The title of the international conference might not be one to get the pulse racing. In fact Islamic Archaeology in Global Perspective could have been the cure for insomnia except for a clutch of excellent speakers. During four days in Bahrain they achieved what most academics aspire to--relating their research in a vital way to our current polarised view of Muslims and their world.
New information from the latest excavations seemed to have less impact on the non-academic members of the conference audience in the National Theatre in Bahrain than the revision of earlier landmark analysis--perhaps reflecting the new, superficial, post-truth mind and a predilection for summaries rather than detailed academic research.
Whether outlining the speed of the spread of Islam across North Africa, or the East African coast's settlement through trade prior to the arrival of the Arabs, or the West's rather self-interested focus on Biblical digs while ignoring Islamic remains, objective revisions gave pause for thought. It seems that the first really globalised conference looked at archaeology as a profession, rather than just their findings.
With British archaeologists outnumbering all others, early, European-sponsored private digs were robustly dissected. Corisande Fenwick, from London University College's Archaeology of the Mediterranean opened eyes in part by looking at the fin de siecle French in the Maghreb: "If you go back before independence archaeology is all driven by colonial scholars attracted by the exotic nature of their finds. That reinforced the idea that the Islamic world was somehow different and needed to be controlled by colonial powers".
She also presented interesting statistics about the disappearance of pork from the Maghreb diet indicating dates for Islam ousting the previous culture. Her talk was fully illustrated with pictures and lots of graphics and we learned that there is to be more work next year at Volubilis as well as other less well-known sites in Morocco.
Such information only added weight to the scholarly talk given by the almost-retired, Paris- based Professor Alastair Northedge who chose Iraq to illustrate his reassessment of the work done across greater Syria. His first point was that Muslims themselves compounded European archaeologists fixation on the Biblical by failing to appreciate the significance of the buildings of the great sanctuaries.
"It is not just Mecca and Medina, but also Shia...