Desert Migrations Project

Background to Projectpanorama view 2

Image: Copyright Toby Savage

This major project involving the Universities of Leicester, Cambridge, Reading and KCL under the overall direction of Professor David Mattingly was initiated in 2007 as successor to the highly successful Fazzan Project. The oases of Fazzan, Libya’s SW province, sit at one of the greatest cross-roads of the desert routeways that have been critical to the human story from ‘Out of Africa’, to the time of the Garamantian kingdom, or to the 19th-century overland slave trade, or the competing forces of World War II. The Desert Migrations Project (DMP) is focused on the theme of migration in the broadest sense, encompassing the movement of people, ideas/knowledge and material culture into and out of Fazzan, along with evidence of shifting climatic and ecological boundaries over time.

Project Themesamphora dump

Image: Copyright Toby Savage

The project has identified several key themes of study:

  • Human migration, from early hominins and anatomically modern humans, to the complexities of Garamantian and post-Garamantian oasis farming communities.
  • Climatic and environmental migrations, tracing change in climate and environment and dating it using an array of scientific measures.
  •  Technological change, focused on issues such as hydraulic technology of irrigation, metallurgy and crop and animal husbandry.
  • Botanical and faunal transfers into the region, notably those relating to changing environmental conditions and to the transition to farming.
  • Material culture and trans-Saharan contacts across a broad time-frame.
  • Disease migration – notably seeking evidence for the earliest evidence of malaria in the region.

Project Research Groups

There are three research groups working focusing on different elements of the project:

1.        Burials and Identity in Wādī al-Ajāl led by David Mattingly (University of Leicester)

2.        The Central Saharan Route out of Sub-Saharan Africa: Palaeolithic and Palaeoanthropological Research led by Marta Mirazon Lahr and Robert Foley (University of Cambridge)

3.        Palaeoclimate of the Central Sahara Revealed by Lake MegaFazzan led by Nick Drake (Kings College, London), Kevin White (Univesity of Reading), Mustafa Salem (Al-Fatah University, Tripoli)


Burials and Identity in the Wadi al-Ajal

There are an estimated 120,000 visible tombs along the Wadi al-Ajal, the central line of oases at the heart of the former Garamantian kingdom. These likely date from the pastoral (Neolithic) to late antiquity and include a wide range of types from mud-brick pyramidal structures to stone-built cairns and crevasse burials.

crouched burialOver five seasons of fieldwork the Leicester based group has conducted a broad strategy of sampling all types of funerary monuments and surveying in detail the settlements and irrigation systems (foggaras) that are associated with them. To date more than 5,000 tombs have been examined through pedestrian survey of which around 100 were selected for excavation. The finds have been staggering including two mummified bodies a remarkable collection of preserved textiles and importantly possible evidence of Trans-Saharan trade in the form of gold foil and complete roman amphorae. The discovery of one female with a large lip-plug is highly suggestive of sub-saharan origin. The skeletal remains have also formed the basis for a study of the ancient population in on-going research at the University of Cambridge.

Personnel at Leicester


Related Projects

·          The Fazzan Project

·          Peopling the Desert Project

·          Trans-Sahara



Mattingly, D.J., Lahr, M., Armitage, S., Barton, H., Dore, J., Drake, N., Foley, R., Merlo, S., Salem, M., Stock, J. and White, K. 2007. Desert Migrations: people, environment and culture in the Libyan Sahara. Libyan Studies 38: 115-156

Mattingly, D.J., Dore, J. and Mirazón Lahr, M. (with contributions by others). 2008. DMP II: 2008 fieldwork on burials and identity in the Wadi al-Ajal. Libyan Studies 39: 223-62.

Mirazón Lahr, M., Foley, R., Armitage, S., Barton, H., Crivellaro, F., Drake, N., Hounslow, M., Maher, L., Mattingly, D.J., Salem, M., Stock, J. and White, K.. 2008. DMP III: Pleistocene and Holocene palaeoenvironments and prehistoric occupation of Fazzan, Libyan Sahara. Libyan Studies 39: 1-32.

Mattingly, D.J., Mirazón Lahr, M. and Wilson, A. (with contributions by others). 2009. DMP V: Investigations in 2009 of Cemeteries and Related Sites on the West Side of the Taqallit Promontory. Libyan Studies 40: 95-131.

Mirazón Lahr, M.,  Foley, R., Crivellaro, F., Okumara, M., Maher, L., Davies, T., Veldhuis, D., Wilshaw, A. and Mattingly, D.J. 2009. DMP VI: Preliminary results from 2009 fieldwork on the human prehistory of the Libyan Sahara. Libyan Studies 40: 143-62.

Drake, N., White, K., Salem, M., Armitage, S., El-Hawat, A., Francke, J., Hounslow, M. and Parker, A. 2009. DMP VIII: Palaeohydrology and palaeoenvironment. Libyan Studies 40: 171-78

Mattingly, D. et al. 2010a. DMP IX: Summary Report on the Fourth Season of Excavations of the Burials and Identity team. Libyan Studies 41: 89-104.

Mattingly, D. et al. 2010b. DMP X: Survey and Landscape Cosnervation Issues around the Taqallit headland. Libyan Studies 41: 105-132.

Mirazón Lahr, M. et al. 2010. DMP XI: Preliminary results from 2010 fieldwork on the human prehistory in the Libyan Sahara. Libyan Studies 41: 133-154.

Mattingly, D.J., Daniels, C.M., Dore, J.N., Edwards, D. and Hawthorne, J. 2003. The Archaeology of Fazzān, Volume 1, Synthesis. Department of Antiquities, Tripoli and Society for Libyan Studies, London.

Mattingly, D.J., Daniels, C.M., Dore, J.N., Edwards, D. and Hawthorne, J., 2007. The Archaeology of Fazzān. Volume 2, Gazetteer, Pottery and Other Finds. Department of Antiquities, Tripoli and Society for Libyan Studies, London.

Mattingly, D.J., Daniels, C.M., Dore, J.N., Edwards, D. and Hawthorne, J. 2010. The Archaeology of Fazzān, Volume 3, Excavations of C. M. Daniels. Department of Antiquities, Tripoli and Society for Libyan Studies, London.


DMP Sister site at University of Cambridge

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