Pottery Production and Islam in South-East Spain: A Social Model

By Lopez, Jose Cristobal Carvajal | Antiquity, June 2009 | Go to article overview

Pottery Production and Islam in South-East Spain: A Social Model


Lopez, Jose Cristobal Carvajal, Antiquity


Social change in the early Islamic world

The rise of Islam (AD 622-632) was almost immediately followed by a considerable expansion by way of conquest. In little more than a century (AD 632 to c. 750), the Dar al-Islam would stretch from the Iberian Peninsula in the west to the Indian borders in the east. Naturally, political dominion was foremost, while religious and social change would take longer to develop. Research to date points to native cultural continuity in the first years after the conquest, the conquerors keeping themselves separated from the conquered (e.g. Kennedy 1985, 1986, 2007; Carver 1996; Roskams 1996; Walmsley 1996, 2000, 2007; McQuitty 2005; Finster & Schmidt 2005; Genequand 2005; Walmsley & Damgaard 2005). Change was inevitable, however. Local people adopted a new religion, a new language, new costumes, new habits and in general a different perspective of the reality substantially different to the one that they had held before. It is known that this did not happen immediately after the conquest and it is clear that subsequent change was not by way of imposition or oppression. So the question is: how did the changes take place?

The rapid expansion of Islam would not have been possible without the complicity of certain social groups (in most cases they could be considered elites or part of them), which collaborated more or less actively with the Arab conquerors in establishing order in their lands (Kennedy 2007). Thus it is clear that this relationship is a key element of the social and cultural change, and that the institution of the mawali (clients) patronised by Arabs would be one of the main catalysts for the new society to spread.

Acculturation would have varied depending on the character of the impacting cultures. The accounts of the conquest of the Sasanian Empire stress the egalitarian type of the Arabic society as opposed to that of the Persians (Kennedy 2007: 109-59), but when the armies of the conquest marched on Africa their main opponents were the Berbers (mainly a tribal society) and there the Arabs appeared as the defenders of the cities and the state (Kennedy 2007: 237-66). P. Crone (1980) has studied the changes that the Arabic society suffered in its own transition from tribalism to state and the role that the conquest played in it. Conquest meant a constant, though not necessarily large, flow of immigrants from other parts of the Dar al-Islam who brought with them new techniques and technologies (see Watson 1998 for innovations in agriculture). Studies carried out by the team of Professor Barcelo (Universidad Autonoma de Barcelona) have shown direct connections between the irrigated production of two different branches of a Yemenite tribe across the Mediterranean, one in Spain, the other in Yemen (Barcelo 2004).

The study of ceramics offers another way to address these questions of social interaction between conquerors and conquered. Pottery is a social product used by the whole of society and its functions and forms are influenced, perhaps even dictated, by its social role. Research on the functions and the technology of ceramic production provides a potential insight into social changes and cultural allegiance. This requires a broad study of the ceramics in question, going beyond traditional research on style and chronology. The study of pottery must be approached from several fronts: formal, technological, functional and trade-related. Once general patterns are identified, diagnostic features are taken into consideration and quantified. The results are analysed and compared to allow the generation of a hypothesis to explain how the different pots were produced and transported to the site of discovery and also to ascertain how and why different models evolved. A study of a coherent and well-excavated assemblage of pots which reveals temporal and spatial evolution can be related to the economic and social relations of a particular region (Jimenez & Carvajal 2006; Carvajal, in press).

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