Britons Find Ancient Empire That Made Sahara Bloom

July 15, 2000
By David Keys, Archaeology Correspondent

An ancient civilisation, lost for 1,500 years in the middle of the Sahara Desert, has been found and investigated by British archaeologists.

Research by the Universities of Leicester, Newcastle and Reading is revealing how a long-forgotten Saharan people made the desert bloom, built impressive cities and controlled an empire of 70,000 square miles.

Nearly all scholars had thought this ancient people, known as the Garamantes, had been little more than desert barbarians living in one small town, a couple of villages and scattered, nomadic encampments.

But the researchers, led by David Mattingly, an archaeologist at Leicester University, found the Garamantes had at least three big cities and 20other important settlements in the middle of the world’s largest desert.

Their investigations showed how the desert, where rainfall averages only half an inch each year, was successfully cultivated. A 3,000-mile network of underground irrigation canals was built by the Garamantes, which tapped into natural fossil water supplies laid down more than 40,000 years ago when rain last fell plentifully in the area.

The archaeologists believe the Sahara became much more arid after 1200BC and thisforced local populations to move from pastoral stock-rearing to oases-based agriculture.

Oases in large depressions had easier access to fossil groundwater – and in one large depression, now known as the Wadi al-Agial, the inhabitants built underground canals to channel water from the fossil aquifers to irrigate up to 300 square miles of land.

With the subterranean canals, food production rose and the population expanded, so by 500BC the Garamantes were able to create their first towns and to start expanding their area of political control.

The archaeological research, funded by the British Academy and the Leverhulme Trust, shows that by around 100BC they had become a major political force, and they remained a 50,000-strong state until easily accessible fossil water supplies ran out.

When the groundwater level fell below that of the underground canal complex, the irrigation system simply dried up, and the Garamantes had to dig hundreds of wells to reach the lowered water table. This water crisis, as well as a reduction in trade caused by the lesser volume of slavery in the Mediterranean and the decline of the Roman Empire, seems to have reduced the power of the Garamantian civilisation by the sixth century AD.

By the end of the following century, the kingdom had come under Islamic domination.

The Garamantian civilisation reached its peak in the second and third centuries AD, when the new archaeological evidence suggests it became one of the Roman Empire’s main trading partners.

Archaeologists believe large quantities of African gold, ivory, salt, semi-precious stones and slaves were supplied to the empire via the Garamantian kingdom.

Professor Mattingly said: “Our research is revealing that, with human ingenuity and against all the odds, the people of the world’s largest desert were able to create a prosperous and successful civilisation in one of the driest and hottest wildernesses on earth. The Romans liked to think of the Garamantes as simple barbarians. The new archaeological evidence is now putting the record straight and showing they were brilliant farmers, resourceful engineers and enterprising merchants who produced a remarkable civilisation.”