The Garamantes are not just a vanished civilization; they are a much maligned, misunderstood African people. Ancient writers from the time of Herodotus (fifth century B.C.) through the Roman period depicted the Garamantes as barbarians who menaced the Mediterranean world from desert strongholds. The first-century A.D. Roman historian Tacitus, for instance, described them as an “ungovernable tribe … always engaged in practicing brigandage on their neighbors” (Histories 4.50).
This literary portrait of bloodthirsty Africans, however, says more about the Greeks and Romans than it does about the Garamantes. It reflects the prejudices and self-delusion of the Mediterranean peoples, who believed above all in their own superiority over their neighbors (whether near or distant).
As the accompanying article by Mario Liverani indicates, the hard facts being 031produced by archaeological research paint a far different picture of the Garamantes. These “desert pirates” were in fact sophisticated farmers and merchants; they used complex irrigation systems to make the Sahara desert bloom, and they engaged in extensive trade with tropical Africa and the Mediterranean coast. From their capital at Germa (ancient Garama, hence “Garamantes”), they once controlled a realm of 100,000 square miles—presenting enough of a threat that Rome sent armies against them.
The first scientific forays into Garamantian history were conducted by the British archaeologist Charles Daniels in the 1960s and 1970s. Unfortunately, Daniels died prematurely in 1996, with much of his work unpublished. Now the Garamantes are again the subject of scholarly attention. An Italian expedition from the University of Rome, directed by Mario Liverani, is working on a group of Garamantian structures in the southwest corner of Fezzan (see map of Fezzan in “Salt from the Garamantes”); and a British team from the Universities 032of Leicester and Newcastle, under my direction, is preparing a series of publications on the Daniels archive and carrying out renewed fieldwork.a
The heartland of the Garamantes lay in the Wadi el-Agial (about 700 miles south of Tripoli, in modern Libya), a sinuous east-west depression some 100 miles long and 2 to 3 miles wide. This narrow valley is sandwiched between a towering sand sea on the north and a clifflike rock escarpment backed by a barren rock plateau (hamada) on the south. Annual rainfall in this region is negligible—less than half an inch on average—and frequently no rain falls for several years. The Wadi el-Agial seems an unpromising environment to support a prosperous civilization. In antiquity, however, water was tapped at a shallow depth below the valley floor, permitting cultivation of this thin, beltlike oasis.
The British excavations are concentrated at ancient Germa/Garama, which contains still-standing remains of a medieval caravan settlement, dominated by an imposing mudbrick kasbah, or castle. Below these structures (some only abandoned in the 1930s) lies a complex stratigraphic sequence of earlier occupation levels reaching to a depth of 15 feet. The 1960s excavations revealed a group of Garamantian buildings at the core of the site. Unlike the later structures, the Garamantian buildings have stone walls, some with their stones skillfully cut and squared in ashlar fashion—suggesting the wealth of the site in its heyday between the first and fourth centuries A.D.
The elegant facade of one of these Garamantian structures included a broad set of steps and columns. This building may have been a temple of the Egyptian-Libyan desert god Amun, whose cult is best known for its oracle at Amun Siwa, an oasis in Egypt not far from the Libyan border.b A building near the temple has stones of ashlar quality as well as other 033architectural flourishes, such as two engaged pilasters flanking its narrow entrance and a colonnaded internal court. Another building in Germa, a mausoleum probably constructed for a king, is decorated with a fine Ionic-Corinthian capital. Since there is no evidence to suggest Roman occupation of Fezzan, these examples must have resulted from exchanges between the Roman Empire and the Garamantian kingdom.
Below these Roman-period stone buildings are mudbrick structures that are even older, judging from associated potsherds that date to at least the fifth century B.C. The site at Germa thus provides us with an urban sequence going back 2,500 years, and this date can be pushed back further when a nearby proto-urban hill fort called Zinchecra is added to the picture.
Zinchecra was inhabited from about 900 to 500 B.C. Charles Daniels’s excavations here produced evidence not only of huts and shelters terraced into the hill but also of animal bones and plant remains. The faunal record, unsurprisingly, is dominated by sheep and goat bones. The botanical record, on the other hand, reveals an astonishing picture. This extremely dry area produced a broad range of agricultural crops, including wheat, barley, grapes and date palms—dated by carbon 14 tests to the first half of the first millennium B.C. The weed species that date to this period, however, thrive only in hyperarid climates. Clearly, the Garamantes, long before they had contact with the Greco-Roman world, were producing irrigated crops in the middle of the Sahara Desert, where the only source of water lay in subterranean aquifers.
Our excavations at Germa are designed to produce a series of time slices illustrating the entire history of this remarkable site.
We have learned, for example, that not all settlement phases in Fezzan were equally prosperous. During much of the medieval and early modern periods, relatively few foreign goods were distributed to the common people in the region, despite the existence of trans-Saharan 034trade. By contrast, remains from the Garamantian period include an abundance of amphoras for wine and olive oil, fine ceramic ware and glass—all imported from the Roman world.
We are also systematically sieving deposits in order to develop an understanding of the botanical history. This is providing important information about changes in the local environment and the kinds of crops produced in Fezzan over the millennia. We have identified, for example, a series of significant botanical horizons—including a late medieval “maize horizon,” which represents the arrival of plant species from the Americas, as well as a “sorghum horizon,” which represents the arrival of sorghum grain from sub-Saharan Africa, probably during the Garamantian period.
The earlier, 1960s excavations were essentially clearance operations, in which Islamic structures were removed to uncover the Garamantian stone buildings, such as the Amun temple. The lack of stratigraphic recording left many questions about the dates and functions of all strata, including the Garamantian levels—though Daniels did make a few soundings below their foundations to establish a partial chronological framework. We are excavating an area adjacent to the Amun temple. After three campaigns, we have discovered elements of five separate phases of domestic structures overlying the Garamantian levels. In our next season, January and February 2000, we will reach Garamantian structures.
Daniels located a large number of Garamantian cemeteries, particularly in the form of cairn graves, along the foot of the hamada escarpment. He also found a number of hill forts along the escarpment and a few villagelike sites in the oasis. Close to Germa, Daniels uncovered a densely built-up Garamantian village, consisting of many small units of one or two rooms, constructed back-to-back and side-by-side to form larger complexes. This site also contained evidence of weaving, metalworking and bead production (using pierced fragments of ostrich eggshell).
Our surveys—which basically consist of systematic field-walking and data recording—have revealed that the Garamantian settlement pattern was far denser than previously suspected, with numerous satellite villages around Germa. Including cemeteries, we have now identified almost 500 Garamantian sites along the Wadi el-Agial. The Garamantes grew crops and built settlements at fairly regular intervals all along the valley. They also built extensive cemeteries along the foot of the hamada escarpment—where over 60,000 graves have been recorded. This funerary architecture is extremely eclectic; the tomb types include mausoleums of recognizable Roman-African tradition, stepped tombs similar to the Egyptian mastaba, and even pyramid tombs made of mudbrick. Although the largest pyramid tombs stand only 10 to 15 feet tall, one cemetery contains over 100 separate examples. This great variety of 035tomb types may indicate that the Garamantes maintained discrete subtribal identities within the polity—that is, the Garamantian kingdom was a tribal confederation.
The Garamantes also introduced a written form of the Libyan language into this part of the Sahara. This script is based on a set of symbols (circles, crosses, squares, arrows and zigzags, for example), and most of the recovered writing consists of very short funerary inscriptions. Although many aspects of Garamantian civilization were swept away long ago, their writing persisted: Today the nomadic Tuareg people use a version of the Garamantes’ script.
How was all this activity supported? The most extraordinary construction project undertaken by the ancient Garamantes was their irrigation system: the foggaras. These are underground channels, similar to the Persian qanat or the Arabian falaj (or aflaj), which tapped the aquifer below the escarpment and conducted water out into the valley, where it flowed continuously into the oasis. Often several miles long, these irrigation channels can still be readily identified at the surface from regularly spaced vertical shafts dug in ancient times to construct and maintain them. Near the escarpment (where the channel taps the aquifer), the shafts are up to 65 feet deep; they gradually diminish in depth as the underlying channel approaches the bottom of the valley. Here, where the foggara channel emerges from underground, additional channels were built to distribute the water to farmed areas.
One goal of our excavations is to determine exactly how the Garamantes built this system. But even at this stage some 036elements are clear. The channels were generally very narrow (less than 2 feet wide and 5 feet high) and they often extended a couple of miles from the base of the escarpment out into the oasis. In such confined conditions, only a few people could have been working at once—so perhaps the Garamantes conscripted small adults or even children (much as children, with their nimble fingers, have been used to weave rugs) as tunnelers.
Moreover, these long tunnels led through unstable ground; the archaeological evidence suggests that there were frequent slumps and collapses. If the channels had been dug of a piece—that is, a simple tunnel from escarpment to valley—the construction work would have been extremely dangerous and the maintenance work a nightmare. And how easy it would have been for the tunnelers to lose their way beneath the ground!
That is why we think the shafts were necessary. The foggara shafts are spaced closely together, often only about ten yards apart. Each has a ring of accumulated soil around its surface opening—apparently excavated from below to clear the channel. Our conclusion is that the channels and their shafts were dug together; shafts were sunk and a channel was dug between them, and this process continued until the channel debouched into the valley. After the system was completed, workers could crawl down the shafts to clear rubble from portions of the channel. It also seems likely that the first step in building a foggara was to strike the aquifer by sinking a shaft near the escarpment. Once water was tapped, the process of building the channel-shaft system could begin.
The foggara system was introduced into Fezzan by the Garamantes, and it probably remained in use through the early Islamic period—though the channels have now been dry for centuries, probably because the aquifer became depleted. The building of the foggara irrigation system—with its several thousand miles of channels—was a massive undertaking, the ancient equivalent of laying the railways.
Clearly, it was the foggara system that made possible the cultivation and settlement of the desert. The Garamantes, as mentioned above, probably comprised a confederation of tribes, some of whom may have migrated from oases farther east, nearer Egypt, perhaps bringing with them the foggara technology. There are clear parallels, for example, between Libyan tribesmen depicted in Egyptian reliefs and tribesmen depicted in the rock art of southern Libya and Algeria. Skeletal studies, albeit of a small sample of burials, suggest that the Garamantes were a mix of ethnic types, including both Berber (Mediterranean African) and Negroid.
From the Wadi el-Agial, made fertile by irrigation, the Garamantes dominated a large expanse of the Sahara. They launched military expeditions, and they traded at all points of the compass. From references in classical sources, we might suspect that the Garamantes engaged in 037slave trade. Herodotus, for instance, says they were “a very numerous tribe of people who spread soil over the salt to sow their seed in … The Garamantes hunted the Ethiopian hole-men, or troglodytes, in four horse chariots.” It may be that this Saharan people used horse-drawn chariots (the Garamantes introduced the horse into this region) to conduct slave raids against their neighbors. Certainly the monumental and dangerous task of building the foggaras would have required large numbers of workers—exactly the sort of labor relegated to slaves. Perhaps, too, the Garamantes provided the Mediterranean region with some of its slave labor. Although we know little about trans-Saharan trade during this period, the large quantity of Roman goods found at Garamantian sites indicates that something of value must have been passing the other way. So maybe the Garamantes traded in slaves—as well as in salt, gold, semiprecious stones, ivory, wild animals and natron (a naturally occurring alkali used in embalming and glassmaking).
When Islamic Arabs first invaded Fezzan in 666–667 A.D., there was still a king at Germa. But the Garamantes’ civilization waned in the period of Arab suzerainty. Several Garamantian villages appear to have been occupied in the early Islamic period and some were embellished with castlelike mudbrick structures (gsur). Over time, however, the number of villages seems to have declined markedly, perhaps linked to the shift (as yet poorly dated) from foggara to well irrigation. The problem with irrigation based on wells is that water must be raised by buckets before being fed into irrigation channels—so that each well can irrigate only a limited area of fields around it. The late medieval and early modern pattern, then, is of small clumps of cultivated fields clustered around scattered wells, in contrast to the more extensive areas that were cultivated while the foggaras were providing a continuous flow of running water.
Paradoxically, the foggara system that made Garamantian civilization possible may have contributed to its demise. In such an arid climate, groundwater is a non-renewable (or very rarely renewed) resource. Having 500 working foggaras would be like leaving millions of faucets permanently turned on. Over the centuries, this system may have drained the aquifer, severely reducing the flow of water to the fields. The irrigation system would have trickled to a halt—marking the end of the Garamantes. In the coming excavation seasons, we hope to confirm that this is how Garamantian civilization, if I may be allowed a pun, dried out.
Germa was replaced as the regional capital by sites further east and south (Murzuk, Traghen, Zuila), though its medieval walls and kasbah guaranteed it a role in the politics and warfare of the period. Nonetheless, when the earliest European travelers penetrated the Sahara in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, they found the Wadi el-Agial desperately impoverished; its underpopulated villages were crumbling, and the bulk of its agricultural production was taken as taxes and rents by absentee sheiks and Turkish officials. The civilization of the Garamantes, long forgotten, had vanished beneath the desert sands.
Readers with access to the WWW may like to follow the progress of the work on the Garamantes at the following site: http://museums.ncl.ac.uk/garamantes/feztop.htm.
The Garamantes are not just a vanished civilization; they are a much maligned, misunderstood African people. Ancient writers from the time of Herodotus (fifth century B.C.) through the Roman period depicted the Garamantes as barbarians who menaced the Mediterranean world from desert strongholds. The first-century A.D. Roman historian Tacitus, for instance, described them as an “ungovernable tribe … always engaged in practicing brigandage on their neighbors” (Histories 4.50). This literary portrait of bloodthirsty Africans, however, says more about the Greeks and Romans than it does about the Garamantes. It reflects the prejudices and self-delusion of the Mediterranean peoples, who […]