Libya Archaeology

By | December 24, 2021

Since the late seventies there have been numerous archaeological discoveries, many due to regular excavations, many due to the great development that the country has experienced in every region and in every sector. Numerous museums have also been created: one, imposing, inside the Tripoli Castle, has taken the place of the previous archaeological museum arranged by G. Caputo and E. Vergara Caffarelli.

It is a huge building that occupies the section of the castle overlooking the sea and contains not only a selection of the archaeological materials from the old museum, but also an ethnographic section, a natural history section and a section on the history of the Socialist Republic. Another important archaeological museum was built in 1991 in Leptis Magna thanks to the local superintendent, O. Majub, while a new large museum enriched Benghazi in the excavation area of ​​Sīdī H̱rībīš. On the other hand, the Cyrene museum has not been started, of which, for more than 25 years, an executive project has been carried out by V. Cabianca of the University of Palermo.

For prehistoric research, the most significant discoveries still come from Fezzan, where F. Mori continued the exploration of the Tadrart Acacus, begun in 1955. From the research of recent years, fundamental evidences have emerged for the setting of the picture relating to the slow onset of the Neolithization in this Saharan area: new dates, ceramics dating back to the 9th millennium from today, finds of atherian industry in the most ancient levels, pollen, archaeozoological and paleoclimatic analyzes. All this allows today to propose an updated sequence of chronological and cultural stages, and by synthesizing information from different territories, it builds a wide-ranging picture of the Saharan area: it results in a pastoral-based production economy,

As regards rock art, it must be emphasized that the most ancient phase, called “ of the great wild fauna ” or “ of the Bubalus (Homoioceras) antiquus ”, seems to include only graffiti and is today attributable to the late Pleistocene, with an age that can probably be fixed, thanks to sophisticated analyzes of the patinas of graffiti belonging to different phases, before the 11th-12th millennium from today.

The subsequent phase “of the Round Heads” is mainly made up of paintings of impressive solemnity and great beauty; in them we see, for the first time in the history of the species, the documentation of that vision of the world, increasingly anthropomorphic and anthropocentric, which led man to conceive superhuman beings in his own image and likeness.

In the ” Pastoral ” phase, the activities of daily life are described with incredible skill, to the point of accurately reproducing the somatic characteristics of the different groups. In fact, it appears possible to identify populations of equatorial origin as well as a human type of clear Mediterranean imprint, with long and perhaps blond hair, characterized by a decidedly orthognized profile. But the most important evidence regards the chronology of this long stage: in fact, following precise dating with the radiocarbon method, a period of time between the 9th and 4th millennium can be assigned from today. Everything therefore converges to indicate a significant retreat of that chronology which, until a few years ago, considered all Saharan rock art after the 7th millennium from today.

In Cyrenaica, the activity of both the Libyan antiquities department and the numerous foreign excavation missions was not limited to the cities of Pentapolis (or Hexapoli, if one includes Hadrianopolis), but extended to the entire territory. So today we have an idea close to the truth regarding the ancient road system, ensured both by the two great arteries that on the coast and on the intermediate step of the Ǧabal crossed the whole of Cyrenaica, both by the paths that, sometimes following the widyān, connected the coast to the cities of the hinterland. Furthermore, thanks to aerial photography, it was possible to identify traces of the Roman centuriation, while the discovery of boundary stones inscribed from the age of Claudius, Nero and Vespasiano made us know the location and some limits of the agri regii, the royal heritage of the Ptolemies in Cirenaica, then passed into the possession of the ” Roman people ”. Finally, the study of the basin of some widyān – the Wādī Ṣanab, for example. – as well as minor settlements, troglodyte nuclei, farms in Ǧabal and on the coast have provided us with a wealth of information on the relationship with the Libyan populations, on the techniques of exploitation of the soil, on the type of production in the various historical periods (and targeted surveys made it possible to recognize the famous silphium plant, whose production actually continued at least until the 4th century AD).

In the late Roman and Byzantine periods, the number of fortified farms increased in Ǧabal, and one of these, in the locality of Sirat al-Ǧamal, was excavated and restored by the Libyan department and the Italian archaeological mission of Cyrene. The ” plows ” sanctuary in Haqfa al-H̱asaliya and the famous ” boars ” sanctuary in Slonṭa, as well as the sculptures recently found in Martūba, in the Gulf of Bomba, with their images influenced by Greek culture, but still strongly indigenous, they are among the most significant examples of that mixed culture, studied by the most recent archaeological survey.

Naturally, the Libyan department and foreign missions were also very active in the large traditional excavation centers which, being state-owned areas in many cases since the colonial occupation, have only been subjected to the assault of modern construction to a limited extent.

In Apollonia-Sozousa, the port of Cyrene, a French archaeological mission has been active since 1976 which has conducted explorations, especially in the large thermal baths, along the walls and in the port basins, in one of which, the merchant one, two have been identified. shipwrecks dating from the 2nd century BC

The regular urban planning, divided by plateiai, of the Greek city (fragments of Rhodian and Attic pottery with a black background represent the archaic period) revealed itself under the heavy blanket of the Byzantine system, predominant, since the city from the mid-5th century became the capital of superior Libya. A small stadium has been identified to the west of the city, while the local museum built by R. Goodchild in the 1960s contains interesting sculptures recently edited by J.Ph. Mc Leer and welcomed the architectural elements from the basilicas of the nearby settlements of Ra᾽s al-Hilāl and al-Aṯrūn.

In Cyrene (see in this Appendix) the Italian mission directed by S. Stucchi explored the area of ​​the agora down to the deepest layers, also proceeding with many reconstructions such as the “ base of the gods ” or the equestrian monument of the proconsul C. Clodio Vestale.

The same mission also examined theater 3 west of the agora (from the 3rd century AD), discovering a 25 m long altar from the classical age underneath, and investigated the sanctuary of Apollo again, studying the neighbors. Iseo and Mitreo and numerous minor monuments; very important is the discovery of fragments of Minoan vessels and seals which testify to the existence of a relationship with the Aegean world as early as the 14th-13th century BC. The work of anastylosis continued at the temple of Zeus. The vast sanctuary of Demeter, located beyond the Wādī Ben Qadīr, outside the city, was explored by the US mission directed by D. White who has already produced the definitive edition.

English missions have recently carried out interesting stratigraphic investigations in the area of ​​ancient Barce and excavations in the Roman houses in the northern sector of the monumental road of Tolemaide, whose port has been recognized. Particularly important are the results of the excavations of Sīdī H̱rībīš.

Sīdī H̱rībīš – in which it was an old disused cemetery – is now part of today’s Benghazi, and the excavation has revealed to us a suburb of ancient Berenice, the city that, from the mid-3rd century BC, took the place of the nearby and older Euesperides and was named after the wife of Ptolemy iii. From 1971 to 1976 the Libyan department and a mission of the Society for Libyan studies in London highlighted, in addition to a section of the Hellenistic walls, a mainly residential area organized according to an orthogonal scheme, which lived up to the 6th century AD. he edition of the well-kept stratigraphic excavation carried out made it possible to reconstruct the commercial life of the city in a diachronic sequence and provided archaeologists with a typological and chronological reference for the current ceramic productions in the Mediterranean basin between the advanced Hellenistic and late Roman periods.

In the westernmost city of Cyrenaica, Tukra, the Libyan antiquities department operates together with a mission from the University of Benghazi; the research has brought light to the urban layout of the city, which was also used by the Arabs, as shown by an inscription in the thermal building of the Justinian period and by the ceramics collected in the “ fortress ” built in a hurry in an attempt to stop the Arab invasion of 642.

In Tripolitania – with the support of UNESCO and with the help of French and, above all, English missions – the Department of Antiquities launched a powerful and methodical operation of surveys of the predesert (24 reports published until 1989 only by the British). The ULVS (Unesco Libyan Valleys Surveys), systematically detecting the cultures practiced in the pre-desert in antiquity, thanks to the water of the widyān retained with the most ingenious methods, they could provide useful indications for a re-cultivation of these areas. On the other hand, the solitary explorations carried out by O. Brogan in the 1950s and 1960s had already shown how up to more than 200 km from the coast (remember that the well-known Qirza complex is located 250 km south-east of Tripoli) in Roman times olive trees, vines and even watermelons were cultivated in the bed of the widyān, as confirmed by more recent botanical investigations. Not only the reconstruction of the geomorphological and climatic environment as well as of the production in ancient times was illuminated by these researches, but also the relationships between transhumants and sedentaries (numerous cloistered identified), between cities on the coast and centers of Ǧabal and farms of the predesert, between the Roman army on the limes (the Roman presence was a great stimulus for the development of the predesert) and tribes of the interior, were set on fire as never before, precisely because they have been made possible by this coordinated multi- and interdisciplinary approach.

As for the cities on the coast, while little has been published concerning Oea (but see A. Di Vita for the painted tomb of Zanzur and the hypogeum of Adam and Eve in Qarqāriš), the activity of research and study for Ṣabrāṯa and Leptis. For Libya society, please check

In both cities, Italian missions have taken steps to resume and publish old Italian excavations interrupted by the war. Among the most noteworthy results we remember first of all the edition of the theater by Leptis Magna, the last work of G. Caputo, and of the materials coming from it; the edition, again by Caputo and F. Ghedini, of the Temple of Hercules in Ṣabrāṯa and again the edition of the temple to an unknown divinity studied by E. Joly and F. Tomasello. Also the Christian basilicas in front of the theater and other Sabrathian monuments, spas, private houses, instrumentum domesticum, were edited by members of the mission of the University of Palermo directed by N. Bonacasa, while Di Vita returned several times to the urban planning of Ṣabrāṯa and the funerary area of ​​Sidrat al-Bālīk; the stelae of the tophet he excavated in the 1970s just west of Ṣabrāṯa have also been recently published. PM Kenrick and others then published the English excavations at Ṣabrāṯa in the years 1948-51 and a first volume concerning the pottery from those excavations.

In Leptis an Italian mission continued the excavation of the Flavian temple at the port, in which a French mission also operates. Meanwhile, S. Stucchi continued until his death (1991) the anastylosis of the arch of the Severi and O. Majub completed the restoration of the amphitheater and oversaw the excavation of the large maritime villa of Silin west of al-H̱ums, rich in of paintings and mosaics and with a splendid example of a private library. Numerous emergency excavations were necessary for the increased urbanization in the burial areas that surrounded the ancient city. Thanks to Majub and a subscription by Libyan banks and private individuals, Leptis has resumed its almost normal appearance after the terrible floods of December 1987 and December 1988, which totally upset the via colonnata Severiana, but which made it possible to know the structures of the Neronian port-canal that was below it and provided fundamental elements for the reconstruction of the urban layout of this part of the ancient city.

Libya Archaeology