The Archaeology of Islam in Britain: Recognition and Potential

By Petersen, Andrew | Antiquity, December 2008 | Go to article overview
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The Archaeology of Islam in Britain: Recognition and Potential

Petersen, Andrew, Antiquity

What did the British know about Islam before the modern period? The author reviews evidence which shows that there was contact with, and appreciation of, Muslim culture from almost the time of the Hegira iri the seventh century. This appreciation varied and was reflected in different choices of material culture: coinage, ceramics and architecture, in successive periods from the eighth century to the nineteenth.

Keywords: Britain, Islamic archaeology, coinage, ceramics, architecture


Any examination of British war graves from around the world will show that large numbers of Muslims died fighting as part of British forces in both the First and Second World Wars. Certainly Muslims constituted the largest religious cultural group of the British Empire, and in the nineteenth century the British Empire contained the majority of Muslims in the world as a whole. Whilst none of these facts may seem surprising, the relationship between Britain and Islam further back in the past is less well known and there is a presumption that the Muslim presence in Britain and British contact with the Muslim world are relatively recent phenomena.

Recently, however, a number of historians have begun to challenge this concept of a sharply divided world with little or no contact between the Islamic Mediterranean and Britain before the twentieth century. Important new studies include Scarfe Beckett's work on the relationship between Anglo Saxon England and Islam (Scarfe Beckett 2003) and Nabil Matar's work on England's relationship with Turkey and North Africa in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (Matar 1998). However, there has been little attempt to examine the archaeological record for traces of contact with the Muslim world or even for evidence of Muslims in Britain. There are, for example, intriguing references to Muslims working in a variety of occupations in seventeenth-century London which may suggest some form of Islamic infrastructure (Matar 1997).

The material presented here is by no means exhaustive but does aim to show the range of ways in which archaeology (the study of material culture) can illuminate both our relationship with the Islamic world as well as the role of Islam as a cultural factor in British society. Obviously the scope of material is large and I have chosen to concentrate on three areas where there is most potential. These are coins, ceramics and glass, and architecture. There are of course other types of evidence which could be looked at including foodstuff and spices, fabrics (carpets and silks), weapons and metalwork technologies (for metalwork see Allan 1994).


Coins and precious metals

Muslim coinage arrived early in Britain either through direct contact with the Mediterranean or via Scandinavian trade routes. The former is characterised by gold coins whilst the latter consists chiefly of silver coinage (Scarfe-Beckett 2003: 54-60). The most famous example of Islamic gold coinage associated with England is Offa's dinar which although found in Italy was probably struck in England (Figure 1). This coin is a copy of an 'Abbasid dinar of al-Mansur from the year AD 774 and includes the words 'Offa Rex' as well as the more usual Arabic inscriptions (Lowick 1973; Webster & Backhouse 1991). The dinar has attracted considerable attention and a number of theories have been advanced to explain why it was made, including the unlikely suggestion that Offa had converted to Islam (Hannah 2000). A more probable explanation is that the coin was one of a number of coins minted as part of a tribute to the Pope and the choice of an Arab dinar indicates that this was the most respected currency in Europe at the time. The eighth-century Mediterranean exchange with Britain is demonstrated by finds of gold dinars in London, Oxford, Dorset and Sussex (St. Leonards-on-Sea, Arundel and Eastbourne, Figure 2: nos.

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