Reflections on the Moroccan-American Investigation of Qsar es-Seghir, 1972-1981
by Charles L. Redman
Soon after receiving my PhD in anthropological archaeology I had the good fortune of being offered financial support and the opportunity to direct an excavation in Morocco focused on the development of Islamic Urbanism. I was an advocate of what was called at the time, “new archaeology” and assembled a multi-disciplinary team including anthropologists, art historians, historians, and ethnographers. The Moroccan ministry of culture was very welcoming and recommended that we focus on Qsar es-Seghir, a fortified town on the Straits of Gibraltar that was well known, but up to that time had received very little archaeological attention. The site had been planted with several thousand pine trees in an effort to make it park-like. This precipitated an early disagreement with a local sheik who questioned whether a permit from Rabat to conduct archaeological research included cutting trees down where we were going to excavate. With the help of our representative from the Archaeological Service we were able to settle this dispute and hire a cohort of local villagers to help with the physical labor of conducting archaeological excavation. Each subsequent season we hired many of the same laborers and many of them became skilled craftsmen at their tasks leaving the advanced students from Rabat, the US and Europe to focus on note taking and directing the work.
Although our priority was to discover and understand the sequence of modest-sized Islamic cities that comprised Qsar es-Sehgir, it was immediately apparent that all of these remains had been transformed and covered over by the Portuguese fortifications and settlement. The challenge was that in order to study the Islamic period remains we would have to first uncover, study, and then remove the Portuguese period remains. This led to the conundrum that our focus of interest was in the lower levels of the site, but we would have to investigate a larger area of the upper levels in order to reach them. In both periods we attempted to balance our effort between revealing the system of fortifications and their decorations, the town’s central institutions, and a representative sample of the vernacular architecture. In an attempt to record all of this accurately we instituted a detailed system of field notes and employed professional architects to record the buildings and their features. We also employed rigorous recovery techniques to save, catalogue and interpret hundreds of thousands of artifacts all with the help of computers. The primary category were fragments of ceramic vessels, but many tools, weapons, jewelry, coins, glass vessels, and food remains were also found and studied to reveal many details of daily life as well as trade connections, and helped with assigning a chronology to the deposits.
Altogether, it was close to a decade of discovering wonderful things that reflected the talented and creative people who occupied this special location and contributed to the medieval history of the Maghreb and Western Mediterranean.