OasCiv: Making Oasis Civilisation in the Moroccan Sahara

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leicester
Department Name: Sch of Archaeology and Ancient History


Saharan prehistory and Neolithic rock art has attracted considerable archaeological attention in recent decades, but the Protohistoric and Medieval phases of settlement and activity are neglected by comparison. Knowledge of the ancient populations of the Sahara remains constrained by lack of archaeological investigation, the biased testimonies of the ancient sources and the uncritical assumptions of modern scholarship about Berber (Amazigh) peoples. Apart from the PI's work in S Libya on a people called the Garamantes, there has been an almost complete lack of field investigation of these societies, especially those of the W Sahara.
Our recent demonstration of pre-Islamic origins of the earliest oasis agriculture and sedentary settlements in the Wadi Draa in the Moroccan W Sahara challenges a long-held model that has characterised the pre-Islamic populations of the W Sahara as essentially nomadic pastoralists and denied the evolution of oases there before the early Medieval 'Arab' conquest of N Morocco and Muslim investment in Saharan trade. This much earlier date for the establishment of first oases marks a major paradigm shift. Our proposed project seeks to investigate the character of the Protohistoric societies responsible for this transformation in the first millennium AD. The early Medieval story of the peoples of the Moroccan Sahara is also neglected, but of the highest significance to the emergence of the first Islamic states in N Africa (8th-10th centuries) and the great Medieval empires of the Almoravids and Almohads (11th-13th centuries). These began as revitalisation movements involving the oasis communities of S Morocco, but, for lack of robust archaeological data, the Saharan and Amazigh roots of Islamic civilisation have never been fully evaluated. This project thus seeks to re-evaluate the contribution of endogenous Amazigh groups to the emergence of sedentary farming and urbanised states in Morocco during the Roman/early Medieval eras.
This project will identify how and why complex societies emerged in the W Sahara by conducting the first scientific excavations of Protohistoric and Medieval settlements, cemeteries and farming landscapes recently discovered in the Wadi Draa. We argue that the emergence of oasis societies is critical to understanding how Saharan trading networks and Islamic empires such as the 11th-century Almoravids were subsequently established. The research potential has been demonstrated by our pilot survey, revealing well-preserved landscapes and hundreds of sedentary sites linked to precocious oasis development in the Draa. The next phase of work will investigate exactly how and more precisely when this occurred. It will put 'flesh on the bones' of a new paradigm for understanding the ancient Saharan populations and provide a much needed counterbalance for the hitherto unique (and possibly exceptional) case study of the Garamantes as a precocious Saharan state-level society. By providing the first robust data-sets on the historic peoples of the Moroccan Sahara, this pioneering project will advance knowledge and understanding of both Protohistoric and Medieval phases, intersecting with wider debates about e.g. sedentarisation, urbanisation and state formation, migration, technologies, trade and connectivity in North Africa and well beyond. The work will draw out the Saharan particularities of these key societal developments.
Using interdisciplinary methods, we shall investigate palaeoeconomy, technological capability, social organisation and religion and cultic practices of these desert populations. Four excavation seasons will target a series of different archaeological sites to illustrate the varied aspects of these societies, their economies and belief systems. The exploration of oasis civilisation existing alongside pastoral groups in the Sahara will mark both a fundamental scientific advance and a finding of considerable significance beyond academia.

Planned Impact

As further explained in our Pathways to Impact document, the research has wide implications beyond academia. We have identified the following beneficiaries:
National policy makers. The Moroccan government and its regional government agencies are strong supporters of the project in an area that has seen limited prior heritage work but that has high potential. Annual work programmes are agreed with them along with police clearances and access to some sites within military sectors of the valley. We are working with colleagues in the Moroccan heritage service (INSAP) to influence policy makers to enhance heritage protection and to develop a strategy for the management and exploitation of the valley's extraordinary heritage. We have already succeeded in getting the Governorat of Zagora to intervene in a case of stone-robbing from a major site. Government officials and diplomats interested in strengthening UK-Moroccan relations will be engaged through invitations to public lectures, workshops, conferences, media appearances and exhibitions arising from the project.
The Moroccan Antiquities service. Our collaborating organisation, INSAP, benefits not only from our data collection, but also through skills transfer to their staff on the project. Young Moroccan archaeologists and heritage professionals, including University students will gain valuable experience in field skills, rapid documentation, site management and public outreach - enhancing future job prospects by developing transferable and employability skills. We shall also build research capacity by providing opportunities for Moroccan colleagues to publish in high-profile international journals.
The local community. Community engagement work focuses on an established relationship with the Maison de Culture in Zagora, providing a framework for local engagement and dissemination activities. We have already established links with local heritage civic society groups, working collaboratively with them and encouraging them to take active measures to protect sites under threat from modern development. The local people are predominantly Amazigh and thus recognise the cultural importance of the pre-Islamic phases of the valley's history (e.g. ancient 'Libyan' inscriptions found by our survey are similar to the modern Berber script). In 2016 we created a travelling exhibition, displayed at the Zagora Maison de Culture and in the other regional centre at Ouzerzate and three public lectures have been delivered in Zagora (attended by >300 people). In the new project we shall develop our public engagement and local impact work- giving annual public lectures, organising a new traveling exhibition (designed for easy transport and erection in schools and community centres up and down the valley).
Tourism bodies. The current tourism operators - hoteliers, guides and foreign travel companies - will benefit from our work and its potential to enhance the marketability of the valley to visitors during the peak winter tourist season. The tourism sector is Morocco's second largest employer after agriculture. There is currently no public museum within the valley, though a growing flow of tourists on walking and 4WD heritage tours. Museums and tourist boards in both countries, at national and local level, will be involved in arranging exhibitions and displays related to the project and we shall provide relevant didactic materials to them.
In terms of achieving our long term goals, the predicted discoveries - especially the painted tombs, the hillforts with rock art and Medieval Zagora town - have the potential to form the core of a permanent museum and we shall work with the range of local stakeholders - from government officials and policymakers, to local activists and tourism agents, to the local community - to achieve the inauguration of such a museum. Whilst the full establishment of the museum will likely extend beyond the project's timeframe, this is nonetheless a valid impact goal.


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Description Fieldwork planned for 2020 was impacted by the COVID pandemic, leading to its cancellation/postponement, but this was eventually accomplished in November/December 2021 with highly significant outcomes. At this stage in the project, however, the fieldwork is a year behind the original planned schedule. At the same time, considerable progress has been made using previously gathered field data and new satellite image and GIS analysis, to categorise, map and analyse diachronic settlement in the Wadi Draa. On the strength of the results obtained, we now have an agreement with the UK Society for Libyan Studies to publish a series of Open Access e-monographs presenting the work of the project. The write up of the first planned e-fascicle (a comprehensive gazetteer of sites and a period by period summary of the data) has advanced significantly through the work of the project PDRA (c.75% completed). In an area where only a handful of archaeological sites had been previously documented we have so far identified c.2,500 sites. Radiocarbon dates already obtained have allowed us to identify the initial stages of sedentary settlement, linked to oasis farming, to date it to the pre-Islamic period (early-mid 1st millennium CE). Another focus of the work concerns the further development of settlement and oasis farming in the Medieval period and the project is well on the way to producing a uniquely detailed study for this period. An ERC grant awarded to the Co-I will allow additional excavations on further Medieval sites and additional scientific analyses of medieval materials complementing the AHRC work. The project team has published in Gold Open Access format two major articles, one on the Late Iron Age sites and the other on Medieval sites. A small grant awarded by another funder in 2021 has allowed a series of additional AMS (radiocarbon) dates to be obtained (broadly these confirm suspected dates on a series of sites under consideration for excavation as part of the OasCiv work). A further grant application is being prepared for a batch of AMS arising from the 2021 excavation. Metallurgical and archaeobotanical finds are now undergoing analysis in the UK. The sites excavated in 2021, a settlement and painted tombs of the late Iron Age, will be the subject of the second planned fascicle in the Open Access publication series - on which work by the project team has also now begun.
Exploitation Route There are major implications for the dating of the earliest oasis settlements in the Western Sahara and also for the understanding of how medieval societies developed farming and trade and the overall population base. Completion of more of the project's postponed fieldwork is needed to fully realise the outcomes. However, the publication of the two articles, the overall survey results and the 2021 excavations will in themselves stand as significant research contributions and landmark publications on the themes the project is addressing.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description Despite the difficulties of the pandemic, our Moroccan partner (Professor Youssef Bokbot, INSAP) has been advancing our plans to establish a local museum in Zagora, the main town in our study area. A building was made available and the first exhibition materials installed on the region's archaeology last autumn. These panels were produced in French and Arabic (with Berber headings) by a third party agency, but making substantial use of our data, plans, maps and photographic imagery. However, due to the COVID pandemic the exhibition centre has not yet been officially opened, though this is expected to happen in the next month of so. During the 2021 field season, when we excavated a series of uniquely important painted tombs and an associated settlement, we had high level meetings with regional and state officials to discuss the future preservation and presentation of the areas's heritage. This included visit to the excavation by the director of the Moroccan national antiquities service (INSAP) - a 4 day round trip from his base at Rabat, another by the Berber cultural affairs advisor to the Moroccan Prime Mininister, various representatives of the regional Governorat at Zagora and local political leaders from all the villages in the vicinity. This enabled the project team to significantly raise awareness of the huge importance of the archaeology in the Wadi Draa and the opportunities for this to exploited for the benefit of the local community. At the end of the season Bokbot and Mattingly had a personal meeting with the Zagora Governor, at which he agreed to appoint a guardian to protect the tombs we had excavated and some outline ideas were presented to him for a longer term development of an archaeological and ecological park in the desert area centred on the tombs. These discussions were well received and will be further developed with local stakeholders across the coming year. During the season, a Moroccan film maker recorded interviews with team members and footage of the dig for a documentary on the project. We do not have a schedule for the film to be finished, but we anticipate that it will be screened on Moroccan TV in the coming year. All in all, there has been significant progress of our impact agenda this year, in line with our plans.
First Year Of Impact 2021
Sector Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural

Description EVERYDAY ISLAM: Becoming Muslim: Cultural Change, Everyday Life and State Formation in early Islamic North Africa (600-1000
Amount € 1,498,688 (EUR)
Funding ID 949367 
Organisation European Commission H2020 
Sector Public
Country Belgium
Start 01/2021 
End 12/2025
Description Society for Libyan Studies, small grant (for radiocarbon dates)
Amount £2,997 (GBP)
Organisation Society for Libyan Studies 
Sector Learned Society
Country United Kingdom
Start 02/2021 
End 03/2022
Description Online lecture for the Annual General Meeting of the Society for Libyan Studies 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The AGM Lecture was on Desert Landmarks? Rethinking State and Society in the Ancient Sahara - addressing Oasis Civilisations of Libyan and other regions of the Sahara, including Southern Morocco. The AHRC funded work was explicitly highlight and source of funding acknowledged. The recorded lecture is available for download from the Society's webpage.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://www.societyforlibyanstudies.org/recorded-lectures-and-webinars/
Description Online presentation on archaeology of medieval Sahara (Institute of Classical Studies London) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact A presentation entitled Trade without trace: Gold, Slaves and the Transformation of the Medieval Sahara held as part of a seminar series on deserts in the ancient world at the Institute of Classical Studies which was online and reached international audience.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
Description Podcast with History Hit on ancient desert civilisations (including Moroccan work) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I was interviewed for the History Hit Ancient History Podcast (overall title The Garamantes: Farming the Sahara) and the hour long discussion was released in December 2020 on multiple platforms, e.g. the URL entered in box below
I do not have figures on number of listeners, but the audience is international and large. My University has also distributed the link to our students and I have circulated it to international contacts. The AHRC project is mentioned specifically in the podcast and the source of funding acknowledged
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://play.acast.com/s/the-ancients/thegaramantes-sovereignsofthesahara
Description Public lecture online on Desert Civilisation (Centre for Landscape Studies Annual Lecture) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Lecture title: In the Shadow of the desert: the making of Roman Africa
The lecture was online and I believe will also be made available as a recording at some point. Although the primary audience was interdisciplinary academic audience, the event was also open to and advertised to general public.
The Moroccan work was referred to in the lecture and funding source acknowledged
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020