We discovered a ‘lost civilisation’

In the midst of the Arab Spring and a Libyan revolt that led to the fall of Gaddafi, archaeologists led by the University of Leicester uncovered dramatic evidence of an advanced and little-known ancient civilisation of the Sahara.

For archaeologist David Mattingly, who was instrumental in the discovery of a ‘lost civilisation’ in Saharan Africa, expecting the unexpected is simply part of the job.

“It is quite rare, in any field of science, to be perpetually encountering the unexpected,” he says after the team he led discovered more than 100 fortified farms and villages with castlelike structures and several towns, most dating between AD 1-500, in Libya’s south-western desert wastes.

What is perhaps even more surprising is that he has helped to rewrite the history of the area at one of the most politically fraught moments of the country’s past –the archaeology team had to evacuate Libya during the Arab spring leading to the fall of Gadaffi.

Using satellites and air-photographs to identify the remains in one of the most inhospitable parts of the desert, Professor Mattingly discovered “lost cities” that were built by a little-known ancient civilisation called the Garamantes, whose lifestyle and culture was far moreadvanced and historically significant than the ancient sources suggested.

The team from the University of Leicester identified the mud brick remains of the castle-like complexes, with walls still standing up to four metres high, along with traces of dwellings, cemeteries, gardens and subterranean irrigation systems. Follow-up ground survey confirmed the remarkable preservation of the sites and surface finds suggested a pre-Islamic date. Now the first radiocarbon dates from field samples have given greater precision on the construction of these remarkable fortified villages in the 3rd-5th centuries AD, within the timeframe of the Garamantes.

“The Garamantes were a desert people of the central Sahara first recorded in the History of Herodotus in the 5th century BC. They are a genuinely ‘lost civilisation’ in the sense that the low level of prior archaeological work rendered so many questions about their society and way of life unanswerable. The recent breakthrough in knowledge is the culmination of a long research process. I have worked in Libya for over 30 years and the recent discoveries build on my earlier work as well as the work of previous generations of archaeologists.

“Our discoveries are akin to someone coming to England and suddenly discovering all the medieval castles.These settlements had been unmarked and unrecorded under the Gaddafi
regime. My grant has allowed me to employ a post-doctoral research associate, Dr Martin Sterry – a graduate of the University of Leicester – who is able to map many more of these settlements directly off the satellite imagery. We are producing the first
detailed maps of Libya’s historic desert landscapes,” says Professor Mattingly, who is Professor of Roman Archaeology in the University’s School of Archaeology and Ancient History.

The findings challenge a view dating back to Roman accounts that the Garamantes consisted of barbaric nomads and troublemakers on the edge of the Roman Empire. “In fact, they were highly civilised, living in large-scale fortified settlements,predominantly as oasis farmers. It was an organised state with towns and villages, a written language and state of the art technologies. The Garamantes were pioneers in establishing oases
and opening up Trans-Saharan trade,” Professor Mattingly said.

The Libyan antiquities department, badly under-resourced under Gaddafi, is closely involved in the project. Funding for the research has come from the European Research Council who awarded Professor Mattingly an ERC Advanced Grant of nearly 2.5m euros, the Leverhulme Trust, the Society for Libyan Studies and the GeoEye Foundation.

“It is a new start for Libya’s antiquities service and a chance for the Libyan people to engage with their own long-suppressed history,” says Professor Mattingly.

This article originally appeared in LE1 Winter 2012

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