The Helgö Buddha

The news of the excavation of a small statue of the Buddha in Egypt is very exciting. But at least one of the claims about this statue doesn’t seem quite right. I have in mind this statement in The Smithsonian: “The artifact is the first Buddha ever found west of Afghanistan.” In the course of my teaching a few years ago, I encountered a fascinating artifact that I had somehow missed up to that point. I started a post on it at the time but got distracted. Now seems like a good moment to return to it:

Image source: Swedish History Museum

This bronze statuette of the Buddha stands about 8.4 cm tall. Specialists in Buddhist iconography suggest that it was manufactured in northwest India perhaps sometime around the 6th century CE.

Image sources: Swedish History Museum and Holmqvist et al., Excavations at Helgö I: Report for 1954-1956 (Uppsala, 1961), p. 113

What makes the item special is that it was excavated on a small island in Sweden just west of Stockholm. In the mid-1950s, excavations began on the eastern end of the island of Helgö (Lillön).

Location of Helgö in relation to Stockholm; image source: adapted from Clarke and Lamm, Helgö Revisited (Schleswig, 2017), p. 4, Fig. 1.3

The excavators found evidence for occupation from the fourth century CE to the eleventh century CE. In July of 1956, excavators uncovered the Buddha in an indistinct layer outside the remains of one of the structures on the site. The site, located on a series of terraces on a hillside, was challenging to excavate and interpret:

“Space was restricted, so the houses were built and rebuilt in almost exactly the same place from generation to generation, resulting in a bewildering array of post holes which are still very difficult to interpret. In addition, the occupation layer was thin and compressed, so that artefacts of all dates were found together, virtually unstratified.” (Clarke and Lamm, Helgö Revisited, p. 3)

Unfortunately (but understandably in these circumstances), the exact stratum to which the Buddha belongs cannot be determined, and thus, if I read the reports correctly, the Buddha cannot be confidently associated with any one of the discrete occupational phases of the site. The original excavation report says little about the context of the find. The specialist report on the Buddha gives the following information:

“The Buddha figure was found in Building Group 2, not far from the metal workshop of Building Group 3, and together with artefacts dating from before c. AD 800 […]. The bronze figurine could well have been owned by a craftsman working with metal casting, who was primarily interested in its technical qualities.” (Gyllensvärd, “The Buddha found at Helgö,” p. 17)

Two observations are in order. First, there is a photograph of the object apparently taken shortly after it was excavated, which shows loops of leather around the neck and left arm of the statuette, suggesting that it was hung either on a person or another object (wall, door, etc.). These bands would also at least possibly obscure the “technical qualities” of the object.

Helgö Buddha with remains of leather straps still attached; image source: Holmqvist et al., Excavations at Helgö I: Report for 1954-1956 (Uppsala, 1961), p. 112, Fig. 18

Second, the back of the artifact shows signs of repairs (patches on the back of the head and left elbow), suggesting that the statuette was in use for some period of time. In the absence of precise stratigraphic information, scholars have speculated about how and why the Buddha came to Sweden. The most thorough specialist study offered this possible explanation:

“As it was unearthed near a workshop for metal casting and smithing, its owner may have been particularly attracted to this finely cast bronze object with contrasting inlays of copper and silver. The figurine would undoubtedly have been of great interest to a metalworking craftsman who may have used a leather thong to hang it around his neck or on a nail.” (Gyllensvärd, “The Buddha found at Helgö,” p. 23)

This is a strange statement. If I understand the excavation report correctly, the metal workshop was a part of Building Group 3. This group of structures was quite distant from Building Group 2:

Helgö Building Groups 2 and 3; image source: adapted from Clarke and Lamm, Helgö Revisited (Schleswig, 2017), p. 5, Fig. 1.4

By “near,” then, Gyllensvärd means 150-200 meters. The metal workshop does not seem like a probable context for the Buddha. If it is to be associated with any of the structures, it would probably be one of the two sets of rectangular foundations in Building Group 2.

In any event, it is fun to wonder about the circumstances that might have brought this Buddha to rest here in Sweden, just as it will be interesting to learn more about the newly discovered Egyptian Buddha.

Photographs of the Helgö Buddha taken from a number of angles are available through the website of the Swedish History Museum here.

Further Reading:

Helen Clarke and Kristina Lamm, Helgö Revisited: A New Look at the Excavated Evidence for Helgö, Central Sweden (Schleswig: Stiftung Schleswig-Holsteinische Landesmuseen Schloss Gottorf, 2017)

Bo Gyllensvärd et al., Excavations at Helgö XVI: Exotic and Sacral Finds from Helgö (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 2004)

Wilhelm Holmqvist et al., Excavations at Helgö I: Report for 1954-1956 (Uppsala: Almqvist & Wiksells, 1961)

This entry was posted in Archaeological context, Buddha. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Helgö Buddha

  1. Dr Julia Bale says:

    I always enjoy your posts, Brent. Useful for my teaching, fascinating & informative. Cheers!

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