Buddha Has A New Birthday; Archaeological Dig Discovers Wooden Structure At Buddhist 'Bethlehem' Site

By Ben Wolford on November 26, 2013 8:26 AM EST

Buddha
Scientists have unearthed new evidence that suggest the actual lifetime of Buddha. (Photo: Screenshot: National Geographi)

Archaeologists have unearthed the first material evidence linking Buddha to a specific century, perhaps resolving with new science millennia of uncertainty about the birthday of the spiritual leader. A dig at his birthplace in Lumbini, Nepal, revealed a buried timber structure, which scientists dated to the sixth century B.C.E.

Until now, some scholars believed Buddha, born as Siddhartha Gautama, to have lived in the third century B.C.E., based on the presence on the site of a sandstone pillar that dates to the third century B.C.E. The new research, to be published in the December issue of the journal Antiquity, offers the most definitive evidence yet that the world's fourth most popular religion began around 300 years before that.

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"Very little is known about the life of the Buddha, except through textual sources and oral tradition," said archaeologist Robin Coningham of Durham University, in the United Kingdom, in a statement. He co-led the investigation, which is to be featured in a February documentary on the National Geographic Channel. "We thought, 'Why not go back to archaeology to try to answer some of the questions about his birth?'"

So they traveled to Lumbini, an active Buddhist shrine deep in the Nepalese countryside, below the Himalayas. It's a place where monks meditate and the faithful make pilgrimages, as the Buddha advised them to do before his death at age 80. Lumbini was lost to the world in the Middle Ages, overtaken by centuries of untamed jungle growth. But in 1896, Nepalese archaeologists re-discovered the site, marked by a sandstone pillar inscribed with the name of the Indian ruler Ashoka, the Buddhist version of Christianity's Constantine the Great who converted the Roman Empire. Ashoka ruled around 250 B.C.E.

That was pretty much the only timestamp for Buddha's life, other than clues from writings and oral tradition. But there was more evidence waiting to be discovered in Lumbini. The authors wrote in their paper that "the sequence (of archaeological remains) at Lumbini is a microcosm for the development of Buddhism from a localized cult to a global religion."

At the shrine, there's a brick structure, believed to have been built around a tree that Buddha's mother is supposed to have grasped as she gave birth to him. The expedition led by Coningham dug deeper. Directly beneath the brick structure is a similar structure, again with an open space in the center, made of timber. They found fragments of charcoal and grains of sand on the site and dated them using radiocarbon and other techniques. To help their case, they also discovered ancient tree roots.

"These discoveries are very important to better understand the birthplace of the Buddha," said Ram Kumar Shrestha, Nepal's minister of culture, tourism and civil aviation, in the statement. "The government of Nepal will spare no effort to preserve this significant site." Lumbini is already designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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