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Trans-SAHARA: State Formation, Migration and Trade in the Central Sahara (1000 BC - AD 1500)

Final Report Summary - TRANS-SAHARA (Trans-SAHARA: State Formation, Migration and Trade in the Central Sahara (1000 BC - AD 1500))

The Trans-SAHARA project has identified a far higher level of oasis development, trade and migration in the Sahara in the pre-Islamic era than has generally been appreciated hitherto. Through a combination of remote analysis and mapping of sites from satellite imagery and air photographs, ground visits and radiocarbon dating, we have demonstrated the protohistoric evolution of a series of case study oases in the Libyan central Sahara and the Moroccan western Sahara. These include hundreds of sites associated with the Garamantes, an ancient Saharan people, whose civilisation was contemporary with the Roman empire and whose archaeological traces merit their recognition as an early state. A major discovery of the project was that their most important settlements had urban characteristics – making them the first towns of the central Sahara. The radiocarbon dating programme enabled the project to trace the changing aspect of settlement forms and burials over time in detail – a particularly significant discovery was the recognition of an important class of late Garamantian fortified sites, whose rectangular form, with projecting angle towers, is reminiscent of Late Roman frontier forts. However, in Garamantian society this form was adopted as the standard appearance of fortified villages. The project also established new evidence for pre-Islamic origins of Saharan trade, demonstrating the existence of extensive links between the Garamantes and their northern and southern neighbours. Scientific analyses have established that they were reworking imported metal and glass from the Mediterranean, turning it into new artefacts for use in their own society and onward trade. They were also skilled textile producers and beadmakers, both commodities that are now recognised as being particularly important elements of Saharan trade.
A second case study area, the Wadi Draa in southern Morocco, was investigated with a similar combination of remote sensing and field survey. Here again we have identified hundreds of previously unknown settlement sites and thousands of pre-Islamic burial monuments in extensive funerary zones alongside the modern oasis. Some of the hillfort settlements have yielded evidence of early first millennium AD cereal cultivation and metallurgy, demonstrating clear similarities with the early phases of Garamantian oasis civilisation. Among the impressive funerary monuments of the region we have identified a type of tomb with painted funerary chapel, which promise to illuminate further the nature of this desert society.
A more wide-ranging Saharan survey of oasis development and protohistoric funerary structures carried out as part of the project shows that these case studies are not exceptional instances, but rather representative of a more general spread of oasis agriculture, trade and advanced technologies, like metallurgy and underground irrigation channels (foggaras).
These results change the paradigms of Saharan archaeology of the historical eras.