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The Severan Fort at MYD(---)/Gheriat el-Garbia (Libya)

excellentArchaeological and Scientific Research on the Roman Frontier in North-Western Libya and Southern Tunisia (limes Tripolitanus)

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Fig. 1: The fort of Gheriat el-Garbia and its oasis, seen from the west.
Fig. 2: The fort of Gheriat el-Garbia seen from the northeast.
Fig. 3: The Porta Praetoria (main gate, seen from the interior) at the outset of excavations. On an elevated plateau in the background temple GG2.
Fig. 4: The Porta Praetoria (seen from the interior) during excavation.
Fig. 5: The Porta Praetoria with blocked carriageway (seen from outside), houses of the Berber settlement and, in the background, interval tower 2.
Fig. 6: The Porta Praetoria at the end of excavation, with the carriageway and lateral passages cleared.
Fig. 7: Tuaregs from Niger – the indispensable workforce of this project.

Fig. 8: Headquarters building with rooms at its rear end, remains of a late antique building in the foreground.


The fort of Gheriat el-Garbia and its oasis, seen from the west.The second round of applications for funding in connection with the LMUexcellent-Initiative brought success for Prof. M. Mackensen's proposed project. The realisation of this project was given the highest available priority, and the project, using innovative field techniques, will be supported through the years of 2009 and 2010.

Cooperation partners

The fort of Gheriat el-Garbia seen from the northeast

Department of Archaeology, Tripoli, Libya: Dr Salah Rajab Al-Agab, Edreis Ghatanash and Mustafa Turjman (Tripoli); Dr Mabrouk Zanati (Sabratha).

Involved Archaeologists and Historians

Archaeology of the Roman Provinces: Prof Dr M. Mackensen, Dr F. Schimmer, S. Schmid MA (University of Munich), M. Weber MA (University of Reading, UK).

Classical Archaeology: Prof Dr J. Eingartner (University of Augsburg).

Epigraphy: Prof Dr R. Haensch (Department of Ancient History and Epigraphy of the German Archaeological Institute, Munich).

Ostraca: Dr. Sabine Ziegler (Sächsische Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Leipzig, Außenstelle Indogermanistik Univ. Jena).

Numismatics: Dr H.-C. Noeske (formerly Fundmünzen der Antike, Academy of Sciences and Literature, Mainz).

Involved Scientists

The Porta Praetoria (main gate, seen from the interior) at the outset of excavations. On an elevated plateau in the background temple GG2Topographical survey, digital terrain model and photogrammetry: Dr M. Stephani (Department of Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing, Technical University, Munich).

Terrestrial 3D-Laser Scanning: Prof Dr W. Hübner (Faculty of Geoinformation, University of Applied Sciences, Munich).

Geophysical Research: Dr S. Seren (Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics, Vienna).

Satellite-Radar Data TerraSAR-X: Dr M. Eineder (German Aerospace Center, Oberpfaffenhofen-Weßling).

The Porta Praetoria (seen from the interior) during excavationArchaeometry (Chemical analyses of pottery): PD Dr G. Schneider (Institute of Chemistry, Free University, Berlin), Dr M. Daszkiewicz (Archea, Warszawa, Poland).

Radiocarbon Dating: Dr A. Scharf (AMS Radiocarbon Laboratory, Institute of Physics, University of Erlangen-Nürnberg).

Palaeoanatomy: Dr N. Pöllath (Institute of Palaeoanatomy, Domestication Research and History of Veterinary Medicine, University of Munich).

Palaeobotany: Dr J. Morales (University of Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, Spain).

The Porta Praetoria with blocked carriageway (seen from outside), houses of the Berber settlement and, in the background, interval tower 2An international research network is currently investigating the frontier of the Roman Empire from the 2nd to early 5th century along the c. 800 km long limes Tripolitanus in north-western Libya and southern Tunisia. We are combining a differentiated application of archaeological field methods (survey and stratigraphic excavation) and detailed analysis of finds such as ceramics, including archaeometric research, inscriptions and ostraca with new approaches in scientific prospection-, survey- and documentation techniques (an analysis of ground-penetrating radar and magnetometer data, combined with photogrammetry and terrestrial 3D-Laser Scanning) using optical satellite imagery and satellite radar data (TerraSAR-X). These data are combined in a Geo-information system (GIS). The first part of the project (2009/10) is focussed on the best-preserved fort in the oasis of Gheriat el-Garbia, c. 270 km south of Tripoli. The size of this fortification, as well as the impressive architecture of its main gate, suggest that it may have been the base of a regional commander of the limes Tripolitanus during the 3rd century AD. Research on the interior of the fort (barracks and headquarters building) will provide detailed information on the nature of the garrison and its duties – especially with regard to the control of cross-frontier traffic/trade and responses to external threats as well as on the organisational structure of the North African frontier of the Roman Empire.

Phase 1 of the project (2009/10)

The Porta Praetoria at the end of excavation, with the carriageway and lateral passages clearedNext to the vexillation fort at Gholaia/Bu Njem (investigated by R. Rebuffat from 1967 to 1977), the fort at Gheriat el-Garbia, which extends to 2.25 ha (internal area), is the best-preserved fort of the limes Tripolitanus. To date, the only research at the site was carried out by the British archaeologists D. J. Mattingly and D. Welsby as part of the UNESCO Libyan Valleys Survey in 1980/81. In view of problems related to logistics and the infrastructure of the site, there had been no excavation prior to our project. A fragment of a building inscription, published in 1966, shows that the fort was built under the emperor Septimius Severus in AD 201. It appears highly probable that its garrison, at least until AD 238, was a vexillation of legio III Augusta from Lambaesis in eastern Algeria. The last garrison is believed to have abandoned the site in the early 60s of the 3rd century or by AD 275 at the latest.

Tuaregs from Niger – the indispensable workforce of this projectThe first research campaign of seven weeks took place from 16.03. – 02.05.2009. It was designed as a training and research excavation and involved several enthusiastic students of Archaeology of the Roman Provinces. This first phase of the project involved an extensive survey, focussing on ceramic data, that identified primarily material from the 3rd century. In addition, it entailed a topographical survey, including elevated plateaus, deep-cut wadis around the oasis and several monuments still visible today (the fort, its access from the wadis, the elevated plateau with various temples, quarries, rock-cut chamber-tombs and a promontory hillfort with vicus on the western side of the oasis), as well as geophysical investigations.

Roughly two thirds of the fort (GG1) are covered by a modern Berber settlement that appears to date to the 18th – 20th century. As such, the praetentura of the fort was an obvious place to start the geophysical survey. It became evident, however, that material from both the headquarters building and most of the barracks was reused for construction of the Berber settlement, leaving only scarce remains of the original structures. In addition, the northeastern third of the fort, including the main gate, appears to have served as shelter for an Italian unit during autumn 1942 or winter 1942/43.

Our excavations focussed on the monumental main gate (porta praetoria) with a central carriageway and two lateral passages, as well as two high towers. In places, this structure was covered to a height of 1.8 m. Aside from modern reoccupation by Italian soldiers during the first half of the 20th century, we identified that at the some point both lateral passages and the central carriageway were intentionally blocked (using spolia and an inscription dating to the 3rd century). The right side-block with frame and a left-facing victory with wreath was the only part of the building inscription with tabula ansata that could be recovered. Originally, this inscription would have been made up from four blocks, and had been built into the gate above the arch of the carriageway. Several ashlars belonging to the inner arch of the gate were recovered in their collapsed state.

An inscription dating to the first third of the 3rd century supports the current interpretation that the site was originally occupied by a legionary vexillation from Lambaesis. This is confirmed by several funerary inscriptions referring to legionary soldiers.

Outside the fort we located the access routes to the plateau which is protected by steep scarps on three sides as well as several quarries. Particular interest in this area is directed towards the not yet finished excavation of a temple with inner courtyard and apse (GG2) that is located on a plateau, c. 200 m distant from the main gate of the fort.

From 04. 10. to 10. 11. 2009 selected find deposits were documented and studied which are of particular importance for both the development of the site and the regional chronology of the small finds.

8_0301The second season (21. 04. – 30. 06. 10) of excavations focussed on three areas within the fort: the northern praetentura, the headquarters building (principia) and the rear gate (porta decumana). Primary aim was to trace and investigate remaining structures of the 3rd century-fort in these areas. Excavations in the northern praetentura unearthed only scarce traces of barracks on the surface of the bedrock. Conclusions regarding the organisation and size of the units garrisoned at Gheriat between 201 and 238 AD are hence impossible at the moment. On the other hand, however, the walls of a roughly quadrangular building of late Roman date were unexpectedly excavated in this area.

At the rear side of the principia the central room (aedes) and an adjacent one, probably for assemblages (schola), were located below the partly collapsed houses of the Berber village. Moreover, the remains of massive walls of a large, late-Antique building could be documented in the courtyard of the principia. Regarding the porta decumana, important results on the construction of the gate and the curtain wall were obtained. One of the most important finds was the fragment of a building inscription, which was found reused in a Berber house.

Apart from observations concerning the construction and dating of the curtain wall including interval and angle towers as well as cleaning of the lateral gates (portae principales dextra et sinistra), well preserved and visible parts of the fortification were additionally documented by terrestrial 3D-laser scanning. Furthermore, the 3rd c. architectural remains and ornaments as well as animal bones and seeds from selected find deposits recovered in the area of the main gate (porta praetoria) were documented and analysed.

The documentation of the four gates, the best-preserved interval towers on the southwest and northwest side of the fort and specific parts of the defences was completed and finished during a further season from 05. 10. to 07. 11. 2010. Moreover, the temples of various size on the elevated plateau east of the fort as well as a cistern with two chambers north of the fort`s northern corner were measured. Noteworthy is a canal next to the cistern which was covered with stone slabs and lead to the northern wadi.

Literature on the project

  • M. Mackensen, Survey and excavation of the German archaeological mission at the Roman fort of Myd(---)/Gheriat el-Garbia and its vicinity, 2009/2010. Libya Antiqua NS VI 2011/12 (2016) 83–102.
  • M. Mackensen/F. Schimmer, Interior Buildings of the Severan Oasis Fort of Gheriat el-Garbia in the Late Roman Period. In: L. Vagalinski/N. Sharankov (Hrsg.), LIMES XXII. Proceedings of the 22nd International Congress of Roman Frontier Studies Ruse, Bulgaria, September 2012. Bulletin of the National Archaeological Institute 42 (Sofia 2015) 351–358.
  • S. Ziegler/M. Mackensen, Spätantike Ostraka aus Gheriat el-Garbia (al-Qaryāt al-Garbīyah) in der Provinz Tripolitana (Libyen). Belege für eine regionale Variante des Punischen. Mitt. DAI Rom 120, 2014, 313–340.
  • M. Mackensen, Baubestand und Rekonstruktion der porta praetoria des severischen Vexillationskastells Myd(---)/Gheriat el-Garbia am limes Tripolitanus (Libyen). In: Römische Wehrbauten. Befund und Rekonstruktion. Inhalte –Projekte – Dokumentationen. Schriftenreihe Bayer. Landesamt für Denkmalpflege 7 (München 2013) 88–107.
  • M. Mackensen, New fieldwork at the Severan fort of Myd(---)/Gheriat el-Garbia on the limes Tripolitanus. Libyan Studies 43, 2012, 41–60.
  • F. Schimmer, New evidence for a Roman fort and vicus at Mizda (Tripolitania). Libyan Studies 43, 2012, 33–39.
  • F. Schimmer, Amphorae from the Roman fort at Gheriat el-Garbia (Libya). Acta RCRF 42 (Bonn 2012) 319-325.
  • M. Weber/S. Schmid, Supplying a desert garrison. Pottery from the Roman fort at Gheriat el-Garbia (Libya). Acta RCRF 42 (Bonn 2012) 327-335.
  • M. Mackensen, Das severische Vexillationskastell Myd(---) und die spätantike Besiedlung in Gheriat el-Garbia (Libyen). Bericht über die Kampagne im Frühjahr 2010. Mitt. DAI Rom 117, 2011, 247–375.
  • M. Mackensen, Gasr Wames, eine burgusartige Kleinfestung des mittleren 3. Jahrhunderts am tripolitanischen limes Tentheitanus (Libyen). Germania 87, 2009 (2011), 75–104.
  • M. Mackensen, Le fort romain et l'agglomération tardo-antique de Gheriat el-Garbia. Nouvelles recherches à la frange du désert (2009/2010). In: La Tripolitanie antique (Libye). L'Archéo Thema 17, nov.-déc. 2011, 59–65.
  • M. Mackensen/R. Haensch, Das tripolitanische Kastell Gheriat el-Garbia im Licht einer neuen spätantiken Inschrift: Am Tag, als der Regen kam. Chiron 41, 2011, 263–286.
  • M. Mackensen, Das severische Vexillationskastell Myd(---)/Gheriat el-Garbia am limes Tripolitanus (Libyen). Bericht über die Kampagne 2009. Mitt. DAI Rom 116, 2010, 363–458.
  • M. Mackensen, Kastelle und Militärposten des späten 2. und 3. Jahrhunderts am limes Tripolitanus. Der Limes. Nachrichtenbl. Deutsche Limeskommission 4 H.2, 2010, 20–24.
  • M. Mackensen, Am Rand der Wüste. Das römische Kastell Gheriat el-Garbia am limes Tripolitanus. Antike Welt H.1, 2011, 77–84.
  • M. Mackensen, Das commoduszeitliche Kleinkastell Tisavar/Ksar Rhilane am südtunesischen limes Tripolitanus. Kölner Jahrb. 43, 2010, 451–468.
  • M. Mackensen, Mannschaftsunterkünfte und Organisation einer severischen Legionsvexillation im tripolitanischen Kastell Gholaia/Bu Njem (Libyen). Germania 86, 2008, 271–306.
  • M. Mackensen, Tonabformung eines spätantiken kerbschnittverzierten Gürtelbeschlags aus dem zentraltunesischen Töpfereizentrum Sidi Marzouk Tounsi. Zur Mobilität comitatensischer Truppen. Germania 86, 2008, 307–322.
  • M. Mackensen, Die Grenze in Nordafrika am Beispiel der Provinzen Africa Proconsularis und Numidia. In: Grenzen des Römischen Imperiums. Sbd. Antike Welt (Mainz 2006) 62–71.