The ideology of the Libyan state under the dictator Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi discouraged the study of the country’s ancient past.
Al-Qadhafi viewed archaeology as a relic of colonialism, and it was said that he would punish officials by banishing them to the country’s antiquities department.
In the post-Qadhafi era, though, a cohort of experienced and dedicated Libyan archaeologists is emerging.
“Libya now has a growing group of competent, well-trained archaeologists who are not yet in the top jobs,” said David Mattingly, professor of Roman archaeology at the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom. They have done or are doing PhDs at universities in the U.K. and Italy, after years of work in field archaeology and teaching in Libya.
Libya has an abundance of archaeological riches, from every phase of human civilization, from pre-history to the Ottoman era. The sites of ancient cities from Greek and Roman eras, mostly on the Mediterranean coast, have been excavated and studied. The magnificent remains of the Roman city of Leptis Magna are perhaps the best known of these, and under different circumstances would be a tourist attraction. Vast areas and eras remain unexplored.
Libyan archaeologists now face the task of raising awareness of the country’s material heritage, while at the same time protecting it from the ravages of war and lawlessness. Ahmed Buzaian is now finishing a PhD at the University of Leicester supervised by David Mattingly. He began his career in the 1970s excavating the ancient Greek site of Tocra, near Tancheira on the Mediterranean coast, and then taught archaeology at the University of Benghazi. If conditions in the country permit, he would like to resume his career in Libya.
Buzaian says the most important role for archaeologists now is to “tell the story” of the country’s material heritage to the Libyan people.
“Qadhafi said that Greek and Roman architecture had nothing to do with our culture, our identity,” Buzaian said. “He was repeating what most Libyans thought. They believe it has nothing to do with Arab, Muslim culture.” This is despite the fact that many of the names of people on Roman-era funerary monuments are Libyan. Libya has been part of the Mediterranean world for thousands of years.
Buzaian’s dissertation represents a shift in focus in the archaeology of Libya. Traditionally, cities were the main object of interest (for example, the five ancient Greek cities on the coast of north-eastern Libya known as Cyrene). Buzaian’s research is focused on rural areas: on the olive oil industry in Roman Libya and its place in the regional economy. This has involved excavation of the stone presses in which the oil was extracted. Of the thriving Roman-era olive oil industry in eastern Libya, only wild olive trees remain.
The most urgent problems faced by Libyan archaeologists are consequences of the country’s social and political instability. The absence of effective government anywhere in the country means that illegal construction proceeds unchecked. “So many ancient sites have been bulldozed illegally,” said Hafed Walda, a former adviser to the Libyan department of antiquities. He cites a time-lapse sequence of satellite imagery showing the uncontrolled urban sprawl in an area near the Cyrene site since 1984.
The climate of lawlessness has encouraged the theft of antiquities from sites where they lie unprotected above ground. News reports of antiquities either being stolen or recaptured are a regular occurrence. A famous example was the Benghazi treasure, a cache of coins and antiquities that was stolen from a bank during the siege of the city in 2011 and is still missing.
Many of the cases of antiquities theft have been the work of Da’esh, which has looted ancient sites for valuable artifacts. In July, Libyan television reported that Libyan forces had seized a collection of antiquities in a Da’esh stronghold in Benghazi. In June, police found a hoard of ancient books and manuscripts that Da’esh had looted from the University of Benghazi and buried in the courtyard of a house.
As in other north African countries, the tombs of saints or marabouts are a familiar sight in the countryside—usually simple domed structures that are the focus of popular religious tradition. In recent years, many of these have been destroyed by religious extremists.
The Libyan department of antiquities has little power to confront any of this activity. Staff salaries continue to be paid by the government in Tripoli, but in practice the department has split into two parts, based in Tripoli in the west and Benghazi in the east, with no coordination of policy.
But antiquities staff were able to prevent the kind of looting that took place in Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. The country’s local museums of antiquities have all closed—their doors welded shut—and holdings have been moved to places of safety.
David Mattingly says that the post-Qadhafi group of Libyan archaeologists can count on the support of the foreign archaeological teams that are dedicated to the study of Libya. This year, for instance, the U.K.-based Society for Libyan Studies and the University of Leicester set up a project called Libyan Antiquities at Risk, which seeks to build a database of moveable Libyan antiquities. The LAaR database will be available in English and Arabic and could be used to track art treasures that find their way onto the illegal international antiquities market.
“Archaeology,” Hafed Walda said, “links the Libyan people with their identity.”