Archaeology of Early Buddhism

Robin Coningham

in Buddhism

ISBN: 9780195393521
Published online March 2013 | | DOI:
Archaeology of Early Buddhism

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  • Tibetan Buddhism
  • Zen Buddhism



The archaeology of Buddhism has been portrayed as the excavation of individual monuments and the chronological review of regional style. Reports focus on isolated monuments, and practitioners expose only the brick or stone walls of monuments. Technical studies relate architectural phasing to the exclusion of associated ceramic, small find, and specialist analyses, and there is a divergence of technique when comparing the excavation of Buddhist monuments and prehistoric sites. As a result, scholars in other disciplines rely on textual sources purporting to represent the social and economic context of early Buddhism rather than trying to interpret the results of excavations. This reliance is by no means new, as colonial pioneers also utilized archaeology to provide evidence for assumptions based on those early textual sources. Many early encounters were amateurish, but their founding assumptions persist, limiting the sophistication of our understanding of early practice. However, the archaeology of Buddhism offers the opportunity of tracing divergences between early precept and practice and investigating the social and economic transformations that accompanied its establishment. Indeed, Buddhism emerged at the same time as statehood and urbanization, as well as the creation of mercantile and urban elites, whose needs did not match established Brahmanical belief or the caste system. Furthermore, although much has been written on the life of the Buddha, we have little evidence from this early period, and the date of his death as well as the identity of his childhood home are still debated. The archaeology of Buddhism can readdress these lacunae but only through fresh excavations at key sites using advanced techniques. Such techniques can also be applied to examine monuments within their landscapes in order to understand their position and function within the networks of social and economic relationships that unified cityscapes with hinterlands. Finally, reference must be made to the potential represented by Buddhist ethnographies, which have recorded individual and collective motivations of communities, both lay and sacred. These allow us to develop analogues for the past as well as demonstrating that, far from being conservative, Buddhism has been adaptive, which explains its spread and resilience. In conclusion, the archaeology of Buddhism can provide more than the description of individual monuments as it alone can shed light on the physical character of early ritual practice; it alone can demonstrate how Buddhism interacted with its contemporary social, economic, and ritual context; and it alone can shed light on what early Buddhists actually did.

Article.  10553 words. 

Subjects: Buddhism ; Tibetan Buddhism ; Zen Buddhism

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