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Department of Archaeology


The Cyrenaica prehistory project, Libya


The 1950s excavations by Charles McBurney in the great Haua Fteah cave, situated on the northern shore of the Gebel Akhdar (`Green Mountain') in northeast Libya, revealed a deep (14m) sequence of human occupation from the Graeco-Roman to Middle Palaeolithic periods. As a result, it is commonly recognised as the most important prehistoric site in North Africa. Occupation in the cave may well go back 200,000 years.

In 2007 a renewed programme of archaeological and geomorphological investigation began, directed by Graeme Barker, with the objective of improving understanding of the cave's occupation sequence and, combined with fieldwork in the landscape, of the history of landscape change and human responses to it. The aim of the Cyrenaica prehistory project is to reconstruct the history of climate, environment, and human activity in the Gebel Akhdar by integrating excavations in the Haua Fteah cave with geomorphological, palaeoecological, and archaeological studies in the wider landscape, and with renewed analyses of the McBurney excavation archive preserved in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. Critical questions that the project hopes to address include: When did anatomically modern humans first arrive on Africa's northern shores? How did they and earlier populations deal with the effects of profound and often abrupt climatic change? Was `behavioural modernity' critical to their successful colonization of North Africa? When, how, and why did farming develop in the Holocene?

The 2008 season of fieldwork of the Cyrenaican prehistory project has significantly advanced understanding of the Haua Fteah stratigraphy and of the archaeology and geomorphology of the landscape in which the cave is located. The excavation of the McBurney backfill has reached a total depth of 7.5m below the present ground surface, the depth at which two human mandibles were found in the 1950s excavations. Reconnaissance at the Hagfet ed-Dabba established that the sediments associated with the Upper Palaeolithic `Dabban' industry were more or less entirely removed by the McBurney excavation. Exploratory excavations in the Hagfet al-Gama, a coastal cave west of the Haua Fteah, found evidence of Mesolithic, Neolithic, and Hellenistic occupation. The geomorphological fieldwork has identified rich sequences of later Quaternary marine, colluvial, alluvial, and aeolian deposits with the potential to provide significant results regarding the history of climate and environment in the region. Archaeological survey around the Haua Fteah indicates that the variability of the surface lithic evidence appears to reflect real differences in past human behaviour and use of the landscape and not just post-depositional taphonomic processes. The initial results from the study of botanical remains, both macroscopic and microscopic, obtained in the 2007 season at the Haua Fteah confirm the potential of the site to yield a rich suite of materials to inform on climatic and environmental change, and on human activities in the cave. Fifty years after the extraordinary pioneering work of McBurney and his colleagues, the new work is demonstrating the continued potential of the Haua Fteah's unique occupation sequence and the multi-period `human landscapes' around it to transform understanding of early human societies in North Africa.

The 2008 fieldwork was funded by the Society for Libyan Studies and the Leakey Foundation, and the project is also grateful to the NERC/AHRC ORADS committee for funding to date a suite of radiocarbon samples at the Oxford Radiocarbon Laboratory.

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