Islamic Archaeology

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Islamic Archaeology is becoming very fashionable. On the 26th of February, we attended a Study Day at the British Museum on the Archaeology of Islam, led by the indefatigable Timothy Insoll, now Reader in Archaeology at Manchester, and I found much that was fascinating: but I am still left with some nagging doubts. Just how does Islamic archaeology compare with the Graeco-Roman civilisation that went before? On so many Roman sites, we hear the same story: of collapse in the 5th and 6th centuries, followed by the ‘Dark Age’ of Islam. In North Africa for instance, once the bread basket of the Roman world, agriculture – and the irrigation that lies behind it – appears to collapse with the coming of Islam.
Now is this view fair to Islam? Should there perhaps be a different story? Could one not argue perhaps that the Roman world collapsed in the 5th and 6th centuries, before the rise of Islam? Could it not be said that Islam brought about an entirely different pattern of settlement with towns such as Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad being situated on different sites to their Roman predecessors? How did they compare? I think there is probably a good case to be made for Islamic archaeology – but it has not been made yet.
And what of field walking? In many parts of the world, field walking is revolutionising our ideas – one thinks, for instance, of the classic South Etruria survey and its evidence for the rise of Rome. You walk the field, pick up pottery, date the pottery and draw a graph to show the rise and fall of pottery types – and the rise and fall of civilisations? Well, one tries, anyway. But what are the results of field walking in the Islamic world? Is the volume of pottery from, say, the 3rd and 4th centuries greater or less than the amount of pottery in say the 8th or 9th? I would like to know.
Perhaps too, there are different types of site to be discovered in the Islamic world. It is a world of mosques and palaces, of schools and fountains. We heard at the Study Day about one particular type of structure, the fortified way-stations set along the route of the Haj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. For a thousand years the Haj was made on foot, but today the pilgrims travel by rail, bus and air, and the old way-stations are being forgotten and neglected; a major effort is needed to preserve them. To understand the Muslim world perhaps we need to study such sites. A lot of new information is beginning to appear from Islamic archaeology – The Turks exhibition reviewed in this issue provides a fascinating foretaste. As the new projects emerge, we shall be onto them in Current World Archaeology.

This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 10. Click here to subscribe

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