This is one of those posts with a long history suddenly brought into the light. I stubbed this in 2016, having just then found the article on which it is focused, but it relates to an older post of mine about a different article from 2008, so we are digging back a bit. And digging is the operative word, because what this post is about is three bodies that were excavated in Nîmes in 2007, whose erstwhile owners appear to have been the first Muslims in the area of modern France whom we can document archaeologically. A bold claim, you may think, though obviously somebody has to be, but the excitement here would be that they appear to date from the pretty brief period in which Nîmes was actually Muslim-ruled, more or less A. D. 719 to 737.1
Given my long record of scepticism of surprising claims by scientifically-focused archaeologists who don’t consult with historians (or when they do, don’t give them authorial credit), which this team seemingly didn’t, you might expect me to be about to challenge this, but actually in so far as such a claim can be demonstrated, I think they’ve done it. The bodies were uncovered lying on their right sides with their heads to the south-east, more or less the direction of Mecca, with a small niche at one side of each grave, and this matches what they can say about Muslim burial elsewhere, including more or less the same time in the Pyrenees thanks to an Islamic cemetery uncovered a few years ago in Pamplona.2 Christian burial would usually be on the back, heads east, and even the local pagan burials would usually have been face-up. So, that they were buried as Muslims rather than as Christians seems reasonable to me. Likewise the dating: they got radiocarbon samples from each skeleton, ran their tests against a good recent calibration curve and they came out centred on the beginning of the eighth century, which could hardly be better. And they also did genetic testing on DNA from tooth pulp, and one haplotype (I’m out of my depth with this terminology here still) and one Y-chromosome feature they detected, as well as a skeletal deformation, are common in modern African populations and vanishingly rare in modern French ones.3 So.
It’s not that I have no quarrels with this piece, obviously; I remain myself. But relatively, they’re small. Firstly, I wish the authors didn’t finish by deciding that the men (for all three probably were men) were probably “Berbers”, because that’s a modern term and gets you into some awkward assumptions about ethnic continuity that otherwise this article does pretty well avoiding.4 At the time people from North Africa would probably have been called Mauri by their hosts in Nemausus, ‘Moors’ to us, and for all we know, they might have disagreed and thought themselves Vandals or Romans or who knows what, or alternatively they might have been doing their best to pass as Arabs, with all the social cachet that brought in the early Islamic world. That brings us to the second point, which is that old one, their skeletons don’t preserve their minds and just because we have a historical framework into which these men fit doesn’t mean we understand who they were. The authors of the article are alive to this to an extent: they say it would make sense if these men were soldiers but they show no skeletal features that would substantiate that guess, and other people also moved with Muslim armies.5 But there is also a Christian burial lying between our three, which the article authors tell us (without any evidence provided, this time) is also seventh- or eighth-century.6 Well, OK, that’s a long window, and if he or she was buried there in 650 and our Muslim men were buried in 725, or else the Christian followed them in in 775, then probably no connection really, or even necessarily any knowledge by whoever came second that the first burial had happened. If they are associated, though, which at least spatially they are, then we have to consider the possibility that whatever these Muslim men were, this Christian person also was, at least to those who chose where he or she should be buried, and that warns us that we might not be seeing the aspects of these people’s identity that most mattered. What can you tell now about someone from their choice to be buried or cremated, after all? Or about someone’s lifetime religious beliefs if they’re buried in a war cemetery?
Oh yeah, that’s the third thing, the cemetery. The authors are circumspect about this, but it doesn’t seem really to have been one. The ground in question contained, as they say early on, “about twenty medieval and modern graves scattered across the countryside”. If we use the smallest spread over time that those words, strictly applied, make possible, and suppose that these burials are the earliest and the latest were from only just A. D. 1500, that would still only mean on average a burial every forty years, ‘scattered’.7 The site was inside the old Roman walls, and seems once to have been occupied, since Roman building stone had to be moved out of one grave, and it was close to a road, but I still think we mean more ‘abandoned ground’ than ‘organised burial plot’. The authors flannel and say that burial didn’t happen in centralised places yet, but I know the paper they cite for this and its author says that churchyards are late, not any kind of cemetery burial, and there were actually lots of early medieval cemeteries before churchyard burial became usual.8 This pretty obviously isn’t one, though. The authors admit that the burial location raises questions, but demand to see it as inclusion in the community in a complex way; I am less sure.
Nonetheless, this is a useful article; I’ve already taught with it twice since I stubbed this post, in fact, and undergraduate history students can get the point of it. What, however, makes it ‘better’ than the 2008 article I mentioned at the start? Well, there’s several things that give me more confidence in this one’s findings. Most obviously, we are dealing here with historic material, not modern DNA, and even if the historic DNA can only be compared with modern people’s at least the points of comparison are more or less known. Secondly, there is corroborating information; the chance of their being right about what they have just from the DNA is already higher here than with the 2008 study, but the radio-carbon dates clinch it, for me. The range of possible interpretations is so much more closely confined. The two studies weren’t, of course, trying to do the same thing really, but they were using some of the same techniques and for me this is just a safer use of them if what you want to do is history (or indeed archaeology). Still: I do wish they’d actually included a historian as part of the team…
1. Yves Gleize, Fanny Mendisco, Marie-Hélène Pemonge, Christophe Hubert, Alexis Groppi, Bertrand Houix, Marie-France Deguilloux, Jean-Yves Breuil, “Early Medieval Muslim Graves in France: First Archaeological, Anthropological and Palaeogenomic Evidence” in PLoS One Vol. 11 (San Francisco 2016), e0148583, online here.
2. Ibid., p. 2, citing J. A. Faro Carballa, M. García-Barberena Unzu, M. Unzu Urmeneta, “La presencia islámica en Pamplona” in Philippe Sénac (ed.), Villes et campagnes de Tarraconaise et d’al-Andalus VIe-XIe siècles :la transition (Toulouse 2007), pp. 97–139.
3. Gleize et al., pp. 6 for the radio-carbon and pp. 6-7 for the DNA.
4. Ibid. p. 9.
5. Ibid. p. 8.
6. Ibid. p. 6.
7. Ibid. pp. 3-4.
8. Ibid. p. 9, citing Elizabeth Zadora-Rio, “The making of churchyards and parish territories in the early-medieval landscape of France and England in the 7th-12th centuries: a reconsideration” in Medieval Archaeology Vol. 47 (2003), pp. 1-19, DOI: 10.1179/med.2003.47.1.1, which I actually got to see given live, the second seminar I ever blogged in fact. As I said, this post has a long history…