Probable Muslim graves of early medieval origin unearthed in southern France

Medieval_Muslim-Graves_France_Moors_Berbers_1Credit: Gleize et al.

Remember the Arabic ring with ‘Allah’ inscription found in a Viking grave near Birka, Sweden? Well this time around researchers from the University of Bordeaux (along with French National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research) have identified three skeletons in an early medieval French grave who may have been of the Islamic faith. To that end, the discovery of the remains was made in Nimes, near the Mediterranean coast of France, just northeast by the city of Montpelier. Now in historical terms, this region north of Pyrenees did come under the influence of the Umayyad caliphate for a short period (in 8th century AD), and was known as Septimania in both late antiquity and the early middle ages.

Political upheavals aside, the initial centuries of the so-called Moorish occupation of Iberia (Spain and Portugal) resulted in a unique scope of European cultural syncretism with varied influences of the ruling Arab class, the Berbers, the native Andalusian people (some of whom retained their Christian traditions) and a thriving mercantile class of Jewish faith. Many of these societal and cultural undertones are well documented in case of Iberia. But the historians are still in the dark about most of the historical factors when it comes to the short Islamic influence north of Pyrenees (in present day France).


Military campaigns and geopolitical situation circa 740 AD, near Pyrenees.

However in this particular case, the evidences of these buried humans being Muslims are actually mounting. In that regard, one of the most crucial elements pertains to the custom of burial where all the skeletons are facing towards Mecca (along with proper body positioning), a widely known Islamic funerary rite. As for more intrinsic evidences, the researchers have analysed their genetic markers that indicate possible paternal lineage from North Africa. Even radiocarbon dating has established that the skeletons were buried between the period of 7th to 9th century AD. And at last but not the least, the archaeologists had also performed preliminary DNA analysis and forensic assessments that would ascertain the age and gender of the specimens – and the complementary results also hint at Islamic origins.

Interestingly enough, as opposed to how we base our notions on medieval history, these skeletons were treated with proper burial customs in a region that was predominantly Christian. The researchers also didn’t find any combat trauma marks, while the placement of the graves was close enough to the town center – thus suggesting that these men were not shunned by the community. By stringing together all of these bits and pieces of information, one could surely arrive at a credible scenario where these men were of probable Berber origin (from North Africa). And since most of the Berbers of the contemporary Umayyad caliphate tended to be soldiers, it can be assumed that these men possibly had army pedigree.

The researchers however are still perplexed by the scope of these men actually reaching southern France and then possibly settling there. In any case, they have concluded that in spite of the very low number of graves, these skeletal specimens probably provide one of the first direct ‘archaeological and anthropological’ evidences (beyond literary mentions) of Islamic influence in the Septimania region.

For more info, you can take a gander at the online study published in PLOS ONE.

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