How food waste helped us discover the existence of a Christian community in 12th century Islamic Iberia

How food waste helped us discover the existence of a Christian community in 12th century Islamic Iberia

In the 12th century, Cercadilla, a neighbourhood outside Cordoba in southern Spain, was under Islamic control. At this time populations of Muslim, Christian and Jewish communities lived together in a region known as al-Andalus.

There are two presiding schools of thought on how the interfaith society in al-Andalus operated. The most popular view, held by most historians of the period, is that there were no serious and open inter-religiousconflicts in al-Andalus between the three main religious communities. This idea, known as La Convivencia (The Coexistence) was first proposed by the Spanish philologist Américo Castro in the 1940s.

However, La Convivencia has been criticised by a few as an idealised view of a much more complex period of history. This group believe that medieval Spain is best characterised by conflict rather than cooperation. This idea is backed up by written sources which reveal that much of the 12th-century Christian community in Islamic Iberia would have disappeared as a consequence of either persecution, deportation, emigration or their forced conversion to Islam.

But recent zooarchaeological research (the study of animal remains from archaeological contexts) points to the persistence of some Christians in the area showing that the period was much more complex and cannot simply be characterised as only happy coexistence or total conflict.

Food and identity in al-Andalus

“Tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are”. This saying, attributed to french jurist Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, highlights the remarkable importance of food habits in the shaping and definition of the identity of both people at an individual level and societies at a collective one.

Zooarchaeology contributes to the study of these and other topics from a historical perspective. Generally speaking, zooarchaeology deals with the analysis of material remains recovered from dumps of refuse, containing food rubbish related to domestic environments. For this reason, the material that we study contains extremely valuable information concerning what people ate in the past, and much more.

Zooarchaeology is particularly helpful for the study of culturally complex societies such as al-Andalus. Apart from the specific beliefs of Muslims, Christians and Jews, belonging to each of these ethnoreligious groups depended upon the adoption of daily practices. Among these defining habits are the dietary norms that set out the different approaches each ethnoreligious group followed concerning animals.

Zooarchaeologist logs data about bones.
Zooarchaeological data recording. Author provided

The analysis of food refuse might allow us to gain insights into the socio-cultural identity of groups of people in the past. This is done by assessing the frequency of certain species in the waste. In this regard, the presence of pig remains in dumps of refuse from medieval Iberia is of particular significance as pork is banned by the religious laws of both Muslims and Jews and thus represents a marker of ethnic identity in medieval times.

This was a line of research that proved helpful in identifying the cultural identity of those who had eaten the food and created the waste in a different site in Cartuja, Granada dating to after the fall of Islamic Iberia.

Cercadilla (Córdoba)

The same research approach was applied to the study of the archaeological site of Cercadilla. Although the history of this site is complex – including a palatial Roman complex reused in medieval times as a Christian burial ground – we focused on the site’s last phase of occupation in the last period of Islamic control of Córdoba before the Catholic conquest, which occurred in the year 1236.

Archaeological excavations on this site provided two samples of animal remains. The first was interpreted as food refuse overwhelmingly dominated by pig remains and, the other, a pierced scallop recovered from a living room.

The high frequency of pig suggests that pork was consumed on-site, a behaviour that implies a flagrant transgression of the most important Islamic dietary rule. The scallop, meanwhile, was identified as a piece of material culture linked to the symbolic universe of medieval Christianity given its similarity with those scallop badges typically associated with the pilgrimage to the shrine of St James in Santiago de Compostela, in the north-west of modern Spain.

Pierced scallop shell.
Pierced scallop shell from Cercadilla. Mª del Carmino Fuertes., Author provided

Our investigations, therefore, suggest the persistence of a Christian Andalusi group (also known as “mozárabes”) on the outskirts of Córdoba until the 12th century, challenging the idea that all but a few had disappeared due to persecution, deportation, emigration or their forced conversion to Islam.

The Conversation

Marcos García García receives funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Guillermo García-Contreras Ruiz is International Co-IP of the project "Landscape of (Re)conquest: Multicultural frontiers in Medieval Southwestern Europe" funded by the AHRC (UK)

Translate »