Review of the 6th Islamic Archaeology Day

On 1 February, organised by Corisande Fenwick (UCL), Rahil Alipour (UCL), Hugh Kennedy (SOAS), Scott Redford (SOAS), and Tim Williams (UCL) an international group of established scholars and early career researchers gathered together to hear new discoveries and ongoing investigations into the archaeology of a geographically and culturally diverse region.

The day began with Michelina Di Cesare (La Sapienza-Rome) on the Great Mosque of Kufa at Qasr al-Imara (Iraq) where the 7th century mosque is getting new attention. Recorded in texts from the period as well having its foundations described by Ibn Battuta and then 20th century excavations which reveal concentric enclosures, towers, courtyards create a complex situation of discovery where written and archaeological evidence do not always align. An oversimplified 2010 reconstruction of the mosque ignores certain historical period architectural elements. Photographic documentation and ortophotoplans are integral to investigations including archival materials to form a more complete understanding of the site.

Discussion of two mosques at Baydha (Petra) by Micaela Sinibaldi (Cardiff University) focused on the close relationship between archaeological remains and the communities who live among them. The longevity of material culture in this region contributes to a fuller understanding of this agriculturally fertile area following the Nabatean period. Evidence of wine making and residential buildings were constructed directly over previous structures. One of the mosques built upon Byzantine and then Nabatean (one wall from this period directly supports the mihrab) structures using recycled materials showing deliberate continuity. Interestingly, the interior walls of this mosque revealed evidence of red painted plaster.

The long history at Dandankan (Daş Rabat), Turkmenistan was discussed by Martina Rugiadi (Metropolitan Museum of Art) and Paul Wordsworth (Oxford). Archaeology is used by these two speakers to delve into larger questions of how objects come to be in a museum collection, differing investigative methodologies, relationships between satellite imagery and reality on the ground as well as historical interactions between small urban centres and their larger metropolitan neighbours. Increased vegetal growth due to the effects of climate change in the area have affected the sites themselves as well as the clarity of aerial images. Again, this discussion highlighted the necessity for cross referencing at every stage along with open communication channels with colleagues in working out answers to the exceptionalness of life in these towns, longevity and material reuse, establishment and abandonment.

Moving on to modern encroachment, Guillermo García-Contreras Ruiz (Universidad de Granada) discussed the periurban landscape of Nasrid Granada currently within the campus of the University of Granada. Remains from the Neolithic to Roman periods to contemporary use are extant but excavations focus on the Medieval period. Joint projects to create 3D models as well as teaching trenches and other rescue excavations have contributed to a picture of the palace remains and urban consumption patterns.

Rosalind Haddon (SOAS) discussed architectural timber palimpsests in Medieval Islam and asked what the main impetus of recycling of building materials was. Focusing on teak, cinnabar, cedar inlaid with mother of pearl, ivory, or carved into other small decorative pieces at the Great Mosque of Sana’a. Studies revealed evidence of pre-Islamic spolia including imported woods (acacia), an ibex frieze on an altar, and an alabaster plaque. Display of luxury materials may have given a more ancient legitimacy to any governing body.

Moving on to zooarchaeological insights, the afternoon commenced with social Islamisation in al-Andalus (Islamic Iberia of the 8th-10th centuries) by Marcos Garcia-Garcia (University of York). Beginning by 711 there is evidence of a social incorporation of ‘Muslim ways’ into the cultural fabric, as evidenced by changes in foodways. Specifically, the swine taboo being a key marker of belonging to Islam which affected crucial habits and therefore the whole system of production and consumption in everyday lifestyles. A marked shift in decline of pig remains and simultaneous increase in cattle and chicken serve as the basis for a much larger discussion of differences in the layering of urban processes.

Consumption of meat continued to be the topic of discussion by Veronica Aniceti (Sheffield) on food taboos in Islamic Sicily between the 9th-11th centuries. Exploitation of animals and introduction of new husbandry practices and are varied between different site-types which show dietary prohibitions and imported traditions. With the western part of the island being the most Islamised, especially in urban centres as evidenced by the changing ratio of pig to cattle and goat remains over time.

Interestingly, both these presentations touched upon the general increase in size of animals as pig consumption drops. This prompted many questions about breeding and different breeds.

Perhaps the most beautiful presentation of the day was given by Rahil Alipour (UCL) whose search for Persian blue has given life to an ancient recipe book as well as the lab work. Beginning with an Iranian manuscript and previous experience in reverse engineering Egyptian blue work has begun to reveal experimental trials and errors. Lacking any archaeological evidence, the texts and other small clues (such as the recipe discussing mixing the material with gum Arabic which may indicate creating pigments used in miniature paintings) provide a rough path. ‘We are always quite used to finding something from evidence but working backwards without an artefact to match is quite interesting’ and her tests thus far suggest that ‘Persian blue exists!’

The final session of the day discussed trade and empire. Beginning with Viva Sacco (École Française de Rome) on the economic history of the 9th-11th centuries in Palermo from Arabic and Judeo-Arabic gazetteers and archaeological data. While texts describe trade, they do not give detailed information about the types of containers. Analysis of the diffusion of glazed wares, amphorae and cooking wares allows for a new chronology and advanced discussion of relations between Amalfi and North Africa.

Katie Campbell (Oxford) discussed the Mongol conquest with evidence from Merv (Turkmenistan) and Otrar (Kazakhstan). While Merv was sacked in 1221 Sultan Sanjar’s mausoleum at the centre of the city retained its significance through the 15th century. Larger questions pertain to the relationship between earlier excavations, their reports, and displacement of surface finds as well as lack of stratigraphic evidence which may have led to a current misconception of the past. Further to this are the inaccessibility of many unpublished excavation reports from the 1980s pertaining to Otrar. Evidence of layers of burned buildings hint at a catastrophe prior to the Mongol invasion meaning the written and archaeological sources do not necessarily match up.

Taking a long-term look at the cycles of trade development – boom and bust – Seth Priestman (British Museum) examined the port and hinterland of Hormuz during the mid- to late-Islamic period. Asking whether a bust necessarily follows a boom and why there is a particular configuration of ports along the north coast. Building on a foundation of earlier studies and large data sets one can begin to see a more complete picture of changes in the region. Exchange of unglazed pottery used in day to day activities when compared with glazed pottery and imports from the Indian Ocean and East Asia and then from Europe show shifts in stabilisation rather than directly indicating periods of boom and bust.

The final discussion remained in the region with the port of Julfar and the Hormuzi maritime empire (1507-1623) with Rob Carter (UCL). The wider trade network as examined by excavations since the 1970s have created a more detailed understanding of the locus of the port including street plans and mudbrick settlements as early as the 13th century. These were abandoned and replaced by a stone town with courtyard houses which was eventually abandoned in the 15th century. Much discussion was had about the abundance of date presses and their indication of relative wealth in the town. Imported East Asian blue & white ceramics are in evidence for this later time period.

All these topics continued to be discussed through dinner where more in-depth conversations and debates were had in a spirit of collaboration and good fun.


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