Satellites reveal Libya's lost 2,000-year-old cities

One of the side effects of the fall of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi's regime is that archaeologists can now explore parts of the country's past that were long suppressed, starting with the lost cities of the ancient Garamantes civilization.

Satellites and aerial photographs have revealed evidence of over a hundred fortified farms, villages, and towns - many with castle-like structures - in the southwestern deserts of Libya. These structures date back to between 1 and 500 C.E., meaning they predate the rise of Islam. Largely because of that very fact, these sites were all but ignored during the late dictator's rule.

Archaeologists from the University of Leicester have used all this aerial data to identify as much as they can about the so-called Garamantes people, who are otherwise known purely through Greek and Roman sources. They've already discovered "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." As project leader David Mattingly explains, it's the equivalent of someone visiting England in 2011 and discovering all the medieval castles for the very first time.

Dr. Martin Sterry explains how the Garamantes once built a flourishing civilization out of the arid Sahara:

Satellite imagery has given us the ability to cover a large region. The evidence suggests that the climate has not changed over the years and 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."

The archaeologists had been working in the field earlier this year when the Libyan revolution started, which forced them to evacuate. They hope to return to the sites in the near future, but for now the satellite imagery is doing a remarkable job telling the story of the Garamantes, who were often painted as brutish nomads and troublemakers by their Greek and Roman contemporary.

As Professor Mattingly argues, these sites have already proven that that was far from the truth:

"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.

"It is a new start for Libya's antiquities service and a chance for the Libyan people to engage with their own long-suppressed history. 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."

Via the University of Leicester. Map copyright 2011 Google, image copyright 2011 DigitalGlobe.