A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
The ruins at Butrint reflect an extraordinary history, from the rise of the Iron Age to the fall of the Iron Curtain.
Aerial views of Butrint show its strategic location on the Vivari Channel, with Corfu and the Ionian Sea seen in the distance. (Courtesy the Butrint Foundation)
Shut off from the world by the twentieth century's most xenophobic Communist regime, and plagued by a century of political upheaval and economic disaster, Albania is terra incognita for most of us. But this small country is a remarkable destination for archaeologists, particularly its impressive site of Butrint, a microcosm of Mediterranean civilization from the Bronze Age through the Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Venetian, and Ottoman periods. Butrint is also unique in that archaeology there mirrors the major political movements of the twentieth century, from monarchy and fascism to communism and democracy.
In Butrint, it's possible to walk from a Greek theater to a Roman forum. Visitors can witness the transition from paganism to Christianity in the Late Roman and then Byzantine periods in the construction of a Christian basilica atop a Roman one. A Venetian fort looks across marshland where nineteenth-century Ottomans and Englishmen on the Grand Tour hunted. There is a sense here that time travel is truly possible.
Butrint owes its importance throughout history to its excellent location on a bluff overlooking the Vivari Channel, an important waterway connecting the Straits of Corfu and Ionian Sea with the inland saltwater Lake Butrint. According to the Roman poet Virgil, Butrint was founded in the Bronze Age by the Trojan seer Helenus, who married Andromache, the warrior Hector's widow, and migrated west after the fall of Troy to found "a new Troy." Virgil, who wrote that Aeneas saw a "Troy in miniature" there, and the historian Dionysos of Halicarnassos, both writing in the first century B.C., tell that Aeneas visited Butrint after his escape from Troy.
However, the first solid archaeological evidence from the tenth to eighth centuries B.C. reveals only the existence a small settlement that probably grew food for the islanders of Corfu and had a fort and a sanctuary on its acropolis.The site continued to grow and flourish. By the Hellenistic period (late fourth century B.C.), it had fortifications, a busy harbor, an agora, an impressive theater, and an important sanctuary to Aesclepius, the god of healing.
Despite its impressive history, however, it was not until the 1920s that Butrint first became the focus of serious archaeological exploration. From the Italian mission in 1928, through the Communist era, and continuing in the early 1990s with a Greek excavation and the ongoing research conducted by the Butrint Foundation Project in collaboration with the Albanian Institute of Archaeology, evidence from each period at Butrint has been uncovered, greatly enriching our knowledge of this unique site and its extraordinary story.
Jarrett A. Lobell is associate managing editor of ARCHAEOLOGY. Special thanks to the Butrint Foundation Project and especially Oliver Gilkes for his assistance.