The Ark of the Covenant, The Holy Grail (Sangreal) The True Cross and The Prophet Muhammad’s Signet Ring each rank as being some of mankind’s most coveted religious items. Of these four Holy objects the whereabouts of only one is known, the Prophet Muhammad’s Signet Ring .
In 2001 the Purnell-Skey Trustees, custodians of the Al-Hira artefacts since 1805 agreed to repatriate the ‘Ring’ back to Muslim ownership. Pending on-going negotiations with interested parties it is hoped that in the near future a Muslim custodian will be found. Up until that time the Ring along with the Prophet Muhammad’s Holy Water Phial and Oil Lamp
will be held in London vaults in trust.
2. Prophet Muhammad’s Signet Ring, Background
These notes stem from a mass of data and research material put together by various parties since 1776. In most part the account is based on individual observations, comment and opinions backed
up by research carried out by Robert Purnell and others. His personal diaries, reports and journals pertain to an expedition undertaken in 1804 to the Hejez region of Arabia. The Purnell family history (family tree) was started in the 1950’s by Ralph Williams. Much credit is to be given to Colin Purnell whose extensive genealogy research into the Purnell family can be seen in the last section of these notes.
Robert’s primary interest in Islam and the region around Mekkah was triggered by an important
piece of research which he funded and carried out in Bristol, England in the late 18 th century. This
work centred on a bundle of old parchments which he inherited from his father. These items had formerly been stored for safe keeping within the Purnell family deed box. Amongst the folios were transcripts of what he believed were two of the missing Sura. These documents originated in the Hejez and dated from the time of the Prophet Muhammad. Robert later had these folios and some other loose documents translated into English, copies of which are enclosed. For the benefit of Arab readers an Arabic translation has recently been made.
As a result of this academic research and subsequent conclusions Robert commenced a lifelong
commitment to study the subject, which culminated in him making an extended trip to the Hejez.
During his Arabian expedition he visited several of the sites mentioned and identified in the parchments. Whilst in the environs of Mekkah and Medinah he conducted several elementary
archaeological surveys. During this work he recovered various items some of which have been
attributed to the Prophet Muhammad. These personal possessions had been concealed beneath
stones on the upper terraces of Mt Hira. From discoveries made on this rudimentary dig and through research conducted thereafter it was possible to accurately identify, attribute and date the objects found. In a wider context, his discoveries have added to our knowledge and understanding of early
The circumstances and relevance of what became known as the ‘Al-Hira find’ along with the two missing Sura’s is now slowly emerging. The following pages touch on some of the salient issues that Robert Purnell addressed during the planning and execution phases of his trip to the Levant and Arabia. From the outset Robert’s job was difficult in the extreme. As a privately funded individual he lacked either corporate or State backing or for that matter scientific interest.
With England on a war footing with France such plans as were made by Robert were, for obvious reasons concealed from the authorities. As such no advance or post publicity was given to the undertaking. Within Robert’s academic circles his subject matter was a topic of debate. From these quarters he was pressed to publish an account of his tour and the subsequent finds. Such an article or publication never materialised. From 1805 till his death he and his collaborators set about compiling a mass of related data. This unfinished work was never compiled and as such remained unpublished. Bearing in mind that be by that time he was well into his 60’s it is no surprise that either through lack of energy, money or a combination of these factors he never finalised his research.
Additionally, at the time there was a limited amount of British interest in the region which included
the Arabian peninsula and, as such work any unpublished work that he might have presented to a
London publisher would, most certainly have been rejected on the basis that very limited sales would be generated from such a publication. For this reason, at the turn of the century hardly any
reliable printed information on either Islam or the Hejez region generally was in print.
Without easy access to modern electronic data recovery systems Robert started his investigation
from scratch. Leveraging from the mass of information, clues and data that we have since inherited our undertaking is now to fill in these gaps in history.
Upon his return to England in 1805 Robert Purnell concluded that his expedition had, in most part been a personal success. He had indeed accomplished his prime objectives and survived the rigours
of the extensive journey intact. Being a private man his instinct was firstly to set about learning more about the objects that he had recovered. His practical instincts pointed him towards finding
conclusive explanations. He wanted to know the specific relevance of the items and from that put
them into a historical context. More particularly he asked himself the question why, in the first
place some of the items been secreted in such a manner, and why had they been hidden on that
particular part of the mountainside. Answers to these pertinent questions were forthcoming,mainly from Islamic sources. The Hadith, folk law and Islamic history all contributed, providing him with a clearer picture. In this context he first tested his observations against the historic background, customs and traditions. The physical analysis was relatively easy to ascertain, the transcription of the documents however took much longer.
Having assembled and evaluated the myriad of evidence he concluded that the ring along with the
other items had been hidden for safe keeping, this event most probably taking place shortly after the Prophet’s demise. If that assumption was the case then the person or persons responsible would most probably have been members from his immediate family or, failing that very close friends who had access to his personal possessions.
The evidence as presented in the Hadith however indicates a later date. The last person who was known to have been in possession of the Prophet Muhammad’s Signet Ring was Uthman (caliph 644656AD). His term in office spanned some fourteen years. If that is the case then from this we can accurately put the date of the shrine as being between 655-656AD, just prior to his assassination by dissident Egyptians who allegedly had a personal grievance against the caliph. Based on these two scenarios the span of time would have been several decades at most.
From evidence provided by the Hadith we know that shortly after becoming caliph Uthman was entrusted with the safekeeping of the Prophet’s Signet Ring along with other items personal to the
Prophet. During his fourteen years in office Uthman’s position as leader was always in question.
Political unrest led to a broadly based power struggle within the leadership of the fledgling religion.
Uthamn lacked his predecessor’s charisma and strong leadership qualities, and as such was always
vulnerable to attack. When it finally came it was an external faction, a group of Egyptian dissidents
murdered the caliph in cold blood. In those uncertain times it is entirely probable that, to avoid
risking the loss of his most prized treasures he hid them himself, or, if not instructed someone else
to hide them in a secure place in the hope that when the immediate threats abated he could retrieve
the objects. As it was, before he could do so he was murdered, and with his death went his secret.
Sound detective work by Robert and his team pieced together a chain of events which provides the
reader with convincing circumstantial evidence which includes Hadith, and contemporary eye
witnessed reports, which when combined clearly link the caliph to the Ring. Having established a
clear cut motive for the action it soon became apparent to Robert that the horde of priceless items,
which may well have included a considerable amount of Uthman’s personal wealth which included
large quantities of gold and silver coinage. We know that his life was in danger and for that reason it is highly probable that some or all of this wealth was secreted on the mountainside for no other
reason than temporary safekeeping.
Based on this hypothesis Robert then deliberated as to the sequence of events that took place
thereafter. Why, he asked himself had these items not been recovered or thieved earlier. Bearing in mind the fact that the location of the site was within scrambling distance from the very cave where the Prophet witnessed his revelations. Robert concluded that there must have been a compelling reason for Uthman or his assigns to plant his treasures so close to the cave. The cave as such has, since the time of the Prophet Muhammad been frequented by an endless procession of locals and countless Haji pilgrims during their time in Mekkah each of which would have been within a matter of 200 m from the shrine. At best we can assume that the items had been expertly concealed and that no third party was then privy to the act. If that was the case then in that terrain, even with a map it would have been difficult to identify the site overwhich were placed a layer of shale, rocks and boulders.
It is entirely logical that unless one had inside knowledge to the story it is highly improbable that a
third party would have any reason to want to start digging up the mountainside. Robert found no
evidence of exploratory excavations or other earth works on that part of the mountainside.
He concluded that the terrain as he found it indicated that a naturally occurring landslide had disgorged a top layer of rock and debris which had further concealed the site. The question that he
could not answer was when this happened. Over time, the natural forces of erosion would have
further sealed the spot with an accumulation of dust and debris. Concerning these issues generally,
whilst in the Hedjaz Robert tried, to his best ability to first understand the Mekkan and Arab mindset, a mentality very different to the English, Christian upbringing into which he was born.
Mindful of the fact that that treasure has, over time been buried for various reasons by people from
all ranks, countries and civilizations Robert concluded that his was, by no means an exclusive act.
But, Robert wanted to determine for himself whether it was commonplace in the Hedjaz to bury ones wealth for safe keeping. In this he got an immediate affirmative. With few stone built buildings
in the region those fearful of attack would, naturally secret their wealth and valuables in the ground.
The Mekkan history during the period 7th-15th century AD is sketchy at best. By the turn of the 18th century libraries, archives, city records, ledgers and other such depositories of public records had all but been destroyed, decayed, plundered or simply lost to time. With limited hard evidence to build his case Robert looked elsewhere for clues.
First he scoured the shops, bazaars and market places in the towns and villages that he visited to see if any relevant written or printed material was available, and preferably for sale. In that quest too he also drew a blank. He aborted this line of enquiry and moved on to the less reliable form of historic communication, the spoken word. For this research he sought out the teachers, the elders, and old men who are collective knowledge proved a mine of valuable information. This connection provided an immediate link between the various tribal communities that make up the city, all of whom could trace their origins well beyond the time of the Prophet Muhammad. The focus was then to determine precisely what and where the connections and links were which bound the Prophet Muhammad to Mt Hira and from there to identify the precise connection with the Signet Ring. Robert methodically broke the subject down into many small, manageable tranches. His first list included recorded accounts, hearsay, Hadith, folklore, songs, lyrics, poetry, legends, local customs and documented accounts. When assembled these strands of knowledge revealed what he was looking for and provided the vital clues that confirmed the provenance of the objects that he had found.
All available data was carefully analysed to see how, where, and when specific reference(s) were
made either regarding the Signet Ring or the other objects within the cache. He then sub-divided his
research into two elements and placed them in chronological order against a specific timeline. The
first section was devoted to the period commencing at the time of the Prophet’s journey to Bostra,
through to his death and, the second, the period after the Prophet’s death up until all references to
the Ring ceased to be recorded. In this context he examined the records to determine who in fact
had been granted custody to the Prophet’s Signet Ring post the Prophet’s demise. Fortunately, this
data is well chronicled with numerous references from differing sources. As such he was able to pin
point the time when it was last seen in public. The former and later accounts are succinctly defined
in the Hadith much unsupportable data has over time been culled by religious scholars, chroniclers and Hadith experts. With that hard evidence he then was able to link the caliph with the Ring.
During the early 1800’s he backed up his preliminary findings with further academic and desk
research. He commenced an exhaustive round of enquiries in the UK. This round of research largely centred on his conversations with theologians and other experts. As there were limited academic, historic and religious articles in print this conventional avenue of research was more or less cut off.
Regardless, Robert slowly pieced together the bones of his research project. He also augmented his
knowledge base by tapping into his social network. From this diverse grouping he was able to gather another valuable layer of material which was in time added to his archive. It must be remembered that England was still at war with the French and, as such had limited social, religious or trading connections with the Hejaz generally. Most British, and for that matter European trade was then conducted with the Arab merchants who plied their business from trading centres based on the sea facing Levantine ports. The interior was on the wrong side of the Mediterranean coastal waters and could only be accessed overland or via the Cape.
From both a religious and political viewpoint the Hejez region was fractionalised mix of transient
nomadic tribe’s folk and semi permanent village settlers. Small nomadic tribal communities make up the bulk of those thinly spread communities who inhabited the arid Arabian hinterland. Up until
1805, when he was formulating his research the Wahhabi influence was still prevalent and as such
any printed matter that was then in circulation invariably bore the distinctive Wahhabi trade mark, a
radicalised form of Islam.
Robert witnessed firsthand the deplorable state of the regional infrastructure which then barely supported the local economy. Social depravations were apparent wherever he went. Buildings, mosques and water cisterns were nearly all damaged and in a general state of disrepair, all this the result of recent Wahhabi outrages. These religious fanatics freely engaged in an on-going, inter tribal civil war, the opposition being anyone with an alternative religious viewpoint. The damage that he saw went to the very core of the Mekkan society. Against this background little in the way of trade, and in particular printing existed. No serious publishing material in any shape or form occurred at that time in Mekkah. Being a more advanced and stable society, neighbouring Egypt was, at that time the most prolific Arabian publisher of articles,newspapers and books. With the exception of some French language publications the majority of all printed matter was published in Cairo and Alexandria in Arabic for local distribution and sale.
The single force that drove Robert forward during this exasperatingly, slow and tedious work was
the quest for the what he believed to be a unique prize. Quite what was in his mind is not recorded
as such. Whenever, when in his dotage his spirits ebbed he would remove the ring from his old elm
sea chest and clasp it in his hands. He said “even on the coldest February morning my palms would burn with heat so radiated. He said “the aura that surrounded the ring was ever intense,from within its core it emitted a radiant heat which touched my very his heart. When so, I felt as if it too was glowing in equal degrees of pleasure and spiritual warmth”. He claimed that almost immediately after finding and handling the Ring the acute arthritis that had plagued him for years almost vanished completely. By the time he was back in Bristol in 1805 he was once again writing freely in his beautiful copperplate style. The acute pain and severe swelling of the finger joints gradually had all but gone away and, as far as we know never returned to plague him. Such was his relief that he claimed that “it was a great relief that his writing was once again legible to one and all”.
In a letter to his best friend, Heath he said “at long last my countenance is resplendent and thanks be to God my aches and pains are by now somewhat vanquished. Without so far as resorting to my medicine chest the swelling in my knuckles and joints have miraculously subsided, almost overnight and, by the following morn the bulbous swelling in my arthritic joints had completely cleared up”.
That, coming from a confirmed hypochondriac was something indeed. From then on Robert never
ever complained again about the pain or limitations in his dexterity, particularly as it impacted his
immaculate copperplate hand writing. Concerning the dig that he initiated on Mt Hira. His view,
from the outset was that the so called shrine as described was never nothing more than a deep hole
hewn out of the rocky mountainside. Such a hole, he concluded had probably had been created by one or two men using a simple pickaxe and shovel. Evidence of wood and ceramic shards clearly
indicated that at one time various ceramic jars and wooden planks might have been placed within the hole or holes overwhich the dirt and rocks were replaced.
As such, providing the visible rocks were randomly scattered weathered side uppermost over the backfilled site then he concluded that the place would have been extremely difficult to detect by robbers. Within his notes he said that there was evidence of some decayed or carbonised wood ash amongst the sand and dust adjacent to the site. He concluded that the wood may have been used by those who first found the site as fire wood. When later asked his opinion of the site he totally dismissed the view that burrowing animals might have been responsible for the damaged and broken items which he unearthed. He suggested that a moderate landslide could, however have shifted the rock mass and, as such would have damaged the site.
With regards the stones and boulders found adjacent to the crag, he said that there was no evidence of any cut or dressed masonry having been used suggesting that the action taken by the person or persons responsible for digging the pit had been a deliberate act of concealment rather than the construction of a formalised edifice or permanent structure. Following his lengthy deliberations he concluded that no attempt had been made by the party or parties to this act to steal the objects.
That said, the natural environment so used would have provided as good a hiding place as any. Amongst the observations that he made concerning the site itself he pointed out that the nature of the loose rocks that made up the overload suggested that at some time a landslide or rock fall had occurred adding considerable mass to the load. This, in turn would have added to the depth of the objects concealed below, the base of which was almost 2 m (6ft) in depth. Robert made a reference to the Muslim burial culture which he stated was markedly different to Christian or other faiths who sometimes build elaborate headstones and other ornamentation. From a security point of view a ‘blind’ cache would have been the preferred option as later retrieval would have been easy to execute.
Whether the items that had been interned below the rock face were placed within one or more locations is not known. If the cache was spread over a larger area than excavated by Robert then it is possible that the French or, for that matter, others before them might well have unearthed items
from other parts of the mountainside. It is known that Uthamn was an extremely rich man in his own right and as such may well have included some of his personal wealth in the horde. Until such time as the entire site is thoroughly investigated answers to this and other equally perplexing questions will abound.
Weather conditions on Mt Hira are, in the main stable, but, periodically strong winds, excessive heat and heavy rainfall can, and do combine to disturb the stability of the friable rock face, particularly the loose and flaky exposed shards of rock found on the upper tiers. Recent observations reinforce this fact. Without much in the way of pedestrian control procedures on the mountainside over time human and animal contact has added to, and created an abnormal rate of environmental erosion. The track way up to the Prophet’s cave has, for example been responsible for excessive small and medium size rock displacement.
Erosion, whether caused by man, wind, water, gravity sand or any combination of these forces has
always been a major problem across most of Arabia. During time or war, famine or population
decline the nomads invariably came out of the desert at the expense of their tribal quarters. When so doing, defences that they had diligently erected and maintained to withstand penetration from
windswept and air bound sand storms fell into disrepair. And, as they did the desert seamlessly
encroached. Wild and loose animals, particularly the goat would do untold hard as the goat tears out rather than nibbles grass and eats the bark off trees. Ibn Khaldun cited examples of such devastation in the 14th century. For this reason, when we examine the Shrine of Abdullah it is entirely plausible that natural forces alone caused the site to become ever more concealed. This could well of happened following a landslide shortly after the items were interned. If that is the case then it provides a fitting explanation as to why it was not excavated earlier. A landslide would have effectively secured the site from all but the most dedicated predators.
The following chapters attempt to stitch together a diverse range of topics and events which span
over 1,400 years. The focus mainly centres on the physical objects that Robert found, but, to put the finds into perspective a selective history of key events which occurred in Europe and the Middle East are included. These observations are mainly based on Robert Purnell’s Journals and attempt to thread a line from the time when the Prophet’ Muhammad’s Signet Ring was first recorded to the present. The narrative branches off at various tangents one of which embraces the possibility of other, equally important Islamic treasures being recovered from places of ‘safe-keeping’.