What Is 'Islamic' Archaeology?

By Petersen, Andrew | Antiquity, March 2005 | Go to article overview

What Is 'Islamic' Archaeology?


Petersen, Andrew, Antiquity


Given the popularity of archaeology today and the prominence of the Muslim faith in contemporary world affairs, it is perhaps surprising that these two factors have not resulted in a flourishing discipline of Islamic archaeology. The reasons for this situation are diverse and complicated, and yet the material culture of such a great intellectual movement undoubtedly has much to tell us about its own and the other societies with which it has interacted over many centuries. For the purposes of our special series, 'Islamic archaeology' will be taken to describe the investigation of the material culture of Muslim peoples from the origins of Islam (c. AD 630) to the recent past. We shall show examples of fieldwork and interpretation in progress and hope to reveal something of the potential for new approaches and broader understanding that the subject undoubtedly contains.

The origins of Islamic archaeology have been investigated in some detail by Vernoit (1997) who has shown how it began with the collection of medieval Middle Eastern antiquities in the nineteenth century, later extending to the learned appreciation of Islamic architecture. The focus on Islamic Art (cf. Grabar 1987) and architecture (e.g., Creswell 1989) has meant that Islamic archaeology has, in the past, often appeared to be more concerned with the aesthetics of the buildings and objects than the societies which produced them (see also Rogers 1976). This brings us to the problem of how to best define 'Muslim society' for purposes of archaeological study. One approach, most recently exercised by Tim Insoll (1999), is to define the society by its religion, so that Islamic archaeology (such as 'Christian Archaeology', Frend 1996) is structured primarily as the archaeology of a religion. Others have interpreted 'islamic' more broadly to apply to a society where Islam is the religion of the ruling class, but may not be professed by a majority of the population. This appears to have been the case in Syria during the Umayyad period (AD 661-750) where the majority of the population were non-Muslim at least up to the end of the seventh century (see, for example, Schick 1995). Whilst not mutually exclusive in practice, these two approaches have focused on different themes, the one concerned with defining and understanding Muslim thinking and the other looking at structures of power in Muslim states. Within this special series it will be apparent that both approaches have been followed, and in some cases combined, producing a rich band of interpretation.

There have been several previous attempts to bring Islamic archaeology to a wider public starting with the publication of an issue of World Archaeology devoted to the subject in 1983. In 1990, the first journal devoted to Islamic archaeology was published in Paris under the title Archelogie Islamique, but unfortunately problems of distribution have meant that the journal has not achieved a wide readership outside France. More recently, the publication of Tim Insoll's book The Archaeology of Islam (1999) has provided a focus for debate on the scope and purpose of Islamic archaeology. In addition to these publishing ventures, Islamic archaeology has been the subject of special sessions at various conferences such as BANEA (British Association of Near Eastern Archaeologists) held in Edinburgh in 1990 and at sessions of ICNEA (International Conference of Near Eastern Archaeologists) in Copenhagen in 2001 and in Paris in 2002. A majority of these initiatives has understandably concentrated on the archaeology of western Asia (the Middle East) and north Africa. But sub-Saharan Africa, the Indian sub-continent and southeast Asia were fully integrated into the medieval Muslim world. This can be seen from the writings of Ibn Battuta, who in the fourteenth century AD travelled from West Africa to China staying predominantly within Muslim communities (Defremery & Sanguinetti ed. 1853-8).

The medieval Islamic world was more than twice the size of medieval Christendom (Figure 1), covering a huge area from Kazan in the north (on the same latitude as Moscow) to southern Indonesia (on the same latitude as northern Australia). …

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