University of Leicester archaeologist uncovers the secrets of a 3,000-year-old African civilisation

Posted by ap507 at Feb 13, 2015 10:00 AM |
Research will reshape the history of early Africa

Issued by the University of Leicester Press Office on 13 February 2015

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The work of a University of Leicester archaeologist investigating a lost civilization in southern Libya will reshape the history of early Africa.

Professor David Mattingly, of the University's School of Archaeology and Ancient History, has been researching an ancient Saharan people called the Garamantes, whose settlements can be as old as 3,000 years.

The £1.8 million project, funded by the European Research Council (ERC), began in 2011 and has uncovered a wealth of knowledge about pre-Islamic and early Islamic Africa, including demonstrating the formation of early states, tracing population migrations and finding some of the earliest evidence of Saharan trade.

Using aerial photography and satellite imagery Professor Mattingly and his team have pieced together the area’s archaeological heritage and discovered hundreds of fortified oasis settlements and advanced water and irrigation systems that sustained advanced oasis agriculture. These discoveries reveal that the sun-beaten and arid lands of the Sahara to have been a much more populous place than first thought.

Professor Mattingly said: "The Sahara is often depicted as a totally hostile landscape in which only a few scattered nomads could eke out an existence prior to the expansion of Trans-Saharan trade routes in the Islamic era.

"The new evidence suggests that the early medieval expansion of trade and settlement built on earlier initiatives, in which the Garamantes had played a significant role.”

The five-year project looks at the period dating from 500BC to AD 1500. The team started with a focus on southern Libya where the heartlands of the Garamantes were located – once thought to be a nomadic tribe living in scattered camps dotted among the dunes of the central Sahara, the Garamantes are now known to have built sophisticated permanent villages and urban settlements.

They also practised oasis agriculture – exploiting fossil water sources to irrigate crops – and were skilled craftsmen and manufacturers which has been shown by examples of metalworking and textile production found at the archaeological sites. Trade was also an important part of life for this ancient society and demonstrable links with both the Mediterranean and Sub-Saharan zones has shown that they were among the first people to create a Trans-Saharan network of commerce.

But this is not all. As Professor Mattingly’s Research Associate, Dr Martin Sterry, explains, the implications of the discoveries relating to the Garamantes extend into other areas of the Sahara. He added: “Our mapping work from satellite images has revealed similar patterns of permanent settlements and oasis farming innovation in other regions and it looks like some of this also originated in the pre-Islamic era.

Professor Mattingly concludes: "This changes the whole basis of our understanding of human occupation with and contacts across the Sahara. The desert was a much more intensely settled and inter-connected region than we have previously realised.”

Professor Mattingly has been invited to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) on February 13, to give a talk, titled Tracing History in the Saharan Desert Landscapes, on his findings as part of the session on “Imaging the Past: Using New Information Technologies To Nurture Historical Analysis” proposed by the ERC. The event – the AAAS 2015 Annual Meeting – will take place in San Jose, California.

Project’s webpage:


Notes to editors

For more information contact Professor Mattingly at: or his associate Dr Martin Sterry at:

The European Research Council (ERC)

Established in 2007 by the EU, the European Research Council is the first pan-European funding organisation for frontier research. It aims to stimulate scientific excellence in Europe by funding the very best, creative researchers and supporting their innovative ideas.

The ERC also strives to attract top researchers from anywhere in the world to Europe, as well as encourage Europeans elsewhere to return to their native continent.

Every year the ERC funds the projects of top researchers at any stage of their career, from anywhere in the world, with Starting, Consolidator or Advanced Grants. The substantial funding is awarded based on peer review evaluation and can amount to €3.5 million. The ERC operates according to an "investigator-driven", or "bottom-up", approach, allowing researchers to identify themselves new opportunities in any field of research. Since its launch, the ERC has funded over 4,500 researchers.

Under Horizon 2020, the new EU research programme (2014-2020), the ERC has a substantially increased budget of over €13 billion.

The ERC is led by the ERC Scientific Council, composed of 22 distinguished scientists and scholars, including the ERC President, Prof. Jean-Pierre Bourguignon. The operational arm of the ERC, the Executive Agency, is led by Director Pablo Amor.

ERC website:

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