Photo of Sara Ann Knutson
Sara Ann Knutson

Sara Ann Knutson is a sixth-year Ph.D. candidate in anthropology with a specialization in Scandinavian and Middle Eastern Archaeology. Knutson is invested in exploring how “Silk Road”-era exchanges echo in today’s world, and her dissertation explores how objects from the past, specifically networks of ancient Islamic coins, are preserved, museumized, and understood as part of contemporary peoples’ identity and cultural heritage.

After finishing her master’s degrees in archaeology at the University of Cambridge, and in Scandinavian studies at the University of California, Berkeley, Knutson became interested in  the Islamic coinage while reading the ancient ethnographic account of 10th-century Arab diplomat, Ahmad ibn Fadlan.

“Ibn Fadlan was sent by the Abbasid Caliphate in 921 CE to develop trade connections with Northern Eurasian communities located along the Volga River. Ibn Fadlan’s ethnographic travel account is fascinating. He reports his interactions, including with a group of people known as the Rus, in a similar way to how an anthropologist today might—not without his own biases, of course, but also with a level of curiosity about other people, their culture, religion, and traditions, even those that may seem incomprehensible. The exchange of Islamic coinage largely made such interactions between Eurasian communities, like the Rus and Arabs, possible over 1000 years ago. Reading Ibn Fadlan in English translation as well as becoming interested in the Islamic silver coinage inspired me to learn Arabic,” she said.

Knutson standing in front of archeological site with stone structure
Knutson in Maeshowe, Orkney in Scotland

While many English-speaking researchers read sources in translation, Knutson reads 11 different languages and she speaks Swedish, Spanish, German, and Arabic. Knutson sees the engagement of people through language  as especially important to her practice as an anthropologist, bridging the gap between the archaeology and cultural heritage.

Recently, Knutson received a Mellon International Dissertation Research Fellowship, a highly competitive research fellowship funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The 2021 fellows cohort represents 32 universities (including UC Berkeley) and 13 disciplines. With this funding, Knutson is conducting international research on ancient eurasian networks between the Arab world and Europe, and specifically exploring how contemporary museums are framing these coins and incorporating them into part of their identity and national history.

“The really big issue at stake in my work is giving people a platform to voice their values and understandings of cultural heritage, people whose perspectives haven’t been traditionally heard in Anthropology or museum studies,” shared Knutson.

Knutson at an archeological site Amman, Jordan that looks like an ampitheater
Knutson in Amman, Jordan

“A number of European museums tend to frame Islamic coinage as objects of their own national history, which is an over-simplistic narrative when you think about where these materials came from and remember that the Arab World contains its own understandings of ancient Islamic coins. To complicate the narrative often framed around these coins, I am asking people culturally connected to the Middle East how they understand their cultural heritage, specifically in relation to these coins. People can say whatever they want in the survey, even if it counters my own ideas about the Islamic coinage, and I will incorporate these perspectives and values into my research. It is very important to me that my research design and output also reflects the values of stakeholders involved in this cultural heritage,” she said.

Ultimately, if Knutson could say one thing to all the stakeholders involved in her project—people in the Arab world, people who identify as of Middle Eastern descent, other anthropologists/archeologists, museum professionals, and the public in general— it would be:

“So much of what we academics do often stays behind publishing walls. So I want to show a wider audience that these Islamic coins are not just tokens or curiosities, or archaeological exotica, they are really meaningful for people around the world, as much in the present as they were in the past.

I want to really challenge the idea that museum or scholarly interpretations are the only ones that matter. For this reason, the most interesting part of my work does not take place in a library or archival collection, it’s in talking to people, and learning from them the complex personal and cultural meanings archaeological materials can hold.”