Hargana project wins Archaeological Prize

The Archeological Prize of the Simone and Cino Del Durca Foundation has been awarded to the Hargana project, part of the French-Moroccan Igîlîz project in Morocco. This prestigious award recognizes the beginning of a new field of research. Co-led by Jean-Pierre Van Staëvel, a research lecturer from Paris-Sorbonne University, this project has the advantage of being supported by the Society and Environment component of Sorbonne University’s Convergence program.

Caption: Professor of Archaeology and Islamic Art History at Paris-Sorbonne University, Jean-Pierre Van Staëvel is co-leading the Igîlîz project with two Moroccan research lecturers: Ahmed S. Ettahiri from the Moroccan National Institute of Science, Archaeology and Cultural Heritage in Rabat and Abdallah Fili from the University of El Jadida.


What is the aim of the Igîlîz archeological project?

The Igîlîz site, which we discovered in 2004, is located at an altitude of 1350m in the Anti-Atlas mountains in southern Morocco. Despite its rural geographical location, this site played a leading historical role in medieval times. In fact, in the 1120s, it formed the epicenter of a religious reform and a political revolt stemming from the fall of the Almoravid empire and the emergence of the largest Muslim empire of the middle ages, that of the Almohads who ruled over the gateways to Spain from the Sahara between 1147 and 1269. Excavation of the site, which began in 2009, revealed the existence of a vast architectural complex surrounded by a powerful defense system, including a large aristocratic residence, a cultural complex with two mosques and several pilgrimage sites and many residential areas; the study of which shines some light onto the daily lives of the community of devout Muslims, warriors and peasants who all lived on the site.


What was it that made the project a contender for the Archaeology Prize 2015?

In Marrakesh, Rabat and Seville, there are a number of prestigious monuments which still attest to the emergence of Almohad rule. But, until now, the material context of this empire’s origins was largely unknown. This award is, therefore, a recognition of more than ten years of research on a little-known part of the history of Morocco and the Muslim West. It encourages our desire to promote medieval archaeology in Maghreb: a relatively new field in this region which is rather marked by a long tradition of excellence in prehistoric and ancient archaeology. It also confirms another unique feature of our approach: an archaeological approach to a rural society, not an urban center, and all of this while studying its sociopolitical and economic structures and the relationship it had with its environment. From 2009, along with Marie-Pierre Ruas from the Zooarchaeology and Archaeobotany Mixed Research Unit (CNRS, MNHN), we have developed a significant component of environmental archaeology which, initially, had a particular focus on analyzing plant remains collected on the site. Since 2014, thanks to financial support from Sorbonne University’s Convergence program, we have strengthened this component by launching the Hargana project: History and archaeology of biological resources and the subsistence management strategy of the medieval Arganeraie in the Anti-Atlas mountain range.


What is the Hargana project?

Hargana studies both the plant and animal resources, domestic and wild, of the medieval population in Igîlîz and their land use, using the argan tree as an example. Indeed, the archaeological site has provided numerous remnants of this endemic tree, emblematic of the region, which produces the fruit used to make argan oil as well as fodder, timber and fuel. To conduct these studies, we are combining complementary approaches: archaeology to analyze the structure of the buildings, pottery and stoneware (millstones, containers, etc.), archaeobotany for seeds and wood, zooarchaeology for animal bones, archaeometry for the molecular analysis of organic material, among others.


Why did this project contribute to the Igîlîz project being awarded the archaeology prize?

With the Hargana project, we began a very innovative field of research, offering an unprecedented image of rural societies in pre-Saharan regions of medieval Morocco which, until now, were only known about through the few texts available from the period in question. Therefore, our work is generating an increasing amount of interest within the scientific community, both in France and Morocco. Archaeobotany, for example, and the study of argan trees in an archaeological context are even newer fields of research in Morocco. Today, this tree forms the foundation of the subsistence economy and the agro-pastoral system of these mountain societies and, notably, the modern-day village of Tifigit situated at the foot of the Igîlîz site. Our research has confirmed that there were already sites here in medieval times. Hargana has also enabled us to conduct ethnographic studies on the argan oil production of the modern-day village’s population which still uses tools similar to those found in the medieval site. This work has helped us to better understand the processes of extracting the oil, processes that the texts only partially explained. On the other hand, thanks to the technical platform of the Center for bio-archaeology and ecology in Montpellier, a partner of the Hargana project, we are testing a very new tool to analyze the remnants of argan wood collected on the site: quantitative eco-anatomy. The aim of this is to study whether the structure of these wood remnants can provide us with an account of the environment in which these trees grew (whether there were irrigated areas or not, cultivated and protected areas or degraded areas, etc.); this would enable us to explain the forms of historical development of the Arganeraie in the semi-arid environment of the Igîlîz region.


To what extent do these studies shed light on the origins of the Almohad empire? 

For this community of devout Muslims, warriors and peasants to have been able to launch a religious reform and a revolt against the Almoravid state from Igîlîz, they would have needed to reconcile both the spiritual and material conditions necessary for such a mobilization. We still do not know the previous religious history of the site, but our research has shown that there were rich natural resources which must have provided the material foundations for the movement, allowing some inhabitants to be redirected from agriculture and build an army. Archaeobotany shows that, despite the semi-arid environment, this community had varied plant resources: barley, sorghum, argan oil, dates, figs, grapes, etc. Zooarchaeological studies, also unprecedented for this region, reveal that inhabitants would, out of preference, eat young animals whose meat was more tender. All of this is evocative of a certain level of wealth. 


How may this project be expanded?

With the Hargana project, we have laid the foundations for interdisciplinary research which, I hope, will continue after this project concludes; we are now starting the last phase of this project. The results, that we are beginning to collect, lead to other lines of questioning which would enable us to further our reading of the relationship between humans and their environment in the semi-arid environment of the Anti-Atlas mountain range. I am also thinking of the isotopic analyses that we would be able to conduct on the domestic animals’ teeth to study their diet and the varying landscape used for pasturing herds: the Oued Valley with palm trees, arid slopes and high pasture grounds. More broadly, our research particularly sheds light on the remarkable complementarity of the agricultural systems used by the inhabitants of Igîlîz: a high altitude enabling cereal crops to be grown without irrigation, irrigated areas for fruits and vegetables, etc. It just remains for us to conduct geomorphological and bio-archaeological studies, not just on the site itself but also on its surroundings, in order to have a more complete view of the organization of agro-pastoral life in an area undergoing aridification. It goes without saying that this issue, at a time where environmental challenges are forcing themselves on those with an interest in the future of humanity, is of crucial importance and far outweighs simple historic and archaeological interest in past societies. 


Your project will also contribute to the Chair of Sorbonne University’s FaciLe program which is dedicated to digitally reconstructing a face from a skull. What awaits you?

Having a collaboration between the Igîlîz project and the French National Museum of Natural History has led to another joint project, one which is integrated into the FaciLe program. This involves experimenting with tools, which will be developed as part of this Chair, on specimens exhumed from Moroccan and Mauritanian tombs (those from Morroco being from Igîlîz, as it would happen). In recent times, there have been few attempts at facial reconstruction in archaeology, so this would be a real first. This part of the research is contributing to the renewal and diversification of scientific cooperation with archaeological sites located on either side of the Sahara, and all of this is in spite of the geopolitical problems the region is currently facing.

Actors in the Hargana project

A Convergence project

Hargana is one of thirteen initiatives continued at the end of 2013 as part of the first call for projects under Sorbonne University’s Convergence program which looked at the topics of society and the environment.


Partners within Sorbonne University

  • Paris-Sorbonne University - Mixed Research Unit 8167, The Orient and Mediterranean, Medieval Islam team


  • National Museum of Natural History - Mixed Research Unit 7209, Zooarchaeology and Archaeobotany: societies, practices, surroundings and Mixed Research Unit 7206, Eco-anthropology and ethnobiology.


  • Pierre and Marie Curie University - Mixed Research Unit 7075, Dynamics, Interaction and Reactivity Laboratory


External partners

  • Montpellier 2 University - Mixed Research Unit 5059, Center for Bio-archaeology and Ecology 


  • El Jadida University (Morocco)  


  • National Institute of Science, Archaeology and Cultural Heritage (Morocco)



Jean-Pierre Van Staëvel, Paris-Sorbonne University, UMR 8167


Marie-Pierre Ruas, National Museum of Natural History, UMR 7209

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