The last couple of days I’ve received a whole bunch of emails announcing a breakthrough in dating the Buddha. An international team of archeologists has dug beneath the previously excavated remains at the Buddha’s birth place, Lumbini, where they found the remnants of a wooden structure, which was dated to the 6th century BCE. Breathless reports in the New York Times and elsewhere said that this is the first time we can fix a concrete date to the Buddha’s life.
Okay, so great, new findings are always welcome But what did they find, exactly? I haven’t had the chance to read the peer-reviewed article yet. But the topic was posted on the academic discussion forum H-Buddhism, where Jonathon Silk had the following to say:
what has been found is wood beneath the Asokan layer. There is *no* indication that the wood is connected with the Buddha in any way shape or form. … And in fact, except for a single–I would say incautious–sentence, the article basically says this… the traditional spot rebuilt by Asoka had earlier a wooden structure upon it. What that structure may have been, and whether it could conceivably have had any connection with the Buddha–no evidence at all!
Sorry about that. Truth can be dull, can’t it? The fuss did raise the following interesting response from Achim Bayer. It discusses the prestige in which archeology seems to be regarded, which avid readers will recognize is an issue I have whinged about before. Good to see this is being addressed directly.
Another of the issues involved is that archeology, dealing with material things, seems to be considered “science”, while the study of history as a whole is just “humanities” (at least in the anglophone world) and thus less reliable.
These were my experiences when dealing with the “Lama Wearing Trousers” last year.
I have now organized a panel by the title “Authenticity, Uncertainty, and Deceit in Buddhist Art and Archaeology” at the IABS 2014 in Vienna – to which everyone interested in such methodological questions is warmly invited.