An ancient timber structure that may have once marked Buddha's birthplace has been unearthed in Nepal. The new discovery could help pinpoint the time period when the spiritual leader was born.

Charcoal and grains of sand from a timber structure at the Maya Devi Temple in Lumbini, Nepal, date to the sixth century B.C., according to the a study published in the December issue of the journal Antiquity. The ancient building may have been a shrine built to enclose a tree that the Buddha's mother clung to during the birth of her son.

Previously, the site, which was widely believed to be Buddha's birthplace, contained evidence going back just to the third century B.C. [In Photos: An Ancient Buddhist Monastery]

"Very little is known about the life of the Buddha, except through textual sources and oral tradition," study co-author Robin Coningham, an archaeologist at Durham University, in England, said in a statement. "Now, for the first time, we have an archaeological sequence at Lumbini that shows a building there as early as the sixth  century B.C."

Life of the Buddha

According to tradition, the Buddha started life out as Siddhartha Gautama, a prince who was cloistered in a palace and shielded from all suffering. He became disenchanted with the worldly trappings around him after leaving the palace and seeing that all people would eventually feel pain, grow sick and die. After years of wandering as an ascetic, he eventually achieved enlightenment while meditating under a tree, and went on to found Buddhism.

But archaeologists had found little trace of Buddha's life. A sandstone pillar dating to the third century B.C. at the Maya Devi Temple proclaims that the spot was where the Buddha's mother, Queen Maya Devi, gave birth to the Buddha while grasping a tree in the Lumbini garden, between her birth kingdom and the realm of her husband. Most historians believe the Buddha was born earlier than that, as King Asoka was already spreading the religion at that time.

Ancient tree

To see if there was older evidence, the team excavated at the site — working amidst meditating Buddhist monks and nuns — and discovered the remnants of an ancient timber enclosure buried under a series of brick temples. The timber structure contained an open space at the center and was likely open at the top.

Further analysis revealed the presence of tree roots at the center. The team then dated the structure using levels of radioactivity in minerals and the ratio of carbon isotopes, or molecules of carbon with different numbers of neutrons, from charcoal and grains of sand.

The team concluded that the older structure dated to the sixth century B.C. The new discovery may help anchor the Buddha's birth in time. The site, with its centuries of shrines, could also reveal the evolution of Buddhism from a local cult to a worldwide religion, the authors write in the paper.

More on LiveScience and MNN:

This story was originally written for LiveScience and has been republished with permission here. Copyright 2013 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company.