Castles in the desert – Satellites reveal lost cities of Libya
ERC project's team gets back to Libya after Gaddafi's fall. Satellite imagery has uncovered new evidence of a lost civilisation of the Sahara in Libya’s south-western desert wastes that will help re-write the history of the country.
image above: Mudbrick and stone castle-like structure
Photo by Toby Savage
Image below: Satellite image of area of desert with archeological interpretation of features
Copyright 2011 Google
The fall of Gaddafi has opened the way for archaeologists to explore the country’s pre-Islamic heritage, so long ignored under his regime. Using satellites and air-photographs to identify the remains in one of the most inhospitable parts of the desert, a British team with EU funding from the European Research Council (ERC) has discovered more than 100 fortified farms and villages with castle-like structures and several towns, most dating from AD 1-500. These “lost cities” were built by a little-known ancient civilisation called the Garamantes, whose lifestyle and culture was far more advanced and historically significant than the ancient sources suggested.
The team from the University of Leicester has identified the mud brick remains of the castle-like complexes, with walls still standing up to four metres high, along with traces of dwellings, cairn cemeteries, associated field systems, wells and sophisticated irrigation systems. Follow-up ground survey earlier this year confirmed the pre-Islamic date and remarkable preservation.
Prof. Henrietta L. Moore, Member of the ERC's Scientific Council and the William Wyse Chair of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge said: "In the ERC, we are very proud to fund excellent researchers such as archeologist David Mattingly and his team. When the ERC awarded him an Advanced Grant, we firmly believed that his project had the potential to go beyond the frontiers of knowledge and would be essential in getting to know Libya's cultural heritage. Then it took a dramatic turn with the anti-Gaddafi revolt which forced the team to evacuate the country". She added: "Remarkably, David Mattingly plans to get back to Libya soon to continue his ground survey with the same enthusiasm. We are confident that he will continue his important exploration of the exceptional archaeological treasures of this region".
“It is like someone coming to England and suddenly discovering all the medieval castles. These settlements had been unremarked and unrecorded under the Gaddafi regime,” says the project leader David Mattingly FBA, Professor of Roman Archaeology at the University of Leicester. “Satellite imagery has given us the ability to cover a large region. The evidence suggests that the climate has not changed over the years and we can see that this inhospitable landscape with zero rainfall was once very densely built up and cultivated. These are quite exceptional ancient landscapes, both in terms of the range of features and the quality of preservation,” says Dr Martin Sterry, also of the University of Leicester, who has been responsible for much of the image analysis and site interpretation.
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 professor and his team were forced to evacuate Libya in February when the anti-Gaddafi revolt started, but hope to be able to return to the field as soon as security is fully restored. 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 € 2.5 million, 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. “These represent the first towns in Libya that weren’t the colonial imposition of Mediterranean people such as the Greeks and Romans. The Garamantes should be central to what Libyan school children learn about their history and heritage.”