Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros50-2Actualité de la rechercheDébats. Archéologie et diplomatie...II. — Regards croisés sur l’actio...Royaume-Uni

Actualité de la recherche
Débats. Archéologie et diplomatie européenne en Méditerranée
II. — Regards croisés sur l’action des pays européens face à la crise libyenne [entretiens]


David J. Mattingly
p. 366-370

Texte intégral

Before the crisis

Can you give us an overview of the archaeological research conducted by the UK in Libya since the 2000s?

Most British archaeological work has been co-ordinated (and often funded) through the London-based Society for Libyan Studies, which has equivalent status to the British Schools and Institutes overseas, but without having overseas premises. In the early 2000s, the major projects were the Fazzan Project (1997-2002, PI David Mattingly, comprising diachronic work, but with a focus on a Protohistoric people called the Garamantes), the Euesperides Project (1999-2007, PIs Andrew Wilson and Paul Bennett, with work focused on an early Greek colony), the Desert Migrations Project (2007-2011, PI David Mattingly, with Co-Is Marta Lahr, Tertia Barnett, Stefania Merlo, involving several distinct foci to work including early prehistory, Garamantes, Islamic era, rock art) and the Cyrenaican Prehistory Project (2007-2011, PI Graeme Barker, early prehistory of Haua Fteah cave). All these projects had permits from the Libyan Department of Antiquities (DoA) and worked directly with DoA staff. The Society also supported a number of smaller projects and individual researchers to carry out research. In parallel, this was a period of accelerated oil exploration in the Libyan desert and British archaeologists were involved in advising the Department of Antiquities and oil companies regarding best practice in environmental and heritage protection and damage mitigation work. The BP oil company was also funding a research project at the oasis centre of Ghadames when the Libyan civil war broke out in 2011 (PI David Mattingly).

How long have you been working personally in Libya? On which projects?

Over the past 40 years I have been fortunate to work in all three of the main regions of Libya, starting in 1979 with the UNESCO Libyan Valleys Survey (1979-1989) in the Tripolitanian pre-desert. My PhD research, completed in 1984, concerned Roman Tripolitania—essentially north-west Libya and south-east Tunisia. I was also involved with the publication of work in Cyrenaica on late antique housing at Ptolemais and with the initial intervention that led to the Euesperides Project. As already noted, I then directed the Fazzan Project from 1997 to 2002 and the Desert Migrations Project from 2007-2011 in south-western Libya. I had just started the Ghadames Survey when that work was curtailed by the Arab Spring. I was the compiler of the five Libyan sheets of the Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World [R. Talbert (ed.), published 2000].

Can you describe what the cooperation with the representatives of Libyan archaeology was about?

All the Society for Libyan Studies projects have involved a training dimension for Libyan colleagues. The oil industry funded mitigation surveys also provided enhanced opportunities for capacity building and skills transfer involving Department of Antiquities staff. In the Ghadames Survey this was explicitly recognised as a core activity of the project, with a large group of Libyan trainees sent from all regions of the country. At the University of Leicester, prior to 2011 I had mentored and supported a number of Libyan Masters degree students and had supervised one Libyan student to successful PhD completion (Muftah Haddad). Other Libyan antiquities staff have come to the UK for shorter periods of time for technical training, sometimes with the Canterbury Archaeological Trust, under the direction of Paul Bennett.

Since the crisis

In 2011, when war broke out in Libya, were you planning to go on a mission?

When the Libyan civil war broke out in early 2011, I had an active project in the country—at Ghadames—and it was necessary to evacuate the team. In consequence, equipment and records relating both to the Ghadames Survey and to the Desert Migrations Project (on which the team had also been working prior to the Ghadames Project starting) were left behind. It has not been possible to conclude the work planned for that year or the following year, which would have been the final study season of the Desert Migrations Project. Political conditions in Fazzan in particular remain unsafe for foreign archaeologists.

Were you able to maintain links with your Libyan colleagues, as well as research or training activities that year?

The initial impact of the civil war in 2011 was extremely hard and thoughts of research were very much secondary at that stage. For example, I had two Libyan PhD students who had already started their studies with me before the outbreak of the war and who were understandably very anxious about their families. I also maintained contacts with Libyan colleagues within the country, though I frequently communicated through intermediaries, rather than by sending direct message because of the political uncertainties.

Since 2011, how has your relationship with Libyan archaeological institutions evolved? With Libyan colleagues? In what form(s) have they been maintained?

Since 2011 I have increased my commitment to capacity building and training for Libyan colleagues. I have supervised the dissertation of one Masters student and five PhD students who have all completed successfully (Ahmed Emrage, Mohamed Hesein, Muna Abdulhamed, Mohamed Abdrbba and Ahmed Buzaian). I have also examined the PhD theses of two further Libyan PhD students at other UK Universities. Since 2015, I have also co-directed a major project on Endangered Archaeology in the Middle East and North Africa (EAMENA), which has had a significant training component, involving six weeks of intensive workshops held in Tunisia for more than 20 Libyan heritage professionals. Several of my Libyan PhD students were trained to support these training exercises, increasing their expertise and the overall knowledge transfer aspect.

Although I have only been able to make one trip into Libya since 2011 (in December 2013), and the situation remains extremely difficult, with the UK Foreign Office advising against travel, I have maintained close contacts with Libyan colleagues—meeting them in Rome, Tunis and the UK whenever possibilities have arisen. It has also been possible to work remotely with some individual Libyan researchers, directing them to sites my team had identified on satellite imagery and collaborating with them on the publication of results (including obtaining radiocarbon dates on samples collected by them). Graeme Barker’s Cyrenaican Prehistory Project managed to complete its excavation of the deep trench in the Haua Fteah cave by bringing a small Libyan team to the UK for intensive training. This group was then able to return to Libya and complete the excavations to a very high technical standard, process samples and back-fill the trench—an exceptional result in a very difficult and dangerous situation.

An added complication to the security issues produced by the protracted civil war and civil unrest since 2011 has been the effective division of the country between the jurisdiction of different government entities, militias and warlords. For archaeology, the Department of Antiquities has been effectively split into two halves, answerable to different governments with the main offices of the DoA in East and West Libya each encouraged by the respective government to claim to be the official responsible body for Libya’s heritage overall. The situation is a difficult one to navigate and because of my desire to support Libyans in all parts of the country, I have had to deal with the two main branches of the DoA on equal terms. The Endangered Archaeology Project for instance worked with the President of the DoA for East and West Libya separately to identify suitable trainees from all parts of the country for the intensive workshops.

From a research funding point of view, do you still receive financial support from your country (government departments, universities and/or others) to maintain cooperation? Has the amount been impacted?

At the time that the civil war broke out in 2011, I had just been awarded a major European grant (from the European Research Council) for a planned new phase of fieldwork in the Libyan Sahara—which would have started in 2012. In the event it was not possible to carry out fieldwork or finds study in Libya for the duration of the funding, but the ERC allowed me to expand remote aspects of the work (satellite image analysis and site mapping and finds study of materials exported under licence in previous phases of fieldwork). They also sanctioned an alternative venue for fieldwork in southern Morocco. The results of the Trans-SAHARA Project are now largely published in a series of monographs covering big themes like Trade, Burials, Migration, Identity, Urbanisation and State Formation, Mobile Technologies in the Ancient Sahara and beyond. I have also been successful in raising funding to support remote investigation of illegally exported antiquities and the creation of a database to record illicit antiquities (Libyan Antiquities at Risk Project). The EAMENA Project (supported by the Arcadia fund) has been creating a database of archaeological sites across Libya as well as provide training to Libyan archaeologists in new technical skills relating to GIS, satellite image analysis, heritage management databases, sites monitoring, etc. The British Council’s Cultural Protection Fund provided the grant for the training component of the EAMENA Project, as well as the production of three pop-up popular exhibitions on Libya’s Endangered Heritage that have been touring East, West and South Libya during 2019.

The Society for Libyan Studies has an established archive, currently physically located at the University of Leicester and, while fieldwork in Libya remains impossible, the Society has prioritised extending the proper cataloguing of the archive holdings. This is now available online via the Society’s website.

Future prospects

If the Libyan field remains inaccessible over the next few years, how do you envisage maintaining scientific cooperation relations with colleagues in the host country?

The political situation in Libya remains critical and, as long as war and civil violence continues, it is unsurprising that heritage remains a low priority for its rival governments and people. The crisis affects all the heritage agencies, not only the Department of Antiquities but also the historical archives and libraries and the Department responsible for Historic Cities and standing buildings. The challenges are myriad—chronic underfunding, a lack of investment in the latest technologies and training, poor morale and the distraction of the multiple governments claiming to represent Libya’s interests.

British archaeologists and the Society for Libyan Studies have a clear vision for continuing their strong relationships with and support for Libyan archaeologists. Training and capacity building lie at the heart of this. The Training in Action Project (PI Anna Leone, Co-Is Corisande Fenwick and Will Wooton) is another British training focused programme with CPF funding. Once again, the training has mainly taken place in Tunisia, including work on the coastal site of Iunca. There is some overlap between the personnel trained by the EAMENA and TinA projects, leading to the emergence of a strong group of young archaeologists with enhanced skills in digital techniques. This is crucial for the future.

What solutions in the more or less long term can be envisaged, in your opinion, to contribute to the pursuit of scientific cooperation, the maintenance of knowledge transfer and the safeguarding of the heritage?

Libya needs stable government and peace above all, though how that is to be achieved remains unclear, given the tribal and regional fissure lines exposed by the last eight years of instability and violence. The efforts put into training and capacity building by all the international missions over recent years are an important investment in the future of Libya’s heritage. However, the threats to heritage are multiple and growing, despite the best efforts of our Libyan colleagues in the Department of Antiquities. The site recording and monitoring work of the Endangered Archaeology Project has demonstrated a rapidly escalating rate of damage to archaeological sites in Libya and this is a very serious concern. Despite some well-publicised acts of vandalism and deliberate damage to monuments—most notably Salafist destruction of Sufi tombs across the country—the biggest threats appear to be the result of the loss of legal controls and oversight of development processes in many areas of the country. This has led to a great deal of land grabbing and illegal development of land that was at one time protected. The expansion of settlements and farming is thus eroding Libya’s heritage at an unprecedented rate at a time when the power of the Department of Antiquities is severely limited by its chronic underfunding, exacerbated by the political anarchy. Effective monitoring of encroachment on known archaeological sites will be a crucial part of the recovery strategy, but there is also a fundamental need for greater efforts to educate people about the importance of the country’s extraordinary heritage, its part in shaping Libyan identity and its potential significance in the country’s economic future. For the moment, too many people do not see any social or economic value to themselves in the archaeological heritage. Foreign missions need also to help reshape the agendas of study to demonstrate the wider relevance to Libya’s people of its past in the rebuilding of the country and national identity.

For the moment, heritage management is a big challenge—one among many that Libya and its people face. The human capital represented by Libya’s archaeologists and heritage specialists is the most precious resource and the main reason for optimism that there is a better future ahead. The foreign missions have all recognised the importance of substituting capacity building measures for research at this time.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

David J. Mattingly, « Royaume-Uni »Mélanges de la Casa de Velázquez, 50-2 | 2020, 366-370.

Référence électronique

David J. Mattingly, « Royaume-Uni »Mélanges de la Casa de Velázquez [En ligne], 50-2 | 2020, mis en ligne le 01 octobre 2020, consulté le 06 juillet 2022. URL : ; DOI :

Haut de page


David J. Mattingly

University of Leicester

Articles du même auteur

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur


Creative Commons - Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International - CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Haut de page
  • Logo Casa de Velázquez
  • DOAJ - Directory of Open Access Journals
  • OpenEdition Journals
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search