The earliest of them, from the 1st century AD, are the oldest Buddhist manuscripts in existence. They are written in Gandhari, a Middle Indo-Aryan language derived from Sanskrit, which was used in ancient Gandhara, a region that corresponds to parts of modern-day Afghanistan and north-western Pakistan.
Dr Mark Allon, a lecturer in the Department of Indian Subcontinental Studies, has been working on these "Dead Sea Scrolls of Buddhism" for nine years and is the first person to have read some of the texts since they were written.
"Before the discovery of these manuscripts, Gandhari was primarily known through coin legends and inscriptions which are highly formulaic and have a limited vocabulary," he said. "These manuscripts therefore substantially increase the corpus of documents in this language."
The bulk of them are now kept in three separate collections in Europe, including the British Library. "If they had not come into the west, these 'pagan' documents would most likely have been destroyed by the Taliban," said Dr Allon. "So we see our work as part of preserving the history and culture of this region and, just as importantly, of making these very significant documents available to the wider public, to the scholarly community and to the world of knowledge at large."
The Gandhari manuscripts are constructed of birch bark which becomes brittle with age, or palm leaf. A large number are damaged or fragmentary, and they are exceptionally difficult to read: there are no spaces between words and the spelling was never standardised. For example, the Sanskrit word dharma, meaning 'law' or 'teaching' may appear in Gandhari as dharma, darma, dhama, dhrama, or dhrarma.
"It takes a long time to reconstruct a manuscript," said Dr Allon, "and often I'm not able to make sense of the text at first." But with further research - perhaps looking for the same story in other languages such as Pali, Sanskrit, or Chinese - what was previously merely a string of letters suddenly becomes meaningful text.
"The Buddha died around 400 BC leaving no written texts. Rather, his sermons and stories of his life, such as of his enlightenment gained under a Bodhi tree, were preserved in oral texts composed by his followers," said Dr Allon.
"Most Buddhist manuscripts are relatively recent, so the discovery of these very ancient manuscripts sheds new light on the transmission of the literature and on ancient Buddhism."
He describes his work as difficult but very rewarding. "The more difficult the problem, the more exciting the result. It's something I experience virtually every day."
Dr Allon's interest in Buddhist studies started at art school in Sydney. At university he studied Buddhist languages and western philosophy as his major, with a particular interest in Pali, which is related to Gandhari.
When the Gandhari manuscripts started appearing in 1996, Dr Allon went to work for Professor Richard Salomon, head of the British Library/University of Washington Early Buddhist Manuscripts Project, based in Seattle, USA.
In 2002 he returned to Australia to take up a five-year ARC research project on Gandhari manuscripts in the Department of Archaeology at Sydney. He started a three-year lectureship at the University last September which is funded by the University Buddhist Education Foundation.
"It is important that Buddhist studies is represented in Australian universities," he said. "Buddhism is becoming popular in Australia and many of our recent immigrants originate from Buddhist countries or from countries whose history and culture has been shaped by Buddhism."
One Gandhari manuscript translated by Dr Allon reads: "The Buddha's teaching is easy to perform, but only by a wise man, not a fool." Two thousand years later, Mark Allon is proving the truth of those words.
By University of Sydney