Evidence of early Muslim burials unearthed in Nimes

February 28, 2016

Three sets of medieval-era remains found France may turn out to be some of the earliest evidence of Muslim presence outside of the Iberian Peninsula, scientists say.

The Early Middle Ages was a period of expansion and conquest for the Arab-Islamic world, culminating in the expansion of Islamic caliphates into what was once known as Al-Andalus, or Muslim Spain. The impact of several hundred years of Islamic rule in the Iberian region has had an indelible and unmistakable influence on Spanish, Portuguese, and Mediterranean history and culture, but the period has shown little in the way of evidence of an Islamic expansion outside of the region – that is until the discovery of these new graves.

As detailed in a newly published research study, the medieval graves dating to the 8th century CE were found in Nimes, near the Mediterranean coast of France northeast of the city of Montpelier, not far from the Côte d’Azur. Researchers from the University of Bordeaux and the French National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research examined the graves closely, claiming that evidence of the way the remains were interred seem to be in line with Islamic funerary practices. Additionally, preliminary DNA analysis and forensic examinations of the remains made in order to determine the age and sex of the individuals in life indicate the possibility of Arab-Islamic ancestry.

The evidence is slowly but surely mounting that these graves may be Islamic in origin. The remains were found to be buried with their bodies pointing towards Mecca, a widely-established Muslim funerary practice. Genetic markers also indicate North African ancestry for the exhumed individuals along their paternal genetic line. Finally, the remains themselves have been radiocarbon dated to somewhere between the 7th and 9th centuries. Researchers have drawn some initial conclusions from this data, theorizing that the individuals interred within the graves at one time could have been Berber soldiers that had been part of the Umayyad army after the caliphate expanded into North Africa.

The authors of the new research study into the identity of these graves say that the graves may be some of the only evidence discovered to date that indicates Muslim settlement north of the Pyrenees. While there does seem to be a high likelihood that these three individuals may have been North African Muslims that had traveled to the south of France via the caliphate’s occupation of the Iberian Peninsula, how or why they came to be, by themselves, so far into what would have been Frankish territory at the time remains a mystery.