On the outskirts of the ancient Roman city of Nimes in southern France, archaeologists have discovered the graves of three Muslim men that date back to the 8th century.
The finding, reported Wednesday in PLOS One, suggests the early medieval presence of Muslims north of the Pyrenees was more complicated, and perhaps more welcome, than previously thought.
The medieval history of Muslims in Spain and Portugal is well established, but information about the experience of Muslims in France during the same time period has been more difficult to find.
According to historical documents, around the year 719, Muslim troops from the Umayyad army crossed the eastern Pyrenees and occupied the region around Narbonne 530 miles south of modern-day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.
Very little known is about these early invaders. Historians cannot say for sure whether they lived in garrisons or created more long-term establishments, or what cities they could be found in. They don't even know if the occupiers were Arabs, Berbers or converts.
And that's why the three Muslim graves that date back to this time period are so valuable.
"They could start to answer these questions," said Yves Gleize, who studies archaeo-anthropology at the University of Bordeaux and was the lead author on the study.
Gleize was among the archaeologists who discovered the graves back in 2006. The researchers found a total of roughly 20 scattered graves, but Gleize said the three described in the study stood out. The position of the skeletons in these three graves suggested the bodies had been arranged so that each of the deceased was lying on his right side, with his head pointing southeast, toward Mecca.
Gleize had seen similar body arrangements in Muslim graves in Montpellier that dated back to the 12th century, and in Marseille from the 13 century.
"My first reaction was that this could be a very important discovery," he said.
He originally thought the graves could be as old as the ones in Montpellier or Marseille. But after sending off a small bit of bone for analysis, he learned that they in fact dated back to a much earlier time, between the 7th and 9th centuries.
"It was very amazing," he said.
Further proof that the graves held Muslim remains came from DNA extracted from each of the skeletons. This genetic data suggested the ancient bones belonged to people of North African lineage.
The researchers were also able to determine that the deceased were all men between the ages of 20 and 50.
"We believe these three individuals were Berbers that had been integrated into the Arab army," Gleize said.
The researchers also say that the traditional Muslim burial of the three soldiers suggests that there was some type of Muslim community in the area at the time, whose members could bury them in this particular way.
In addition, the graves were sprinkled in among those of others who were presumably Christian. That was a sign that Muslims were not necessarily ostracized from the local community.
"It's a very small sample, just three graves, but it shows the early medieval Muslim presence in the south of France is a reality," Gleize said.