A skeleton in shackles rewrites Barcelona’s Muslim past, by Carles Cols

In 1991, in the midst of the merciless rush to get Barcelona ready for the Olympic Games, something unforeseen happened at the gates of Born. Sixteen skeletons appeared there, all of them lying on his right shoulder and with the front part of the skull facing southwest, that is, towards Mecca. It was a surprise. It was supposed to be an exceptional site from the short history of Barshiluna, the 83 years in which this city, between 718 and 801, was a stronghold of the emirate of Córdoba, that is, Muslim, very tolerant with other confessions, but Muslim. That archaeological treasure was sacrificed in the name of his majesty the car, since a parking lot was being built there, as if the fate of the city depended on it. Only 74 days were the archaeologists able to work before the bulldozers entered. Fortunately, they rescued human remains before, a material that, after 30 years and thanks to the most modern laboratory techniques, has made it possible to carry out an absolutely fascinating multidisciplinary investigation.

The results of those several years of study were presented on Tuesday night at the Born Center de Cultura i Memòria (BCCM), a facility on a roll, which a month ago dared with the Barcelona slave taboo and is now reflecting on the city’s Muslim past. The BCCM, incidentally, has established itself as a cultural voice to be taken into account, and that the beautiful building it occupies and all the historical subsoil that is exhibited there was about to be demolished in 1971 by the then mayor José María de Porcioles to (guess what, it’s easy) to build a parking lot.

The question that matters now is that those 16 skeletons, plus another five that were found in later missions (one, by the way, within Born itself), have told their lives thanks, above all, to the teachers Núria Armentano, at the forefront of biological anthropology, and Cristina Santos, part of the research team that has taken the helm of forensic genetics.

Of all the bodies in that Muslim cemetery, one of them drew attention from day one, baptized as number 15, of which only the lower extremities were preserved. The rest of the body was ‘euthanized’ years earlier during the construction of a sewage collector. The legs, fortunately, were intact. The unexpected thing about those human remains was that the ankles had what they seemed, and later with radiological examinations it was confirmed that they indeed were, some shackles. Several hypotheses thus remained open. Was he a prisoner? If he had been executed, what was he doing in such a cemetery?

The first tests that were carried out on five of the skeletons helped to rule out responses and, above all, corrected the first assumption that was made in 1991 when that cemetery saw the light of day again. Through carbon-14 tests it was possible to first refine the period in which the burials were made, between the years 970 and 1160, that is, more than a century after Barcelona stopped being Muslim.

Dolors Bramon, an eminent Islamist, was in charge of setting the historical context before continuing with the examination of the skeletons.. Barcelona, ​​he recalled, ceased to be Barshiluna on April 3, 801 more or less as on January 26, 1939, it ceased to be republican and became Francoist, without shooting a shot, on that occasion, without brandishing scimitars. The siege to which the hosts of the Franks, under the umbrella of Louis the Pious, subjected the city made the doors finally open to the enemy meekly and a detailed capitulation signed. The Muslims of the city were able to keep their faith, also their mosque, but they were given one year to sell their properties in the center and move to the outskirts of Barcelona. Many of them had embraced the faith of Muhammad for the tax advantages that it entailed and now they had to choose again, because a Christian baptism would become, once again, an interesting solution for the family economy. In the Middle Ages of the peninsula, religion was changed as today the telephone company.

That initial tolerance, as Bramon recalled, was diluted over the years, and more, it is supposed, after Almanzor, in 985, brutally sacked the city, so he endorsed the thesis, later confirmed in the laboratory, that Those skeletons discovered in 1991 were actually of a group of slaves, a social condition that did not prevent them from having their own space outside the walls for burials according to the Muslim rite.

Armentano offered, after Bramon, an intervention that at times was hypnotic. As a Harryhausen of archeology, she nearly brought the skeletons back to life in full public view. Of number 15 he explained, examining his tibiae, that those shackles accompanied him for a long time. The bones settled in his presence. The reason why he was buried with them remains obscure, especially after examining the legs of the rest of the corpses, which in several cases showed signs that they had also been chained from Barcelona, ​​without this meaning that they were not mobile. In fact, the humeri were another source of interesting information. The characteristics of the point at which the muscles of the arms and shoulders insert into the bone revealed that, in the case of men, it was adults of great physical strength, perhaps employed in agricultural tasks or in trades suitable only for strongmen, such as blacksmithing.

Were those slaves spoils of war or were they descendants of Muslims who renounced their faith after the fall of Barshiluna in 801? The great wonder of the work that has been carried out through ArqueoBorn (the archaeological branch of the BCCM) is, what was said at the beginning, that it is multidisciplinary. The geneticist Santos shone a powerful light on that shadowy part. DNA analyzes have found, first, that only three of the bodies in the cemetery were female. So far, nothing that an anthropomorphic examination could not point to. The interesting thing was that the genetic trace allows us to deduce that four of them came from North Africa and a fifth skeleton was of a man of some sub-Saharan ethnic group. The rest, however, show genetic patterns similar to those in Europe., and specifically the striking number 15, the one with the shackles, was probably the son, grandson and great-grandson of families from Barcelona or its area of ​​influence.

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All that refocusing on the history of Barcelona was about to be lost 30 years ago by the Olympic rush. Then, during those construction works of a simple underground car park, part of the city appeared that Felipe V ordered to destroy after the War of Succession because Barcelona opposed his access to the throne. The streets and the walls of the houses were exposed. There were still bombs from the war and also from everyday life after the war, like a still of brandy. And below that city were the cemeteries, one late Roman and the other, the Muslim. Skeleton number 15, just as an anecdote, was just under the pavement of Carrer del Joch de la Pilota.

Only 11 years later, in 2002, when the old Born was to be reborn as a great provincial library, the same thing happened again, the past of the city loomed once again in the light of day. The sensitivity was suddenly another. The political winds also blew in favor of the archaeologists. It is no secret that in the transition from pujolismo to independence, a part of the Catalan parties wanted to turn that place into a sort of Catalan Massada, but this does not mean that, after the patriotic effervescence with which the BCC was inaugurated (Quim Torra was its first director), that cultural center has ended up consolidating itself as a first-line exhibition and research space in the, at times, aluminous cultural panorama of the city.


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