Lecturer discusses Buddhism, problems of archeology in China

Jeff Peyton

The last Archaeological Institute of America lecture of the year, titled “Silk Road and Diamond Path: The Archeology of Buddhism in Tibet” was delivered by professor Mark Aldenderfer, the first western archeologist the Chinese government has allowed to participate in field work in Tibet.Before turning to Tibetan Buddhism, the majority of Aldenderfer’s field work focused on pastoral peoples living on the Andean Plateau in Peru. It was his interest in the biological and cultural adaptations of high altitude peoples that led him to the Tibetan Plateau where he hoped to test the model he had developed in Peru that illustrates how low elevation peoples become high elevation peoples.

Aldenderfer, after years of working for access to Tibet, traveled to the southwestern region of the country, called Gugu. He worked in conjunction with Chinese archeologists. Although he’s ultimately more interested in studying economic activity in the region, his efforts have been somewhat limited by Chinese scientists’ focus on the area’s art history and iconography. Aldenderfer commented that Chinese archeologists typically feel that they are done with an area when he feels like the team is just starting to make progress.

Though not an expert in Buddhism, Aldenderfer explained that the religion diffused to Tibet in the seventh century AD when it was the court religion of the Central Tibetan Empire. Its influence on the region waned after the decline of the empire in the region. Buddhism was reinvigorated during the mid 10th century, from which time many of the ruins—temples, chapels, and monastic institutions—are dated.

Aldenderfer is interested in how trade, and specifically the famed ‘Silk Road’ trade route, located 1,500-1,700 km south of the Gugu region, affected life in the area. He explained, that due to constraints on his research imposed by the complicated relationship with China, he has only just begun to scratch the surface, and has yet to come to any conclusions.

Aldenderfer, who teaches at University of California-Santa Barbara, concluded his lecture with a brief analysis of China’s impact on Tibetan culture since it assumed control of Tibet in 1950. Many ruins were ravished by cadres during the Cultural Revolution, and public appreciation for the Dalai Lama has been largely forced underground. Aldenderfer suggests that, though China’s archeological efforts are far from perfect, they present a sincere effort at preservation. He nevertheless suggested that the Chinese will preseve a cleaned up version Tibetan Buddhism, and that an effort needs to be made to preserve it as it was.