An Islamic necropolis dating back to the eighth century has been unearthed revealing at least 450 graves with almost all of them pointing south-east towards Mecca.
The site, which was discovered under the asphalt of a street in the town of Tauste, in the northern Spanish region of Aragon, is the oldest in the Iberian Peninsula, say experts.
What started out as run-of-the-mill municipal construction work in the street of this Aragonese town of 7,000 people, has turned into a huge archaeological discovery as experts claim they have found what is believed to be the oldest collective burial of Muslims on the Iberian peninsula, with at least 450 graves dating back to between the 8th and 12th centuries.
Rafael Laborda Lorente, 33, director of the excavation project, along with Eva Gimenez, are part of an archaeological company called Paleoymas that works closely with the construction industry, explained in an interview with the Madrid Metropolitan that since 2010, neighbourhood association Elpatiaz had been asking the authorities to investigate the area as every time they were building a house there, human remains were unearthed.
Taking advantage of information provided by locals and the fact that there was going to be significant construction work in the area, the archaeologists decided to investigate.
The beginning of the archaeological dig started in September, and shortly after removing the lairs of asphalt, the graves appeared. So far, the archaeologists have found 450 graves but there might be more as the investigation continues. Most of them are in very good state of preservation and there are human remains there, including that of children.
The graves were placed so that the face of the deceased would face Mecca. “The bodies were buried following Islamic ritual, so in the same direction, with […] the face looking towards Mecca”, Mr Laborda explained.
He also said that there have been exceptions to that rule of the burial ritual, but very few cases, only four or five so far, so it could be considered that a mistake was made when those bodies was buried.
The bodies were found with no other burial artefacts, as is common in the Islamic burials, and they were naked and only covered with a shroud, with no coffin, with the bodies placed directly on the ground in the graves.
The main characteristic of these ‘maqbara’, as Muslim graves are called, is that they are small, not only because there were children, between six and seven years old, buried there, but also because the average size was between 1.60 metres tall for men and 1.50 metres tall for women.
“According to the evidence, the burials started in 714 AD and possibly lasted until 1121, after the arrival of King Alfonso I of Aragon”, he added.
The discovery is important because it shows the presence of Islamic people in the area before the arrival of the Christians and Alfonso I, as “there were no sources reporting the presence of Islamic people in the area, so the archaeology has complemented written history”.
The expert also explained that the bodies found in the graves are from different generations spanning a period of four centuries.
The archaeological work is still ongoing in the area and the bodies are being taken into storage in order to undergo genetic analysis and to find out more about their history.
Regarding the causes of the death, Laborda said that the investigation is ongoing but so far there is no evidence of violent deaths.
The Moors arrived in 714 AD in the Ebro Valley, where this site is located, three years after their arrival on the Iberian Peninsula, Laborda explained.
The last of the Moorish Taifas ( kingdoms), Granada, fell in 1492, however the Islamic population remained in Spain until their final expulsion in 1609.