A new study that combines archaeological, historical, and bioarchaeological data sheds new light on the early Islamic period in Syria. Initially aiming to concentrate on an era much more ancient, the research squad inadvertently stumbled upon what they believe to be early Muslim remains in the rural expanses of Syria.
The Middle East boasts a widely acclaimed history that encompasses an array of ethnicities, cultures, and religious traditions, offering a captivating narrative. While historical records contribute significantly to our knowledge of this diverse and vibrant history, the region’s impressive material culture and archaeological sites have been augmented recently by significant bioarcheological data.
This enhancement has been achieved through the application of new technologies capable of analyzing deteriorated materials, thus expanding our understanding of the region situated at the convergence of three continents. A team characterized by its multidisciplinary and multinational composition is now unveiling fresh bioarchaeological insights into the early Islamic age in contemporary Syria.
At the Neolithic site of Tell Qarassa in present-day Syria, numerous burials were unearthed during excavation campaigns spanning 2009 and 2010. The coordination of these excavations was a joint effort by a Spanish-French team, inclusive of Syrian students participating in every archaeological endeavor, augmenting their training in archaeology.
The research proceeded under the authorization and continual cooperation of the Syrian Arab Republic’s General Directorate of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM). It’s noteworthy that the Syrian civil war commenced shortly after these excavations and continues to persist.
Archaeogeneticist Cristina Valdiosera of the University of Burgos, Spain, who spearheaded the study, elaborates, “With the objective of examining the earliest agricultural communities in the region, we subjected the remains of 14 individuals to analysis of ancient DNA.”
She further clarifies, “Out of these, only two individuals from the upper layers of the site contained sufficient amounts of endogenous DNA and these came from graves that we assumed belonged to a later prehistoric period. After radiocarbon dating it became clear we had something unexpected and special.”
The graves, pinpointed through radiocarbon dating, traced back to the Umayyad Era, during the late 7th and early 8th centuries (the second caliphate).
In view of these remarkably recent dates, a reevaluation of the burial practices revealed a conformity to early Muslim interment customs. Devoid of the radiocarbon data, discerning this cultural identity would have remained impossible due to the absence of previously documented Muslim settlements or burial sites within the vicinity. Additionally, the archaeological site itself had exclusively been acknowledged as a prehistoric location.
“Surprisingly, the genomic findings indicate dissimilarities between the two individuals and the majority of ancient or contemporary Levantines. The most akin modern groups, albeit not identical, were found among Bedouins and Saudis, implying a potential connection to the Arabian Peninsula,” conveys evolutionary biologist Megha Srigyan, who undertook the data analysis as part of her master’s studies at Uppsala University, Sweden.
Uppsala University population geneticist Torsten Günther, who co-coordinated the study, said: “Most of our evidence is indirect but the different types of data, taken together, point to this man and woman belonging to transient groups far from home, suggesting the presence of early Muslims in the Syrian countryside.”
The scrutiny of a male and a female yielded insights into the introduction of novel cultural and religious practices to the Levant. It is extraordinary that by studying just two individuals, we were able to uncover a small but remarkable piece of the colossal puzzle that makes up the history of the Levant,” says Cristina Valdiosera,” remarks Cristina Valdiosera.
In this particular instance, the amalgamation of archaeological, historical, and bioarchaeological data was imperative to reach a conclusion, given that each facet provided crucial clues. This underscores the significance of embracing a multidisciplinary approach, concludes Torsten Günther.
The human remains retrieved from Qarassa, along with the remainder of the archaeological artifacts, found their resting place in the Archaeological Museum of Sweida, Syria. These artifacts have since been under the guardianship of the Syrian DGAM, in compliance with their regulations.