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Approximately 3,000 Buddha statues, dating back to the fifth and sixth centuries, were unearthed during an archaeological excavation at Handan in the southwestern part of the Hebei Province of China in January this year. The images of the statues were published last week by National Geographic.

The archaeologists from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences who found the sculptures said the statues are believed to be over 1,500 years old and date back to sometime between AD 534 and AD 577, when Buddhism started to spread through China.

The majority of the recovered statures are made of white marble and limestone; a few were decorated with carvings. This is consistent with practices in the fifth and sixth centuries, Katherine Tsiang, the Director of the Center for the Art of East Asia (at the University of Chicago) explained. Tsiang further said the Buddha statues were decorated, at great expense, to donate to temples.

"People wanted to show their generosity with the use of expensive materials like marble and bronze and expensive pigments and gold," she was quoted as saying by National Geographic, and adding that while those recovered were damaged, the archaeologists were certain the sculptures were buried with due respect.

"There are inscriptions that suggest that old damaged sculptures were not just dumped in a pit, but respectfully buried in an orderly way," she explained.

The sculptures were found at a dig outside the ancient city of Ye and range from being as small as eight inches to life-size works of art. According to Tsiang, the latest find is the largest and rarest of previous discoveries of Buddha statues in China. She admitted she had never heard of so many largely intact statues being recovered. The last large discovery was the finding of over 2,000 pieces of broken Buddha statues at a temple in Dingxian in China's Hebei Province in the 1950s.

"Many sculptures from these sites are similar in style to those found recently at Ye," Tsiang said, adding, "this may be the largest find. I don't know of larger examples."