Medieval Graves Found in France Suggest Muslim Expats Had Complex Relationship With Local Christians

The Romans built Nimes's Tour Magne in 16 B.C. as part of the city wall. It would have still been a defining feature of the community in the 700s when Muslims arrived. Shadowgate/Flickr

For the first time, archaeologists have uncovered hard evidence of an early medieval Muslim community in southern France. What's more, the findings—three graves in the town of Nimes prepared according to Islamic rites—suggest that Muslims and Europeans may have lived, died and been buried side by side.

Until now, historians studying the period that lasted from the 5th to the 10th centuries have only had written evidence that the Arab expansion spilled into the Mediterranean coastal area of what is today France in the 8th century and stayed for about 40 years. But there is little understanding of how many people came in that conquering wave or even where the new arrivals came from; contemporary chronicles referred to them generically as Saracens, a term that lumped together Muslims of all ethnicities. Now a paper published in the journal PLOS One is helping to fill in the details.

"The discovery was amazing. It was very surprising," says co-author Yves Gleize of the French National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research. "The graves show Muslim burial practices, which means there was a Muslim community in Nimes."

The team used a mix of archaeological observation, radiocarbon dating and DNA testing to show that the skeletons belonged to male Berbers who showed no signs of having died in combat. Previous studies suggest that Berbers converted to Islam and joined the Arab army as it passed through North Africa and moved into what is today Spain.

The graves were among 20 uncovered at the western edge of the city during an excavation performed in advance of the construction of a parking lot. When the burials were made, the immediate area would have been open country near a town and within the protective circle of a wall built previously during the Roman Empire.

"For the first time, we can say there were troops and a community, but we don't know what kind. It could have been a garrison or something else," says Yves. "For the moment, it's difficult to say if the graves and the Muslim community were integrated into the local community or not."

The location of the carefully buried bodies suggests a complex relationship between the Muslims and the local population. Two skeletons were found close together; the third lay about 200 feet away. In between, the archaeologists found the body of a likely Christian that dates to roughly the same period. At the time, the idea of the Christian cemetery was still a new concept. "Christian graves were scattered, and so were Muslim graves. Sometimes, they were buried in cemeteries, and sometimes they weren't," says Yves. Some historians believe the two groups made common cause in fighting invading Franks from the north—a comradery that might also account for the mixed burials.

Ultimately, the graves are a small, tantalizing fragment of a large puzzle that Yves is optimistic other archaeologists will now help piece together. He plans to revisit the records of past burial sites to look for missed evidence of Muslim rites. "This was considered such an unusual thing to find that maybe people excavated other medieval Muslim graves 20 or 30 years ago and didn't realize what they were," he says.