Scientists in northwest China’s Shaanxi province last week reported the discovery of what they believe is the oldest Buddha statue ever found in the country.
The two statues were discovered in a family tomb dating back to the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220), some 200 years earlier than previous Buddha images found in China. Until this recent discovery, the earliest depictions of the Buddha in China date from the Sixteen Kingdoms period (304-489).
The oldest depiction of the Buddha in the world is thought to be a gold heirloom engraving called the Bimaran Casket, dating from 0-15, found in 19th century Afghanistan.
In the Chinese find, one of the statues depicts Shakayumi Buddha, which is one of the names used for the man born Siddhartha Gautama after he gained enlightenment and became the founding father of Buddhism.
According to Buddhist tradition, the Buddha is believed to have lived between 600 and 400 B.C.
The statuette is 10.5 cm tall and has a base diameter of 4.7 cm, so it can be placed next to a bed, taken with him on a trip, or placed in a shrine.
The relics were made of an alloy of copper, tin and lead. Despite their antiquity, they resembled in style and shape the statues that people can buy today. This is called the Gandhara style and refers to relatively realistic depictions of the Buddha.
The other statue is slightly larger (15.8 cm high and 6.4 cm at the base) and depicts the five Tathagatas. Named Akshobhya, Ratnasambhava, Vairocana, Amitabha and Amoghasiddhi, the Tathagatas symbolize the five basic wisdoms of Buddhism.
Researchers believe the statues were made locally because the results of metal analysis are an important nuance, indicating that Buddhism was already established in the region during the Eastern Han dynasty.
Li Ming, a researcher with the Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology who led the excavations, told a Shaanxi government news conference that the tombs belonged to members of royal families and high-ranking officials. Only the emperor’s mausoleum contained tombs of more influential people.
“The owner of the cemetery may have been a county official or landowner who had some family and economic power,” Li said.
“The findings of the Buddha statues are of great importance in studying the introduction of Buddhist culture to China and its localization in the country.”
The excavation, which began in June 2020, is still ongoing, and so far scientists have found 16,000 artifacts at the site.
The project covers a huge stretch of Chinese history, and so far 3,648 tombs have been excavated from the Warring States period to the Qing Dynasty, which covers the period from 475 B.C. to 1912.