In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Archaeology of Early Buddhism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Nineteenth-Century Pioneers of Buddhist Archaeology
  • Nineteenth-Century Archaeological “Rediscovery” of Buddhism
  • Historical and Archaeological Context of Early Buddhism
  • Economic and Archaeological Context of Early Buddhism
  • Archaeology of the Buddha
  • The Dating of the Life of the Buddha
  • The Buddhist Stūpa
  • The Buddhist Griha or Shrine
  • The Buddhist Vihara or Monastery
  • Buddhist Archaelogical Landscapes
  • Archaeology and Anthropology of Buddhism

Buddhism Archaeology of Early Buddhism
Robin Coningham
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 March 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 March 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0031


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.

General Overviews

For a broad overview, part 1 of Mitra 1971 offers a review of the life of the Buddha, part 2, a historical review, and part 3, a regional review. While the addition of another volume on Buddhist monuments in 1971 was not innovative in view of the tradition of Brown 1956 and Dutt 1962, it was striking that the volume was authored by a field archaeologist. Mitra’s approach remains differentiated from subsequent art historical and architectural reviews (Dehejia 1997) because it was written from an archaeological perspective. It is equally striking that, four years later, de Jong wrote that “Buddhist art, inscriptions and coins have supplied us with useful data, but generally they cannot be understood without the support given by the texts” (de Jong 1975, p. 14). This position was taken by many, relegating archaeologists to the production of data and leading to a state of affairs whereby it was possible to reconstruct the date of the Buddha without reference to archaeology (Gombrich 1992, cited under the Dating of the Life of the Buddha), but this imbalance led to a reaction led by a textual scholar, Gregory Schopen. Schopen 1997 notes the difference between the two evidence sets available to scholars of early Buddhism, characterizing them as either edited, canonical texts recording “what a small atypical part of the Buddhist community wanted that community to believe or practice” or physical archaeological and epigraphic material that reflected “what Buddhists . . . actually practiced and believed” (p. 1). Schopen demonstrates that whiles the former set may have been in ascendency, the latter indicated the presence of different past behaviors. Whereas archaeologists continued to augment the sequences of different regions, the questioning of the nature of Buddhist archaeology itself and archaeological attempts to engage with the archaeology of early Buddhism by archaeologists commenced only later. However, this led to a wider consideration of the state of the archaeology of Buddhism in 2001 during which the evidence for the earliest years of Buddhism and the date of the Buddha was questioned before moving on to questioning many of the generalizations and typologies of Buddhist archaeology (Coningham 2001). Reviewed after ten years (Coningham 2011), it is clear that more archaeologists are engaging, particularly from a landscape perspective, but that the archaeological exploration of the beginnings of Buddhism has barely begun.

  • Brown, Percy. Indian Architecture: Buddhist and Hindu Periods. 3d ed. Bombay: D. B. Taraporevala Sons, 1956.

    This volume contains over five hundred photographs, plans, sections, and reconstructions of key monuments within south and Southeast Asia from the Mauryan period onwards. Brown uses sculptural base-reliefs and rock-cut monuments to aid the conjectural reconstruction of timber monuments of the early Buddhist period.

  • Coningham, Robin. “The Archaeology of Buddhism.” In Archaeology and World Religion. Edited by Timothy Insoll, 61–95. London: Routledge, 2001.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203463673

    A thematic review of the state of the archaeology of Buddhism that questions and confronts many of the traditionally accepted generalizations associated with Buddhism and its archaeology, with a focus on material culture.

  • Coningham, Robin “Buddhism.” In The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Ritual and Religion. Edited by Timothy Insoll, 934–947. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199232444.001.0001

    Ten-year thematic review of the state of the archaeology and “rematerialization” of Buddhism, examining its monuments and landscapes. The main drive of the chapter is to place monuments within their immediate and wider landscape and stress the need to consider their social and economic roles as well as their ritual ones.

  • Dehejia, Vidya. Discourses in Early Buddhist Art: Visual Narratives of India. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1997.

    A study of the development of Buddhist visual narratives on key monuments from the 1st century BCE to the 6th century CE and beyond, with special reference to the sites of Bharhut, Sanchi, Amaravati and Ajanta, and the region of Gandharan.

  • de Jong, Jan Willen. “The Study of Buddhism: Problems and Perspectives.” In Studies in Indo-Asian Art and Culture. Vol. 4. Edited by Perala Ratnam, 7–30. New Delhi: International Academy of Indian Culture, 1975.

    Powerful review of the study of Buddhism that advocates a predominate focus on textual sources in order to understand the role of “Buddhist art, inscriptions, and coins” in the development of early Buddhism.

  • Dutt, Sukumar. Buddhist Monks and Monasteries of India: Their History and Their Contribution to Indian Culture. London: Allen & Unwin, 1962.

    A comprehensive historical review of the Buddhist sangha and its monuments using textual, architectural, and archaeological sources from the earliest times to 1200 CE.

  • Mitra, Debala. Buddhist Monuments. Calcutta: Sahitya Samsad, 1971.

    A comprehensive overview containing a study of the development of Buddhist monuments within South Asia from the earliest times and a valuable regional-based description of key sites. Although still an essential source, its sequences and regional reviews are substantially out of date.

  • Schopen, Gregory. Bones, Stones and Buddhist Monks: Collected Papers on the Archaeology, Epigraphy and Texts of Monastic Buddhism in India. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1997.

    A collection of Schopen’s key challenges to the ways in which literary material has dominated the study of early South Asian Buddhism. His work utilizes architectural and epigraphic materials to demonstrate the importance of what monks, nuns, and laypeople actually did and demonstrates the difference between early practice and precept.

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