The Middle East is a treasure trove for archaeologists—they flock there from around the world to study its prized artifacts, ruins and fossilized ancient bones.
But by and large, research comes to a standstill when trying to study the skeletons of humans who died in the last 1,400 years.
“In Bahrain it’s forbidden to touch the human remains of those buried in the Islamic faith,” explains Salman Almahari, the chief of heritage preservation at the ministry of culture and antiquities, the authority responsible for excavations on the island.
“Whenever we are excavating an Islamic site, we stop if we find a grave,” he says. “But with pre-Islamic graves we are free to do whatever we want.” The researchers must respect Muslim dead, he says, following the religion’s beliefs.
By contrast, in Europe it’s commonplace to dig up bones from ancient times right through to human remains that are just a century or two old. Even former kings of England aren’t exempt.
But the difference in beliefs has meant that archaeological knowledge of life in the Arab world since the founding of Islam is missing crucial data compared to the same time period in the West.
“It’s a lost opportunity, but it’s also perfectly understandable,” says Timothy Insoll, a professor of African and Islamic Archaeology at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom. He says the prohibition on digging up Muslim graves is a policy across most of the Islamic world, not just the Middle East.
He doesn’t argue for the ban to be lifted because he says it’s important for academics to respect the cultures in the countries where they do research. But the policy has skewed archaeologists’ views of recent history in the region.
“Archaeology in the Islamic world tends to drift toward art, which serves to reinforce a view of pretty things and architecture rather than a full picture,” he explains. “We don’t know anything about disease records. We get an idea of age of death from tombstones, but only wealthy people could afford tombstones.”
Additionally, archaeologists in the region don’t know as much about child mortality, gender mortality or human migration patterns as they would if the study of Muslim graves was permitted.
Almahari would like to take DNA from bones in Bahrain and compare the results with people currently living there to get an idea of past migrations. “I want to know where people have come from and when they arrived in Bahrain,” he says. “I wish we could do this.”
Such DNA analysis doesn’t require a whole skeleton to be taken to the lab—it can be done with fragments chipped from the bones. But getting to the remains to take these samples is still seen as an invasive procedure.
Before beginning work on an archaeological site, researchers try to check to see what lies beneath the surface, in order to minimize the chances of accidentally disturbing a skeleton buried in the Islamic faith.
Subsurface scans help with this. Radar signals are directed towards the ground, and objects such as human remains reflect these signals back toward the surface. The end result is an underground map, and it shows which in direction the bodies are buried.
“When you place a Muslim’s body in the grave, his body should be turned so his face looks towards Mecca,” explains Almahari. There are other giveaways: If a person was buried alongside treasure it’s an indication they may have died before the spread of Islam, which shuns the practice.
Sometimes, of course, archaeologists accidentally disturb a skeleton that they later discover is Islamic. Those occasions may be rare, but they do happen, and opinions on what to do in such a scenario differ.
It’s never happened to Insoll, but he says honesty is the best policy. “I would get an Imam from the local mosque involved and apologize,” he says. “I wouldn’t cover it up. I’d confess to it.”
Almahari, on the other hand, suggests a more subtle approach. He says he’d rebury the body with dignity and leave it alone without telling anyone, for fear of incurring the wrath of the local community. “If people knew that we had dug up the graves, they’d be really angry,” he says.
Some Arab countries are less strict with the ban on disturbing the dead. In Jordan for example, it’s still forbidden to purposefully dig up Islamic grave sites, but if it happens by accident then the archaeologist can be permitted to study what they’ve excavated.
This has happened to Peter Akkermans, a professor of Near Eastern Archaeology at Leiden University in the Netherlands. “It happens,” he says. “No one can predict it.”
“You are allowed to study it, but you have to rebury,” explains Akkermans, “normally within a couple of months.”
Unfortunately, this relatively short period of study means the amount of information Akkermans can extract from accidentally unearthed bones is limited. “You can study the age, gender and diseases,” he says, “but it’s not a structured investigation.”
In the absence of research purposefully designed to study Islamic burials, archaeologists have turned to other techniques to fill in gaps in knowledge.
For example, Almahari looks at other items in the vicinity of graves, items from which he can extract information. In one such example, he describes how a group of archaeologists in Bahrain came across pieces of clay while excavating an Islamic site.
The clay they found was the remnants of a turbah, a tablet often used in prayer. “It’s only used by Shia Muslims,” says Almahari, “so we think it was used by people who came from Iraq.”
In addition to pottery, Almahari says that tomb inscriptions, ruins and literature help to paint a picture of the region’s recent past. “We can get about 95 percent of the information we need from these finds,” he says, “but we still need the skeletons for DNA analysis to get other five percent.”
That may not sound like a huge gap of knowledge, but it’s one that can only ever be filled with the genetic data hiding within the bones of Muslim grave sites. Archaeologists want to respect Islamic wishes and customs, but many would also relish the chance to take bone samples to better understand recent human migration patterns in the region.