Archaeology in Libya finally has a chance to flower. Research into and conservation of the country's rich cultural heritage could expand in the wake of this year's revolution, after decades of neglect by the Gaddafi regime, say scientists. But political and security uncertainties look set to delay the return of the foreign archaeologists needed to work with Libyans to develop their archaeological capacity.
The Roman ruins of Leptis Magna are one of the sites to which archaeologists are hoping to return in the wake of the Libyan conflict.
Revamping its archaeology risks being a low priority for a country recovering from conflict, the fledging government of which must not only rebuild schools, hospitals and roads, but also create a democratic civil society. But researchers agree that there is an opportunity to begin planning how to reinforce Libya's archaeological base and develop plans that might attract domestic and international support.
The post-revolutionary period itself carries risks for archaeology — from bulldozers and bricks, rather than bombs and bullets. Damage from infrastructure development has been a problem since the Libyan economy opened up when international sanctions began to be lifted in 2003.
"I've seen so much destruction of archaeology in Libya that it's heartbreaking," says David Mattingly, an expert in Roman archaeology at the University of Leicester, UK. Reconstruction of the country is likely to result in a surge of development of oil and industrial infrastructure, housing and tourism, which risks doing irreversible damage to its cultural heritage.
One urgent task, say scientists, is to map Libya's archaeological sites, and establish protection zones and national parks. Libya has no national parks or databases of its artefacts, or even any detailed maps or archaeological records of its monuments and sites.
"There are large areas of the country, in particular the desert, that have never been mapped, but which are full of the most extraordinary sites," says Mattingly. This month, he reported the discovery of more than 100 unmapped, well preserved fortified farms and villages, some up to 2,000 years old. The settlements belonged to the Garamantes, a technologically advanced people who created what was perhaps the first indigenous state in the central Sahara.
Finding 100 new villages in a satellite survey of a zone just 600 square kilometres is "extraordinary", says Mattingly.
Ultimately, controlled development could help archaeology: oil companies increasingly share their maps and surveys with researchers, and archaeological tourism could bring in funds and show Libyans the value of their archaeology. "It's potentially a fantastic opportunity," says Bennett.