LIBYA: Desert's lost civilisation

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. The fall of Gaddafi has opened the way for archaeologists to explore the country's pre-Islamic heritage, 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 has discovered more than 100 fortified farms and villages with castle-like structures and several towns, most dating between AD 1-500.

The '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 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, cairn cemeteries, associated field systems, wells and sophisticated irrigation systems. A follow-up ground survey earlier this year confirmed the pre-Islamic date and remarkable preservation.

"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," said project leader David Mattingly, a professor of roman archaeology at Leicester.

Colleague Dr Martin Sterry has been responsible for much of the image analysis and site interpretation. Sterry said satellite imagery had given archaeologists the ability to cover a large region and the evidence suggested the climate had not changed over the years.

"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," he said.

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. But Mattingly said that, 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," he said.

"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."

The team was forced to evacuate Libya in February when the anti-Gaddafi revolt started but hope 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 - which awarded Mattingly an ERC Advanced Grant of nearly EU2.5million (US$3.4 million) - the Leverhulme Trust, the Society for Libyan Studies and the GeoEye Foundation.