Islamic Archaeology

Archaeology is the study of the societies of the past through their material remains. It emerged in European thinking and was inextricably linked to Enlightenment progressive thinking and colonialism. Islamic archaeology can find its roots as early as the 18th century, along with an interest in the arts and architecture of the Islamic societies of the past. This was mainly an antiquarian and orientalist field, focusing on artistic and architectural legacies.

Towards the end of the 19th century and the beginnings of the 20th century the first excavations of Islamic palaces and cities were undertaken by colonial powers with interests in North Africa and in the Middle East: France, Spain, the Ottoman and the Russian Empires. There was, however, some marginal concern in finding the roots of local or national history in Islamic archaeology: for example, Ali Bahgat in Egypt or Manuel Gomez-Moreno in Spain.

There is a wide consensus in placing the beginnings of modern Islamic archaeology with the excavation of Samarra (Iraq) by Erntz E. Hertzfeld and Friedrich Sarre (1911-1913). Their detailed documentation of the site and their finds set the main guidelines for the discipline in the decades that followed. This Islamic archaeology featured documentation of a higher quality, but it was also mainly concerned with elite goods and buildings linked to dynastical histories. It therefore developed mainly along the lines of visual culture studies, especially in art history and architecture.

After the Second World War, archaeology started to depend on institutions located in decolonized countries, and native scholars gained some voice and authority on heritage issues. However, cultural institutions in decolonized countries were (and still are) very dependent on foreign scholarship and funding, and often subordinated to the tourist industry and nationalist agendas. In the particular case of Islamic archaeology, this often meant a secondary position of Islamic periods with respect to other cultural and chronological periods (such as Classical Greece or Rome, the Byzantines, or the Iranian empires). This further hindered the development of an interest in Islamic heritage, which is often perceived as a different aspect of the past in terms of archaeological engagement.

As general archaeology embraced further changes in the decades of the 1960s and 1970s (e.g., a functionalist and neopositivist turn, colloquially known as “Processualism,” or “New Archaeology”) the discipline of Islamic archaeology was barely affected by these new developments. The leading scholars in this field, who rarely styled themselves as “Islamic archaeologists,” were often generalist archaeologists, not directly concerned with the relevant periods of Islamic history. But, as the first regional surveys and stratigraphic excavations of sites happened at this stage, they helped to lay the ground for new approaches within the discipline of Islamic Archaeology.

In the 1980s and especially in the 1990s we witnessed a new transformation of Islamic archaeology, with new questions posited, which embraced a wider vision of Islamic society, including non-elite classes and minorities. A deeper interest also developed in the technical aspects of archaeology as an instrument to provide satisfactory, evidence-based answers to the above questions. Stratigraphies, graphic documentation, maps and drawings started to become more systematic. Archaeological science began to play a more important role than ever before in the study of Islamic archaeology, and this trend continued to increase in the following decades.

By the beginning of the 21th century, the debates on Islamic archaeology took a new turn and acquired new insights, thanks to paradigm shifts and innovative questions coming from post-processual debates and a wider scope adopted by Islamic archaeologists. It is at this time that attempts were made to examine Islamic archaeology from a global perspective, and thus the usual focus on the Middle East and North Africa expanded with research in Sub-Saharan Africa, the Indian Ocean and Central and East Asia. New voices, research questions and methodologies will probably bring about the next relevant turn in Islamic archaeology.