Europe’s Oldest Muslim Graves Discovered in France

PARIS – In a discovery that may unfold secrets about early Muslim existence in the European continent, skeletons of three Muslims were found in Southern France in graves believed to date back to the 8th century.

“We knew that Muslims came to France in the eighth century but until now we did not have any material evidence of their passage,” Yves Gleize, an anthropologist with the French National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research and lead author of the study, told Agence France Presse (AFP) on Wednesday, February 24.

Archaeologists working in southern France have identified three graves that are believed to represent the oldest Muslim burials ever found in Europe, dating to the eighth century.

The researchers found a total of roughly 20 scattered graves, yet the three described in the study in the journal Plos One stood out by showing bodies laid on their right side with their heads pointing toward Makkah.

One was in his 20s when he died, another in his 30s and the third was older than 50. Their bones showed no sign of injury in combat.

A genetic analysis of the skeletons at medieval site at Nîmes showed their paternal lineage was North African.

The discovery suggests the early medieval presence of Muslims north of the Pyrenees was more complicated, and perhaps more welcome, than previously thought.

Furthermore, radiocarbon dating shows the bones likely date from the seventh to ninth centuries, suggesting they came from the Muslim conquests of Europe during that period.

“Given all of these data, we propose that the skeletons from the Nîmes burials belonged to Berbers integrated into the Umayyad army during the Arab expansion in North Africa,” said the study.

According to historical documents, around the year 719, Muslim troops from the Umayyad army crossed the eastern Pyrenees and occupied the region around Narbonne 530 miles south of modern-day Paris.

But the occupation was short-lived. By 760, the Franks, who came from the north, took over the region known as Septimania.

The findings add a new dimension to knowledge about the era, which had been limited to history books and rare bits of archeological data.

The discovery of the graves near a major roadway in Nîmes dates back to 2006 as construction workers were digging an underground parking garage.

Another Muslim grave site has been found in Marseimulle, but it dates to the 13th century. One found in Montpellier may date to the 12th century.