A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
A brief history of archaeological activity, both past and present, in Albania
Consider ancient Greece and its ruins, and images of Athens and idyllic little Aegean islands come to mind. Albania, bordering the northwestern corner of Greece, probably does not. Small, poor, and often overlooked, Albania was important to ancient Greece as the region where many successful colonies flourished. Greek archaeological remains piqued the curiosity of excavators as early as the beginning of the nineteenth century, and interest in what lies beneath Albania's soil has only continued to grow since then. When Albania was under Communist rule, the state provided much support for archaeologicalwork. Despite a temporary lapse after the fall of Communism in 1990, today archaeologists from Europe and America are working with their Albanian colleaguesto excavate the country's prehistoric, classical, and later sites.
Greeks established colonies in the region between the mid-eighth and mid-sixth centuries B.C. when it was already populated by the Illyrians, who had arrived ca. 1000 B.C. Divided into tribes and clans, these people were adept at raising cattle, farming, and metalworking. The Greek historian Polybius (ca. 205-125 B.C.) says that the Illyrians were excellent shipwrights. They were also particularly skillful in piracy, and during the third and second centuries B.C., enslaved captives and booty were a large source of revenue for the country.
The first--and perhaps the most important--of Greece's colonies in Albania was founded at Epidamnus in 627 B.C. by Greeks from Corcyra (present-day Corfu) and Corinth. Greek and Roman authors called it "the Admirable City" for its temple, statues, and other monuments. Fertile soil and a large seaport accounted for the colony's prosperity and success in commerce. Growth brought to the lower classes wealth and asubsequent desire to have more of a government voice, leading to a civil war between the small ruling class (oligarchs) and most of the population. The people requestedCorinth's assistance in battle, while the oligarchs sought aid from Corcyra. Corinth was allied with Sparta and Corcyra, upon this request, applied for aid from Athens. Therefore, the intervention of Corinth on the side of the people and Corcyra on the side of the oligarchs led to the deeper conflict between Athens, Sparta, and their respective allies known as the Peloponnesian War.
The early success of Epidamnus led to more Hellenic colonies in the region. Butrint, situated on a hill in southern Albania, was founded by colonists from Corfu in the sixth century B.C. Its original name, Buthrotum, literally means "place with much cattle and grazing land." By the fourth century B.C., Butrint had expanded greatly and included a 5,000-seat theater. In the Aeneid, Vergil claims that the city was founded by Aeneas himself. Another significant colony, Apollonia, was named after the god Apollo. It was founded in 588 B.C., also by Greeks of Corfu, and it prospered because of its role as a link between Brundisium (now Brindisi) in Italy and southern Albania. Many smaller Greek settlements were established around Albania during this time, but Epidamnus, Butrint, and Apollonia were the most important. The colonies flourished into the Roman period, yet it was during the Hellenistic Age that they reached their peak. From the fourth to the second centuries B.C., the colonies (composed of both Greeks and Illyrians) became centers of art, intellectual development, music, and theater. Apollonia was particularly noted for its philosophy school.
Albania's rich archaeological record has been explored for nearly two centuries. Ali Pasha, the Ottoman viceroy who governed this region, encouraged early archaeological excavation at Nikopolis in Albania around 1812. His excavation, ordered after his friend Peter Oluf Brøndsted pointed out a place where he thought a temple might be buried, was not academic in nature. Pasha simply wished to have any treasures that were found in the area. Eventually, excavated marble was transported to his palace. Pasha also pocketed one of the coins that was found. Formal investigation and recording of Albania's archaeological monuments began with Francois Pouqueville, who was Napolean's consul-general to Ali Pasha's court, and Martin Leake, who was the British agent there. Pouqueville's work in Albania and Greece culminated with the 1820-21 publication of his book Voyage dans l'Gréce, comprenant la description ancienne et moderne de l'Epire, de l'Illyrie greque etc. (Voyage Through Greece, Comprising Ancient and Modern Description of Epirus, of Greek Illyrium, etc.). Leake's descriptions of his own archaeological finds appeared in 1835 in the fourth volume of his Travels in Northern Greece. Léon Heuzy and his colleagues led a French mission that worked at Epidamnus and Apollonia in the later nineteenth century, and around the time of the First World War Austrians researched Albanian monuments beginning in North Albania and working south. A French mission, led by Len Rey, worked throughout Albania from 1924 to 1938 and published its results in Cahiers d'Archéologie, d'art et d'Histoire en Albanie et dans les Balkans (Notes of Archaeology, Art, and History in Albania and in the Balkans).
Albanian archaeological activity increased greatly when the Italian dictator Mussolini sent Luigi Maria Ugolini to work in Apollonia. Mussolini did so in response to the French mission; he was suspicious as to its true motives. Ugolini excavated a few different sites in Albania but passed away in 1936 at only 41 years of age. His legacy, however, led to the formation of the Albanian Institute of Archaeology by Communist dictator Enver Hoxhe. Hoxhe was very supportive of archaeology because he wanted to prove the Illyrian origins of Albania as well as glorify Albania's past history. The state provided funding for a building, museum, and even a scientific journal. With the overthrow of the Communist government in 1990 and the institution of democracy in 1991, research saw a temporary lapse. It has since been revitalized, largely thanks to grants given by the Packard Humanities Institute (PHI), which, since 1999, has contributed over $5 million to aid research in Albania. The Butrint Foundation was begun in 1993 by businessmen Lord Rothschild and Lord Salinsbury and works to preserve and improve the Butrint site. The Foundation receives the grants from the Packard Humanities Institute and uses those funds to manage projects at Butrint and Durres. Programs made possible by the Butrint Foundation and PHI train Albanian students at the University of East Angla to be their nation's future archaeologists. In addition, the National Endowment of the Humanities, the National Geographic Society, and the Institute of Aegean Prehistory have all supported work in Albania.
Archaeologists today are finding remains from all periods, from the Stone Age to the early Christian era. The discovery that most directly relates to the period of the Greek colonies is that of a temple that may indicate the actual location of Epidamnus. Epidamnus, which was also known as Dyrrachium in antiquity, is today Albania's second largest city, Durres. While Durres stands on the site where Epidamnus was thought to have been, until recently the colony's exact location had never been pinpointed archaeologically. Suggestions as to its location came from chance discoveries of statues or inscriptions, but nothing definitive was established until 2001, when University of Cincinnati archaeologists were sent on a rescue excavation project in the area. The mission was necessary because of the continual looting of archaeological sites in the area as well as possible future development. The project's goal was to survey the land and locate archaeological remains before they were destroyed.
Field surface survey, a technique pioneered about 30 years ago by archaeologists including Davis, involves the very measured exploration of the landscape from surface level. Archaeologists slowly walk in rows and carefully document any artifacts they see on the surface, noting their location and time period. An abundance of surface material indicates the existence of a site. In the case of the temple, an area that was located on a coastal ridge's high peak contained cover tiles, large pan tiles, ridge tiles, and fragments of ashlar block, all which suggested that a large building had stood there. An architectural terra-cotta fragment in the vicinity (along with the knowledge that other such fragments were found there in the past) further attested the possibility that it was a temple. Black-glaze sherds on the surface were from the Classical and Hellenistic periods. Subsequent excavation by an Albanian team of archaeologists led by Iris Pojani uncovered the temple in November 2002. The placement of the temple on its high elevation point meant that visitors to Epidamnus would be greeted by the sight of one of the colony's most important and impressive civic works. The temple is also quite significant in that it is the only Archaic temple that has been found in the region so far.
While work at Epidamnus has revealed aspects of the Greek colonial period, other projects are bringing to light prehistoric and more modern discoveries. Excavation of the Konispol Cave between 1991 and 1997 was accomplished through collaborative work between the University of Texas at Arlington (under the direction of Karl Petruso) and the Archaeological Institute of Albania (directed by Muzafer Korkuti). The cave, which was most intensely occupied in the Neolithic period (6000-2500 B.C.), provided evidence as to the change in southeastern Europe from a hunting-and-gathering society to an agricultural one.
Another project that produced prehistoric finds, though unexpectedly, was done in the valley of Kryegjata, close to the present-day city of Fier and in the area of Apollonia. This excavation, a collaboration between Davis and University of Cincinnati and archaeologists from the Institute of Archaeology in Albania, was originally a mission to learn about the colony Apollonia. Instead, they found evidence of a settlement much older than that. Said Davis of the discovery, "We had no idea we would be walking into all this prehistoric evidence." The team began with a field surface survey, during which early prehistoric artifacts were found on the ground. Excavation by Davis and Muzafer Korkuti uncovered 14 stone tools that generally are associated with Neandertals and so would be dated before 30,000 B.C. Other tools at the site date to the Mesolithic period (generally 8000-6000 B.C.). Based on the types of tools found, it appears that the function of the site during the earliest part of its occupation (Middle Paleolithic) was probably something akin to a hunting stand or outlook for a larger basecamp. During its occupation in the later Early Upper Paleolithic period, the site was most likely also used for a special purpose associated with a base camp. Many, many more tools on the site were found that date from the Mesolithic period, and the tools suggest a wide range of activity including the fashioning of plant fibers, wood, antler, and bone. Perhaps it was used as a seasonal camp then. What makes this site important is that rather than being inside of a cave, it is an open-air site. Few open-air Paleolithic sites have been investigated in the Balkans, so it has the potential to greatly alter our knowledge of the region's prehistory.
Other recent finds in Albania are from late antiquity. In 2003, a synagogue dating from the fifth or sixth century A.D. was uncovered in Saranda, a coastal town opposite Corfu. It was the first time remains of an early synagogue have been found in that area, and the history of its excavation is also noteworthy. Albanian archaeologists first discovered remains in the area 20 years ago and thought them to be from a house of worship, but prohibition of religion under the tight Communist rule at the time prevented them from exploring it further. Mosaic finds at the site suggested a Jewish past, leading to a joint project began between Albanian archaeologists from the Institute of Archaeology in Albania and the Hebrew University Institute of Archaeology. The team found exceptional mosaics depicting items associated with Jewish holidays, including a menorah, ram's horn, and citron tree. Mosaics in the basilica of the synagogue show the facade of what resembles a Torah, animals, trees, and other biblical symbols. The structure measures 20 by 24 m. and was probably last used in the sixth century A.D. as a church.
The Institute of Archaeology of Albania, part of the Academy of Sciences, engages in collaborative projects such as those mentioned above, but they also conduct their own investigations. Research is divided among three departments: Prehistory, Antiquity, and Late Antiquity/Middle Ages. Noteworthy ongoing projects include the Mallakastra Regional Archaeological Project in the area of Apollonia. As far as the excavation of antiquities is concerned, the Apollonia projects continue with work between the Institute and the French Archaeological and Epigraphic Mission in Albania. Work in the more modern era includes the Byzantine Butrint Project, which is a joint effort between the Institute of Archaeology and the Butrint Foundation.
Another institution at work in Albania is the Rescue Archaeology Unit, which was begun in 1999 and is funded by the Packard Humanities Institute. In cooperation with the Institute of Archaeology of Tirana and led by Maria Grazia Amore and Lorenc Bejko, the Unit has recently undertaken four main projects. One rescue excavation took place at Rrogozhina, roughly 65 km south of Tirana, and yielded two tombs from between the fourth and sixth centuries B.C. that had been damaged by heavy machinery prior to road construction. Another project of the Unit is the longer-term Via Egnatia project, which surveys a portion of the Via Egnatia for documentation and preservation. The Via Egnatia was a Roman military highway that was constructed ca. 130 B.C. to connect Rome with its eastern colonies. One interesting result of this project is the discovery that a long bridge at Topcias had three different construction phases--Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman. A third project explores the ancient cemetary of Kamenica, close to the town of Korca. This site, necessitating rescue because of damage and subsequent looting in 1997, has yielded much information about burial customs. It contains artifacts from the tenth through the sixth centuries B.C., including ceramic pots, jewelry, and weapons. Single inhumation was the most common form of burial, although cremation was also used. A fourth project involves not excavation but compilation and analysis of archaeological data from the prehistoric site Maliq, which was excavated from the early 1960s through the mid 1980s.
Albania may seem an obscure and even unlikely place to contain such a vast body of archaeological finds. However, the country's small surface area is not at all indicative of its richness or of the significance of what lies under its soil. Given the region's place in Greek history, its classical sites are of great importance. But Albania also contains remains that will allow us to further our knowledge about other periods, from the Paleolithic to the Byzantine. As these recent finds tell us, Albania is not a backwater but an archaeological hotspot.
Diana Michelle Fox, a classics major at the University of Chicago, is an intern with ARCHAEOLOGY.
Acknowledgements: Figure 6, "The Paleolithic and Mesolithic of Albania: Survey and Excavation at the Site of Kryegjata B (Fier District)." Page 6 in Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology (vol. 17), edited by A. Bernard Knapp and John F. Cherry. Published in 2004 by the University of Sheffield Academic Press Journals, copyright Equinox Publishing Ltd.