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Friday, 21 July, 2000, 18:18 GMT 19:18 UK
Lost kingdom of the Sahara
irrigation channels
Straight pale lines show irrigation channels stretching out towards the oasis
After two millennia in which an ancient Saharan kingdom has had an undeserved reputation for barbarity, British archaeologists are finally putting the record straight.

According to Roman authors, the Garamantes were fierce and ungovernable nomads - but research by scholars from Leicester and Newcastle universities shows they lived in fashionable towns and performed miracles farming in the blistering desert.


The key to their success was a network of underground irrigation channels linked to natural aquifers, only a fraction of which has previously been recorded.

"There are many hundreds, even thousands of these channels, covering thousands of kilometres," said Dr David Edwards of Leicester University. "The sheer scale of it is very impressive."

Raiders and traders

The British archaeologists are conducting their own excavations, but at the same time they are studying the results of 20 years of research by another archaeologist, Charles Daniels, who died before publishing his discoveries.

The result will be a three-volume publication crediting the Garamantes with introducing writing, the horse, the camel and wheeled transport to this region of the Sahara.


The Garamantes earned their reputation as barbarians because they sometimes raided Roman settlements on the Mediterranean coast.

But they also traded with Romans - providing wild animals for gladiators to fight - and even brought classical architecture to their remote desert towns.

"I see them as a lost civilisation - one of the earliest Saharan states," said Dr Edwards' colleague at Leicester, Professor David Mattingly.

Lost bath

He has discovered fragments of a special kind of Roman tile at the town of Germa (formerly Garama) which he thinks has amazing implications.

Garamantian fortifications
Garamantian fortifications at the oasis of Gasr Larco
"Someone has carried this material 1,000 km (650 miles) across the Sahara to construct a Roman style bath building - presumably a special commission for a Garamantian king.

"This would be by some margin the most southerly Roman bath ever found if we're lucky enough to find the building itself in our final season next year."

Where the Garamantes came from is a mystery, and the researchers are struggling to understand what became of them in the Middle Ages.

Decline

Garamantian outpost
A Garamantian outpost in the southern Sahara
What seems clear is that their civilisation peaked in the first centuries AD, and later became dogged by water shortages.

The underground channels were replaced by deeper wells, and the area under cultivation shrank.

"The Garamantes made the desert bloom," said Professor Mattingly.

"But through their over-exploitation of the non-renewable groundwater sources, they may have contributed to their own downfall."


Picture copyright: Dr David Edwards and Fezzan Project 2000
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