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Historic Archaeology

The Garamantian Period

The Garamantes are the people who inhabited the Fezzan during the period from ca. 500 BC (they are first mentioned by Herodotus) to ca. 400 AD. Initially a sort of large tribal federation, the Garamantes had a true kingdom in the period between the last three centuries BC and the mid-fourth century AD. The “royal” tombs excavated in the Germa area (the ancient Garama, capital of the Garamantes) by the Italian Biagi-Caputo mission in 1932-35 discovered a significant quantity of luxury goods imported from the Mediterranean. Later, the Germa area was investigated again by British missions (Daniels, 1958-77), Libyan missions (Ayoub, 1960s), and then again by the British mission directed by David Mattingly (1997-2001).

Our knowledge of the Acacus area, and the oases of Ghat and Barkat, on the other hand, remained extremely scarce until 1997. Up until this point only the small necropolis of Quqaman near Ghat (Caputo), and the enormous necropolis of Aghram Nadharif (Leschi, University of Algiers, during the French occupation of the Fezzan, 1946-49) had been explored; moreover, the results remained almost entirely unpublished.

Fig1 - Ghat, view of the
old Mosque

Fig2 - Distribution of Garamantian sites in the southern Fezzan.

Fig3 - A long inscription in Tifinagh on the rock wall of a mountain pass.

In 1997 our mission decided to accompany research on prehistory and rock art with a study of Garamantian archaeology, directed by Mario Liverani. After a brief survey beneath the old town of Ghat (Fig. 1), this study concentrated first on the citadel of Aghram Nadharif, and then on the Village of Fehwet, and on the identification of castles in desert areas south and east of the Acacus, and of mountain passes.

In the meantime, extensive surveys had demonstrated that the wide dispersal of Pastoral and Late Pastoral sites was followed by a substantial concentration of Garamantian sites in the oases (Fig. 2). Small groups with a pastoral economy and seasonal mobility were thus succeeded by a horticultural economy (in the oases) and caravan trade based on a broad political structure.


Our research has shown that the Garamantian kingdom, at least in its later phases (ca. 100 BC-350 AD) was a formally structured state, with stable settlements built in stone, careful territorial control (castles and mountain passes) (Fig. 3), evidence of long-distance trade (between the Mediterranean and Egypt, and the Sahel belt), support/defence infrastructures, taxation and the use of writing.

The fortified settlements excavated or discovered by us constitute a sort of limes (nearly 1000 km to the south of the Roman limes of Tripolitania), guarding the southern frontier of the kingdom.
In some ways this “strong” structure of the Garamantian kingdom imitates some features of the model provided by the contemporary Roman Empire. Halfway through the 4th century AD, this organization collapses abruptly, paralleling the collapse taking place also inside the Roman limes: this signals the demise of an organizational model encompassing the whole area between the Sahara and the Mediterranean.

Trans-Saharan trade probably continued, but in a much less intensive way, in the hands of camel-owning tribes, and without a strong control centre in the middle of the Sahara itself.

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Italian-Libyan Archaeological Mission in the Acacus and Messak - UniversitÓ degli Studi di Roma "La Sapienza"
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