Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Rare Buddhist Writings Volume 49 Number 5, September/October 1996
by Mark Berkowitz

A collection of 13 birch-bark scrolls found in pottery jars from the ancient Buddhist kingdom of Gandhara in northern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan are thought to be the oldest manuscripts with Buddhist writings ever discovered. Dating to the first century A.D., the scrolls are written in the Gandhari language. Graham Shaw, deputy director of Oriental and India Office Collections at the British Library, says these scrolls will be compared to writings in Sanskrit, Tibetan, and Chinese of the same period. "If we can find comparative texts," he says, "we may get a glimpse of the formative years of this religion, before everything was crystalized in written form."

The scrolls are incomplete, but the sermons, treatises, and poems on them are still expected to add to our knowledge of the teachings of Sarvastivadin Buddhism, the dominant school in ancient Gandhara. "This school was particularly influential in the spread of Buddhism," says Richard Salomon, a professor of Sanskrit at the University of Washington in Seattle who translated the scrolls. "It is possible that comparison of these texts with others will help answer an old question of Buddhism--in what language the Buddha originally taught his disciples."

© 1996 by the Archaeological Institute of America