and Han terracotta warriors.

Inspiring the younger generation

The research team hopes that by making it easier for people to access the 2,000-year-old Han dynasty stone reliefs and see the finer details of their artistry, more people will appreciate the value and importance of their cultural heritage. Not only will digitisation of the sculptured stones allow academics in China and around the world to make use of the images in scientific, historical, and art history research, the researchers have also designed popular science courses to allow non-specialists to learn about them.

Most tangible of all, researchers hope that digitising the historic images will attract the younger generation and inspire other, modern artworks and cultural artefacts. For example, they suggest that the designs could be reproduced on products as varied as packaging, playing cards, and fashion goods.

Digital image processing has enabled a new form of cultural heritage protection in China. The hope is that digital protection of cultural heritage will in turn lead to a revival of Chinese traditional culture and the art of the Han dynasty.

Overview of the digital protection of Han dynasty stone reliefs.
What inspired your team to work on this project, and how did you come up with the name ‘Little Orange Lamp Group’?
The main reason that made us start this work is our intense interest in Han dynasty stone reliefs and the fact that this treasure is confronted with the dangers of being eroded and forgotten. The name ‘Little Orange Lamp Group’ comes from an essay by one of the most significant authors of contemporary Chinese literature, Xin Bing, who was active in both the May 4th Movement and the New Culture Movement. Little Orange Lamp serves as a metaphor for optimism and hope, and the spirit to create change starting from the more minor issues. 

Can you think of a particular carving that holds special meaning to you?
There is a stone depicting barbecue activities in the Han dynasty. This stone was unearthed in Xuzhou in 1986, and was made in 86 AD. In the first section of the picture, fish, sheep, chicken, and other kinds of meat are hung on the wall. The person in front is dismembering the sheep, and the one behind is flipping and roasting kebabs on a grill and holding a fan in his right hand to ignite the fire. Both are exceptionally focused on the cooking. This carving demonstrates that barbecue, one of the most popular entertainments in the modern society, can be dated back to the Han dynasty, especially in the city of Xuzhou. According to the literature, the skewers used in barbecue in the Han dynasty were made from iron. Nowadays, iron skewers are also widely used in Xuzhou. After being roasted on the fire, iron skewer becomes hot quickly, which makes meat cook faster and doesn’t bake easily at the same time. In this picture, the inheritance of food culture is well illustrated, which brings the daily life in ancient society and the old stone carvings to life. We believe this carving is a good example of China’s continuation of culture and social habits.

How big are the carvings and what kind of tools would have been used to create them?
The sizes of Han dynasty stone reliefs vary greatly from 30 to 200cm in height, 25 to 250cm in width, and 10 to 30cm in thickness. Given that they are the constructional components of the tombs and shrines, the specific size of the relief depends on which part of the construction it is used for. The creation of reliefs includes three steps. Firstly, the craftsman selected stones in the mountain nearby which were appropriate for carving, processed them into the required size, and polished the surface. The painters drew the manuscript of the portrait with a writing brush, and then the stonemasons engraved the images with chisels in strict accordance with the ink lines drawn by the painters on the stone surface. After that, the stones were used to build and decorate tombs and shrines.

Are some of the stones still in place in their original historical sites or are most in museums?
Most of the distribution areas of stone reliefs have built museums to store and exhibit them. At the same time, there are still some reliefs being stored in the original sites that have not been explored yet.

Why were tombs and shrines decorated in this way?
As decorative stones used in tombs, Han dynasty stone reliefs are closely related to the Chinese philosophy of life and death. In a word, ancient Chinese believe in the immortality of the soul, as an old saying goes, ‘Even the ghosts need food’. Therefore, they depicted real-life scenes such as feasting, gathering and dancing to make sure that the soul had enough food, clothing and pleasure in another world. They carved sacred animals such as green dragons, white tigers, and rosefinch to drive away evil and protect the peace of the soul. There are also elements such as the sun, the moon, stars and auspicious clouds to help the soul escape from suffering and become immortal in bliss. Nowadays, this value can also be found in the funeral ceremonies and tomb sweeping days in China’s modern society.


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