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"The Transformation of the Moroccan Landscape in the Early Islamic period" by Dr Gaetano Palumbo, Head of UCL Qatar's research in Morocco

Salworks at Oued Tahaddart in Morocco

11 December 2017

Our Head of Qatar's Research in Morocco, Dr Gaetano Palumbo came back recently from the archaeological survey conducted in October on the Atlantic Coast of Northern Morocco, between the cities of Tangier and Asilah for UCL Qatar's project The Transformation of the Moroccan Landscape in the Early Islamic period and gives us some insights on the scope of the project and some preliminary findings. The scope of the project, a cooperation between the Moroccan "Institut National pour les Sciences de l'Archeologie et du Patrimoine" (INSAP) and UCL Qatar is to trace the modifications to the cultural and economic landscape of the Tingitan peninsula before and after the arrival of the Arabs in the region. The project is funded by the Qatar National Research Fund under the National Priorities Research Program (NPRP).


The project intends to identify Early Islamic settlements, with the aim to acquire a knowledge of settlement and pottery types, which are still largely unknown in the region. Investigations, however, will not be limited to the Early Islamic periods, but the project will also contribute to the compilation of the Archaeological Map of Morocco, a long-term project led by INSAP that has seen the participation of a number of institutions in the past. For this reason all periods of occupation encountered in the course of the survey will be recorded and documented.

In preparation of the survey conducted in October on the ground, two other surveys took place in the months leading to the field project: a literature survey, which identified with approximation the location of sites discovered by previous research, and an analysis of satellite imagery based on Google Earth. On the basis of anomalies observed on the Google Earth images only we were able to identify more than 80 possible sites.


The survey concentrated on two areas of this region, the first near the estuary of the Tahaddart river, fifteen kilometers north of Asilah, and the second a dozen kilometers inland, in the vicinity of Ain Daliya, south of Tangier.

The Tahaddart river flows, as it approaches the sea, in a plain that can be entirely flooded during particularly rainy winters, therefore the area closer to the coast is characterized by mudflats and marshes. Salt pans are located in this zone, behind coastal sand dunes. Salt is being produced in this area since at least the Roman period, as it was used to cure fish and extract a liquid called garum, much appreciated in Rome and its provinces. Several garum production sites in this region are known from previous archaeological work. Two major sites are also known in this area: Tingis, ancient Tangier, and the Augustan colony of Iulia Constantia Zilil, near the village of Dchar Jdid. A large number of pre-Roman and Roman sites were also discovered in the course of previous archaeological work, but unfortunately a systematic study of these remains has not been conducted yet, while archaeological remains dated to the Islamic periods were often ignored altogether.

Survey data confirms that humans already occupied both the coast and the inland areas during the Middle Paleolithic period, while several Neolithic sites have been found along the coast. The Tingitan peninsula was also the only location in Morocco where megalithic tombs from the Bronze Age were found. Unfortunately most of these structures are lost, but burial sites from this period are still found in the countryside three if which were identified by our survey. Humans settled in the region consistently from at least the fifth century BCE to the Late Roman period, with alternating phases of settlement intensification and abatement, in line with what has been observed in other areas of the peninsula. The material found during our survey is typical enough to allow us to reconstruct a finer chronology for the Mauretanian and Roman periods. The transition from the Late Antique to the early Islamic period, instead, is much more uncertain. An Early Islamic presence has been recognized at several sites, some of which also showing Late Roman occupation, an indication that some areas were used with a certain continuity. The Early Islamic occupation may not be easily recognized due to the lack of ceramic sequences found in stratigraphic contexts, and future project seasons will try to fill this gap in our knowledge by conducting small excavations aimed at retrieving stratigraphic and pottery sequences.

Sites dated to the XI-XII century onwards are more easily recognizable. Ceramics dated to these periods were found both in villages still occupied today and in isolated areas, pointing to a diffused occupation of several hilltop sites. A correlation was also found between marabouts, especially those found at a certain distance from modern villages, and the presence of archaeological sites in their vicinity, a correlation that must be confirmed by future research.

Future project seasons will include more surveys and small excavations or soundings in sites where we hope to find enough pottery on the surface to reveal the presence of stratigraphic contexts spanning the transition from Late Antique to Early Islamic periods (i.e. between the 4th and the 9th century CE), in order to be able to fix a chronology for both pottery and settlement types in the region.

Oued Ghrifa Outlet in Morocco