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The Discovery of Butrint "In the Footsteps of Aeneas: Five Years at Butrint"
January 14, 2000


Luigi Ugolini and the Italian Archaeological Mission
(Courtesy Richard Hodges)

Butrint owes everything to Mussolini. In 1924, anxious about the motives of a French archaeological mission to the Greek city of Apollonia, the Duce directed his minister of foreign affairs to sponsor an Italian mission. Count Luigi Maria Ugolini, a young fascist prehistorian, was appointed. Ugolini was a striking Valentino figure, the star of at least one film about the site. Wounded in the Alpine Corps during the First World War, he had won a reputation for being a larger-than-life, hyperactive archaeologist. In 1925 he journeyed through Albania and chose two sites for excavations. The first, a saddlebacked hilltop known as the Phoenice, had been a capital in the early Greek era. After two years, in 1928, he re-located his mission to Butrint. The film shows his huge white canvas tents, erected on the bare sides of the hill below which, in thick woodland, he knew there to be ancient remains from the memoirs of the nineteenth-century British topographer and spy, Martin Leake. One of his young Albanian staff members, Hasan Ceka, now 97, recalls how Ugolini lined up the locally recruited workmen to give the fascist salute before despatching them to the trenches.

Ugolini excavated on a great scale, determined to prove to Mussolini that Butrint was a worthy stopping-point in Aeneas' wanderings before he founded Rome. The Greek walls and gates gave resonance to Virgil's description in the Aeneid, as did the Greek theater, modified in Roman times, and remarkable for the line of statues that had tumbled into the cavea at the end of its life. But Ugolini's curiousity knew no bounds. He excavated a Byzantine baptistry with a near-perfect mosaic pavement, repaired the Byzantine cathedral, excavated countless other monuments and put trenches in every Greek, Roman, and Byzantine site within the vicinity. When he was not digging, he was publishing or promoting his discoveries, giving Albania an identity in the dangerous inter-war years. In some ways this great romantic was spared when he died from malaria in October 1936, at the age of 41. Ugolini, as a result, did not witness the Italian conquest of Albania in 1939 or experience humiliation as the Greek army repulsed the Italian invasion of Greece in November 1940 and overran southern Albania.

[image]Aerial view of the acropolis (Courtesy Richard Hodges) [LARGER IMAGE]

Ugolini's legacy was honored after the war. The communist government created an Institute of Archaeology which pursued excavations at Butrint until 1990. Butrint, close to the Greek frontier, was off-limits to ordinary Albanians. When Kruschev made a visit in 1960, a road was constructed from Saranda to the archaeological site. The Soviet leader proposed to build a submarine base in Lake Butrint with a deepened channel connected to the Straits of Corfu. The project, as the communist dictator Enver Hoxha records in his memoirs (published in English as The Artful Albanian), would have necessitated the destruction of Butrint. Hoxha haughtily tells his readers that such cultural heresy was unacceptable. Kruschev left, bequething eucalyptus plants to the site which today form the shaded approach from the battered gates to the main excavations. A little museum was opened in the 1980s to serve the growing number of strictly regulated foreign tourists.

With democracy the patient management of the ancient site came to an end. The contents of the museum were hurriedly removed to Tirana for safe-keeping, though some statues were looted and sold on the black market. As of this moment Greek tour operators began to bring day-trippers from Corfu. By 1995 up to 25,000 were coming, drawn by the bizarre spectacle of Albania, as well as by the silvan magic of Ugolini's archaeological legacy.

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Introduction A Microcosm of Mediterranean Archaeology
© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America