The title of the international conference might not be one to get the pulse racing. In fact Islamic Archaeology in Global Perspective could have been the cure for insomnia except for a clutch of excellent speakers. During four days in Bahrain they achieved what most academics aspire to – relating their research in a vital way to our current polarised view of Muslims and their world.
With British archaeologists outnumbering all others, early, European-sponsored private digs were robustly dissected. Corisande Fenwick, from London University College’s Archaeology of the Mediterranean opened eyes in part by looking at the fin de siecle French in the Maghreb: “If you go back before independence archaeology is all driven by colonial scholars attracted by the exotic nature of their finds.That reinforced the idea that the Islamic world was somehow different and needed to be controlled by colonial powers”.
She also presented interesting statistics about the disappearance of pork from the Maghreb diet indicating dates for Islam ousting the previous culture. Her talk was fully illustrated with pictures and lots of graphics and we learned that there is to be more work next year at Volubilis as well as other less well-known sites in Morocco.
“It is not just Mecca and Medina, but also Shia shrines in Najaf and Karbala in Iraq” he says. “There seems to be a preference for building something new rather than conserving the old because the emphasis is on the spiritual nature of these places not their materiality.”
He went on to explain that hostility between Islam and the West added to the lack of interest in Muslim remains, but that a new generation of moderate, educated Muslims were actively seeking their cultural roots during Islam’s peak period. “All that millennium and a half of great Islamic civilisation, the golden age discoveries in philosophy, science that can tell us so much.”
He also stated that the moment for a revival of interest in Islamic archaeology is long overdue. “It’s part and parcel of a search for Muslim cultural identity.”
St John Simpson feels we can learn lessons from past mistakes. In particular he singled out the archaeologist’s (intellectually) poor relative the art historian as having distorted our view of some basic information about the daily lives of Muslims.
The dilemma began in the 19th century and continued well into the 20th century because objects that were brought back had been excavated to order. Inevitably they were beautiful and decorative because of the requirements of the dealers who would sell them on to collectors.
The subjective nature of these early digs was further distorted by the art historians who reconstructed material culture on the basis of those objects. St. John Simpson believes that archaeologists do a far better job because they look at all objects in their original context.
“This world of appreciation driven by beauty is the natural perspective of art historians who rate aesthetics over function. So metal ware, certain types of glass and glazed ceramics are elevated slightly disproportionately to their real functional value in the past and unfortunately that gives a rather skewed impression,” he says.
He also drew attention to the elusive nature of Umayyad remains even though Bahrain is an early centre of Islam.
Early seems to be a buzz word among archaeologists exciting them to dig ever further back. Anne Haour deeply involved with Islamic archaeology of West Africa perhaps best sums up the conference. Acknowledging that the past is very important in terms of understanding the current world and where we might be heading, she says,”The world is very much dominated by the West and the geopolitics of the West. And there can be very negative perceptions of Islam, of Africa.”
She went on to elucidate that those “early” experiences, where there is communication and collaboration between populations, signifies that they are making choices about adopting particular crafts or ways of living and rejecting others. “There have never been passive relationships,” she concludes.