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To determine the dates of the timber shrine and a previously unknown early brick structure above it, fragments of charcoal and grains of sand were tested using a combination of radiocarbon and optically stimulated luminescence techniques.
Geoarchaeological research has confirmed the presence of ancient tree roots within the temple’s central void.
The international team, led by Coningham and Kosh Prasad Acharya one of Nepal’s top archaeologists, say the discovery contributes to a greater understanding of the early development of Buddhism as well as the spiritual importance of Lumbini.
Their peer-reviewed findings are reported in the December 2013 issue of the international journal Antiquity.
Laid out on the same design as those above it, the timber structure contains an open space in the center that links to the nativity story of the Buddha himself. “Now, for the first time, we have an archaeological sequence at Lumbini that shows a building there as early as the sixth century B. The temple at Lumbini remains a living shrine; the archaeologists worked alongside meditating monks, nuns and pilgrims. The pillar bears an inscription documenting a visit by Emperor Asoka to the site of the Buddha’s birth as well as the site’s name — Lumbini.
“Very little is known about the life of the Buddha, except through textual sources and oral tradition,” said archaeologist Professor Robin Coningham of Durham University, U. C.” Buddhist tradition records that Queen Maya Devi, the mother of the Buddha, gave birth to him while holding on to the branch of a tree within the Lumbini Garden, midway between the kingdoms of her husband and parents. Writing in Antiquity, the authors state: “The sequence (of archaeological remains) at Lumbini is a microcosm for the development of Buddhism from a localized cult to a global religion.” Lost and overgrown in the jungles of Nepal in the Medieval period, ancient Lumbini was rediscovered in 1896 and identified as the birthplace of the Buddha on account of the presence of a third-century B. Despite the rediscovery of the key Buddhist sites, their earliest levels were buried deep or destroyed by later construction, leaving evidence of the very earliest stages of Buddhism inaccessible to archaeological investigation, until now.
Coningham and his colleagues postulate that the open space in the center of the most ancient, timber shrine may have accommodated a tree. Half a billion people around the world are Buddhists, and by 2020, some 22 million Buddhist pilgrims are expected in South Asia; many hundreds of thousands make a pilgrimage to Lumbini each year.
Brick temples built later above the timber one also were arranged around the central space, which was unroofed.
The archaeological investigation was funded by the Government of Japan in partnership with the Government of Nepal under a UNESCO project aimed at strengthening the conservation and management of Lumbini.