The Monuments Men of Libya
With Daesh militia at their heels, a handful of brave Libyan archaeologists completed the excavation of the Haua Fteah cave in Cyrenaica, North Africa. Cambridge archaeologist Dr Giulio Lucarini tells their story.
|Members of the project at the end of the 2012 season [Credit: Cyrenaica Prehistory Project]|
Haua Fteah is, in fact, the largest karst cave in the Mediterranean (measuring 80 x 20 metres) and is open to the sea a short distance from the city of Susa, the ancient Apollonia. It is a sort of natural hangar, inhabited uninterruptedly by humans from prehistoric times until the present. Investigated for the first time between 1951 and 1955 by Charles McBurney - an archaeologist from the University of Cambridge - the same university resumed the research in 2007 under the direction of Professor Graeme Barker, in collaboration with the Libyan Department of Antiquities and an international team of scholars, including myself.
Beginning at the earliest levels, at about 15 meters below the current surface and relating to the Middle Palaeolithic, the cave takes us on a breathtaking journey through time. We first move through the levels dating back to 70,000 years ago where the only human remains found so far at the site - two fragments of Homo sapiens lower jaw - were uncovered: a moving testimony to the arrival of our ancestors along the North African coast. We can then examine the layers of the Upper Paleolithic on our way to the Neolithic, when the first species of domesticated animals and plants of the Levantine regions made their appearance in North Africa. Continuing our journey towards the surface, through layers dating from the Classical Period and thence more recent ones, we arrive at the present day. Like a wonderful freeze frame which has lasted thousands of years, the cave is still in use to this very day - as a livestock shelter - by families of shepherds. It is greatly respected by the local population.
|The Haua Fteah trench [Credit: Cyrenaica Prehistory Project]|
However, our Libyan colleagues continued to monitor the massive open trench, and a short while later they informed us that its walls, exposed since 2007, were not going to last for long. To safeguard and bring to a conclusion the work of years, the excavation had to be completed as soon as possible. “We can do it ourselves,” said Ahmad Saad Emrage, archaeologist at the University of Benghazi. “We can still work safely enough. We will be accurate and fast.” So, without any delay, the ‘command’ of operations fell to Ahmad and his team of local archaeologists: Fadl Abdulazeez, Akram Alwarfalli, Moataaz Azwai, Saad Buyadem, Badr Shamata, Asma Sulaiman, Reema Sulaiman and Aiman Alareefi.
Who are these ‘Fantastic 9’? They are, first and foremost, passionate archaeologists and serious professionals. Ahmad and Fadl are the ‘fathers’ of the group, always ready to guide and encourage the younger ones; then there is Moataz, the tireless ‘gentle giant’; then two young daredevils, Akram and Saad, who, after a day of excavation, love to dive from the beautiful cliffs of Lathrun; also Badr and Aiman, who make sure the rest of the troop always has tea in their cups and sheesha to puff on; and then the two sisters, Aasma and Reema, who have iron will. Nine different individuals, nine different histories, united by an immense passion for their homeland, Libya, and by a single unwavering desire: to save their country and its history.
|Saad Buyadem and Fadl Abdulazeez [Credit: Cyrenaica Prehistory Project]|
“We were increasingly afraid but we continued to work. One day, however, a friend came running, shouting that the night before he had seen masked men in the vicinity of the cave, almost certainly Daesh militiamen. And shortly afterwards the Susa police arrived and forced us to stop work. It was not easy to convince the boys that we could not go on. ‘We can still do it - they kept repeating – we’ll be even more careful and fast’. Reluctantly, however, we collected the equipment and left the cave.”
But that was not the end by any means. Two months later, thanks to the liberation of Derna from Daesh militia, the 'Fantastic 9' returned to the cave and finally managed to complete the excavation. “Do not call us heroes,” Ahmad exclaimed when I told him that I would recount their adventure. “We just did what had to be done, as archaeologists and as Libyans.” However, in a country like Libya that sees its archaeological heritage so dramatically at risk, our colleagues’ achievement was exceptional in its significance: it showed that the Libyans have not given up, that they wish to reclaim their own cultural heritage and determine its fate themselves.
Source: University of Cambridge [February 28, 2017]