Recently unearthed “castles” deep in the Sahara may be evidence of a “lost civilization,” says a group of British researchers. The discovery could redefine an ancient people long characterized as nomadic barbarians.
The University of Leicester researchers believe the ruins are vestiges of the Garamantean kingdom, dating from the time of the Roman Empire in the first century AD. Project leader David Mattingly says the structures suggest a large population living in over 100 permanent settlements on 600 square kilometers of Libyan desert—a far cry from a nation of nomads.
The Garamantes’ name itself hints that traditional understanding of its people was incorrect. Garamantes is “very close to the Berber term for citadel, agharam,” says Mattingly. “So one neat possibility is that the name meant something like ‘village people,’ [as opposed to] ‘wild nomadic wandering people.’”
The villages’ inhabitants were “advanced agriculturists with sophisticated irrigation systems,” says Mattingly, adding that the settlements’ number, scale, and planning indicate a civilization strikingly unlike the one previously theorized. “This is a large population mass living in the central Sahara at a time when it was already high prairie desert,” he says. “You would not be prepared to find what we’re finding.”
Martin Sterry, who made the initial discovery while scrutinizing satellite imagery for his PhD research, says the buildings appear to be “fortified farms.” Some of the walls still stand as high as four meters, with a large wall surrounding each settlement outlaid by oasis gardens. Some of the settlements also include cemeteries, indicating long periods of inhabitation.
“We were absolutely staggered by what we found on the ground there,” says Sterry. The team initially guessed the structures were medieval Islamic, an interpretation consistent with the area’s history. However, carbon dating placed the buildings between 1 and 500 AD, several hundred years before the Islamic period. The researchers also found construction techniques uncommon to medieval Islam, making the Garamantes the most likely tenants.
The structures are unusually well preserved compared to many other archaeological sites in Libya. The buildings are constructed primarily of mud bricks, which if not maintained usually “just melt back into the desert,” says Sterry. The ruins look like “enormous sand castles,” he says, “but when you dig into them a little bit, the mud brick is still there, just a few centimeters below the surface.”
Also of note is the method by which the settlements were discovered. After Sterry spotted unnatural shapes in satellite imagery, the team arranged for a visit to Libya—“a week of driving around in four-by-fours with GPS [guidance],” he says. Such techniques are “very much representative of our time,” says Philip Kenrick of the Society for Libyan Studies. “Once you’ve pinpointed these things in [satellite] photographs, you merely have to write down the coordinates, take your GPS on the ground, and go there.”
The buildings have lain undiscovered in the Libyan desert due largely to the disinterest of deposed dictator Muammar Gaddafi, who displayed “no interest in [Libya’s] cultural heritage at all,” says Kenrick. Very good planning laws existed to protect cultural archaeology under Gaddafi, he says, but “nobody bothered to apply them. So when they were building roads, hospitals, the great man-made river—Gaddafi’s project to bring water up from the desert—there was absolutely no archaeological work done,” and many sites were destroyed. The Garamantean settlements were spared because they exist in an sparsely populated and largely unexplored region of southwestern Libya.
But the researchers are optimistic that interest in archaeology will increase now that the new government is in power. Kenrick says that many Libyan citizens are curious about their pre-Gaddafi heritage. “I myself have met countryside farmers who’ve got ancient ruins on their land,” he says. “They are interested in [the ruins] and proud of them.”
There is much to be done in Libya before archaeology becomes a priority. Still, Mattingly and his team are optimistic that the new government will actively support archaeological research in the country. There is no doubt of new discoveries waiting to be made, says Kenrick. “The area that [Mattingly is] working in down there is really vast. There will be work to do there for years and years to come.”