Scientists Preserve Historic Statue

Though the carvings on the 27-ton marble stele nestled between Boylston Hall and Widener Library have begun to fade, a team of Harvard researchers have set out to digitally preserve this inscription commemorating Harvard’s 300th anniversary.

Since last week, workers have worked nightly to scan and capture 3D images of the details of the statue’s carvings. The scanning team works nightly from 7:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. to ensure an environment of high contrast for use of optical halogen lights.

The statue, also known as the Harvard Bixi, came to the Yard in 1936, when a group of Chinese Harvard alumni procured the 17-foot high, 27-ton marble stele and moved it from the Old Summer Palace in Beijing. The statue stands in front of Boylston Hall, which formerly served as the East Asian Languages building.

Over the years, acid rain and exposure to the elements have faded the inscriptions on the statue.

Proposals to move the Bixi indoors have proved impossible as few building floors can withstand the stele’s weight of 27 tons, according to Jeffrey R. Williams ’78, the executive director of the Harvard Center Shanghai and head of the research team.

The team, tapping into the expertise of researchers from the Peabody Museum’s Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions program, has paid special attention to documenting the statue’s inscription.

The inscription on the stele reads in Chinese: “On this, the occasion of the tercentenary of the founding of our alma mater, we show our gratitude for the nurturing and inspiration we received here. Henceforth, we hope to witness the further enlargement and expansion of an ever-increasing cultural interchange between our two countries, enabling the prosperity of the nation to follow the path of advanced learning. Of this ideal we shall remain ever mindful.”

Williams joined forces with the Harvard China Fund, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Campus Services, and the Fogg Museum to preserve the statue’s message.

“People need to understand what the stele represents,” Williams said. “It’s not just a random item that was found and brought over.”

Within the first week of the scanning, a tent was installed over the stele to reach upper areas not accessible at ground level.

“The 3D scanning work is almost complete,” said Barbara Fash, director of the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions Program and Mesoamerican Laboratory. “The team had two nights off, due to rain and another event conflict, so they are two days behind. But otherwise, everything has been progressing steadily.”

All raw data and 3D models will be permanently accessioned into Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology Collection.

“It’s unfortunate that students walk by it for their four years at Harvard and never know what it is,” said Williams.

“I hope that we can work together to preserve this significant historical monument for future generations to appreciate.”

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