British archaeologist Robin Coningham talks about a three-year expedition to Nepal, which could rewrite history
When Professor Robin Coningham’s youngest son Gus was five, he was asked at school what his father did. “He works for the Buddha,” said the boy. Which led to a bit of confusion, recalls Coningham.
But it turns out Gus was not that far off the mark. Last week it emerged that a team led by Coningham, a professor of archaeology and pro-vice-chancellor at Durham University, had made a startling discovery about the date of the Buddha’s birth, one that could rewrite the history of Buddhism. After a three-year dig on the site of the Maya Devi temple at Lumbini in Nepal, Coningham and his team of 40 archaeologists discovered a tree shrine that predates all known Buddhist sites by at least 300 years.
The impact of Coningham’s work is groundbreaking in many ways. Prior to this discovery, it had been thought that the shrine at Lumbini – an important pilgrimage site for half a billion Buddhists worldwide – marked the birthplace of the Buddha in the third century BC. But the timber structure revealed by archaeologists was radio-carbon-dated to the sixth century BC.
“It has real significance,” says Coningham, 47. “What we have for the first time is something that puts a date on the beginning of the cult of Buddhism. That gives us a really clear social and economic context… It was a time of huge transition where traditional societies were being rocked by the emergence of cities, kings, coins and an emerging middle class. It was precisely at that time that Buddha was preaching renunciation – that wealth and belongings are not everything.”
The early years of the religion took hold before the invention of writing. As a result, different oral traditions had different dates for the Buddha’s birth. This is the first concrete evidence that Buddhism existed before the time of Asoka, an Indian emperor who enthusiastically embraced the religion in the third century BC.