A research project of the Department of Archaeology.
Funded by: Japanese-Funds-in-Trust-for-UNESCO £137,551.82 (2010-2013) and National Geographic Society £15,378.20 (2012).
Lumbini, in southern Nepal, is recognised as the birthplace of the historical Buddha, recorded in the third century BCE pillar inscription of the Mauryan Emperor Asoka (r.268-232 BCE). It was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997 and has seen a significant increase in investment and visitor numbers since. In 2009 UNESCO and the Government of Nepal recognised that Lumbini faced a number of challenges for its protection and conservation. These ranged from the deteriorating condition of the Asokan Pillar and archaeological monuments uncovered during excavations in the 1990s, which were contained within a new temple construction, as well as inadequately understood and mapped archaeological remains both within the World Heritage Property and its buffer zone.
Consequently, the project Strengthening the Conservation and Management of Lumbini; the Birthplace of Lord Buddha was established that brought together archaeologists, conservators, site planners and management teams. The three year project was led by Professor Yukio Nishimura of Kobe Design University, and Professor Robin Coningham and Mr Kosh Prasad Acharya, were invited to lead the archaeological component of the project. Using a multidisciplinary approach, the project aimed to shed light on the date of the Buddha's life and the nature of early Buddhist monuments and settlement at Lumbini. Supported by scientific dating, excavations also used micromorphology and pollen cores to reconstruct the past landscape of the site, detailing the impact of human occupation on the environment, as well as how early inhabitants adapted to the landscape and climate around them. These components were bound together within a GIS database to provide an integrated tool to aid the long-term management of the site. Detailed visitor and stakeholder surveys were undertaken to better understand the social and economic impact (both positive and negative) of heritage development on local communities.
The key research questions were: What was the extent and nature of pre-Asokan activity at Lumbini, and how early was the initial occupation at the site? How does this reflect the wider debate surrounding the birth date of the Buddha? What role did the southwest "Village Mound" play in the past, and what was its relationship with the ritual core of Lumbini? Are there other areas within the vicinity of the Sacred Area that were important components of the Early Historic landscape? How has the landscape and environment in Lumbini changed since the site was occupied? Was any change deliberate manipulation by humans to alter the landscape for social, economic or religious purposes? How has the development of Lumbini as a major tourist and pilgrimage centre in the last 100 years impacted upon the archaeological signature of the site? Finally, what are the major challenges in ensuring the future preservation of buried material, and conservation of exposed material?
A total of twenty-one archaeological trenches were excavated across five main areas – the Maya Devi Temple, the Sacred Garden, Village Mound, Nursery Well and Helipad. The excavations were conducted between 2011 and 2013 and were supported by geoarchaeological analysis through the extraction of soil samples using kubiena tins for thin section analysis, OSL samples and radiocarbon samples. The excavations were supported by auger-coring, mapping, geophysics, as well as visitor surveys.
The team were successful in identifying evidence of the earliest Buddhist shrine in South Asia within the Maya Devi Temple, dating to the middle of the sixth century BCE – constructed during or shortly after the lifetime of the Buddha. This shrine was later elaborated by successive donors, as Lumbini grew from a small village to major pilgrimage centre. Traces of subsurface heritage were found across the site, including away from the designated UNESCO World Heritage property. A prime example of this was found close to the modern Police Station where evidence was uncovered for an early village dating to 1300 BCE – long before the birth of the Buddha. This trajectory of development of the site has now been documented and provides a unique insight into the social and cultural dynamics of early South Asia, as well as to debates surrounding the date of the Buddha’s birth.
Due to the success of the project, UNESCO Japanese-Funds-in-Trust funding facilitated two more phases of fieldwork at the Tentative World Heritage Site of Tilaurakot-Kapilavastu and other archaeological sites in the wider landscape.
The uncovering of the first archaeological material linking the life of the Buddha to a specific century was the subject of a National Geographic documentary and was amongst the top 10 world discoveries of 2014 by the Archaeological Institute of America’s Archaeology Magazine. On the discovery then UNESCO Director-General, Irina Bokova, commented: "UNESCO is very proud to be associated with this important discovery at one of the most holy places for one of the world’s oldest religions. More archaeological research, intensified conservation work and strengthened site management to ensure Lumbini’s protection are crucial."
The archaeological research has also helped to revise the development plans for the site, reversing proposals that would have damaged some of the early archaeological sequences at the site. This input into the long-term management and preservation of the site is becoming increasingly important in light of the Asian Development Bank's ambition to develop Lumbini and the surrounding archaeological vestiges as a major tourist and pilgrimage destinations, with the number of visitors expected to increase rapidly in the future.
This research has also been promoted at a number of exhibitions, including at Palace Green Library in Durham. The research has also formed part of international exhibitions, co-curated with Durham’s Oriental Museum, the Department of Archaeology, Government of Nepal and Lumbini Development Trust Walking with the Buddha at the Fo Guang Shan Buddha Museum in Taiwan, which received almost one million visitors as well as at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar, where 60,000 people attended.