In the Footsteps of Aeneas: Five Years at Butrint - Archaeology Magazine Archive

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In the Footsteps of Aeneas: Five Years at Butrint January 14, 2000
by Richard Hodges

It is now five years since I first visited Butrint, the Greek and Roman port of Buthrotum in southern Albania, and realized that it offered the opportunity of a lifetime. Lord Rothschild and Lord Sainsbury of Preston Candover, two distinguished businessmen with a long history of supporting cultural causes such as the extension of London's National Gallery, had established the Butrint Foundation as a charity to safeguard the archaeological site and its context. Through the offices of Sir Patrick Fairweather, British ambassador to Italy and Albania, they invited me to plan an archaeological project. At the time of my first visit to Albania in 1993, less than three years after a peaceful transition from a hardline communist regime to democratic government, the country was experiencing great hardships. In Tirana, Albania's capital, senior members of the Institute of Archaeology warmly favored a collaboration, especially if the Butrint Foundation might provide funds to assist their work.

The journey from Tirana to Saranda was a terrifying eye-opener. Here, for a student of the decline of the Roman Empire, was a living example of the collapse of a state, giving rise to myriad Dark Age solutions: derelict factories, vandalized farms, potholed military roads, migrating mountain-dwellers, and an overwhelming sense of ruin and dismay. Butrint, my guides from the Institute of Archaeology told me, was altogether different. On a sunny September morning we left the pleasant Ionian port of Saranda and drove south along the corniche, marvelling at the views of Corfu across the sparkling seaway that separates Albania from this Greek holiday island. After ten minutes we paused beside a white monument to the communist government at the northernmost tip of Lake Butrint, a check-point beyond which ordinary Albanians were prevented from passing between 1945 and 1991. An autumnal mist hung in low clouds over the lake. With obvious excitement and pride, my guide pointed towards Butrint, illuminated in the sunlight several kilometers away at the south end of the lake.

[image] General location map of Albania and Corfu (left) [LARGER IMAGE] View of Corfu from Ali Pasha's castle (right) [LARGER IMAGE] (Courtesy Richard Hodges) [image]

After a week of travelling through post-communist dereliction we were entering a Homeric landscape. Initially, we followed the cliff road high above Lake Butrint, then through olive groves down to the picturesque bay of Ksamili, and finally through terraced citrus groves until we arrived high above the curving beach beside the Straits of Corfu. Here we turned inland to follow the Butrint channel far below us. Our driver sensed the frisson of excitement as he navigated the curves dropping down to a cranky pontoon ferry, worked by rusting wires and pulleys, and the battered old gates of Butrint. Beyond, wisps of mist floated above the plain separating the channel from the range of bald hills and mountains that form Albania's frontier with Greece. Looking back to Corfu, six kilometers to the west, concrete hotels and holiday camps reflected in the sunlight, lending emphasis to this unlikely paradise in Europe's poorest country.

Walking around the archaeological site, admiring its rich array of Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and Venetian monuments set in woodland glades, it became clear that to focus only on excavating one or two monuments or to survey the archaeology of the region would be indulgent. Of these monuments, the most striking were the elegant fourth-century B.C. Greek theater with its fine cavea and Roman scaenae frons, the associated Greek sanctuary of Asclepius, immediately to the west of the theater, the line of Roman-period courtyard houses and bath-houses, east of the theater disposed around the forum (as yet unexcavated), the ruins of a Byzantine palace close to the Butrint canal, the large Byzantine baptistry with its intact mosaic pavement dating to the early sixth century, the well-preserved sixth-century basilica (refurbished in later medieval times), the ruins of a second-century nymphaeum immediately adjacent to the basilica, and the kilometers of high, imposing walls dating from Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and medieval occupations. The woods appeared to be full of ruins from many different periods. Clearly, although there were extraordinary opportunities for excavations, our overall objective, I surmised that morning, should be to protect the magic of Butrint and the quintessential spirit of its Mediterranean setting. So close, yet so far from modern Europe, the ancient city was an oasis promising a source of great tourist income for this region.

[image] Ksamili Bay (left) [LARGER IMAGE] Plan of Butrint in all periods (right) [LARGER IMAGE] (Courtesy Richard Hodges) [image]

On reaching the acropolis, we entered the restored Venetian castle that commands a majestic view of the Straits of Corfu and the now emptied museum. The combination of archaeology and a sweeping landscape, encompassed in this little castle with its promise of a fine museum, was quite breath-taking. My guides smiled knowingly. They knew that I was hooked. Living on $80 a month, with roaring inflation, and the world now at their feet, they wanted to be rich. Tourists promised them money, while Butrint, as it had always been magical for them, should be kept this way. We were all in agreement. Our project should be to protect Butrint and its unspoilt setting. It was with these noble intentions that the Butrint Foundation embarked on its first five-year plan, initially signing a protocol to excavate a Byzantine palace. Little did any of us realize what we were getting ourselves into.

The Discovery of Butrint
© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America