Archaeologists Peel Away More Layers of Butrint

By David Chanatry
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, July 18, 2005

BUTRINT, Albania -- More than 2,000 years after Julius Caesar came here for provisions and decided to start a veterans colony, a new army has invaded -- a multinational force of archaeologists in what is perhaps the largest ongoing dig in the Mediterranean.

Led by Professor Richard Hodges of the University of East Anglia in England, 100 archaeologists from 19 nations, 60 Albanian undergraduates and dozens of local laborers are rotating in over the course of this summer's two-month digging season.

The scientific goal of this decade-long project is to learn how society was transformed at the end of the classical period of ancient Greece and Rome, but the city of Butrint is as much of an attraction. Over the course of 3,000 years, successive civilizations made this city their own. "It became a place in the middle of the Mediterranean where everybody came," Hodges said.

This year's dig is the third major excavation since the nonprofit Butrint Foundation began operations in 1994. Most of the team will work on the Vrina Plain, a flat marshland between steep mountain ridges on the coast of the Ionian Sea. It was the site of Caesar's colony, a Roman suburb just across a narrow channel from the 40-acre city.

The scope of Butrint's past excites archaeologists of many periods. It was "Troy in miniature" in Virgil's "The Aeneid"; legend says the city was founded by Trojan exiles, but that belief is not supported by archaeological evidence.

Butrint was first settled between 1000 and 800 B.C., Hodges said, most likely as an outpost to provide food for the large settlement on the island of Corfu. Its strategic location astride major trade routes made the city a player in the politics of the day. It was in turn Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine. Then came the Venetians and Ottomans, who built forts to protect the city and nearby fisheries.

In Butrint's heyday in the 5th century, Hodges said, as many as 20,000 people lived there. Monuments from each period remain today, just yards apart.

The city faded into oblivion after the 14th century, becoming a silted-over hillside where shepherds grazed their sheep. It stayed that way until 1928, when a young archaeologist dispatched by the Italian Foreign Ministry arrived and dug wherever he could see ruins. Luigi Maria Ugolini excavated on a grand scale until his death eight years later, even installing a railroad to haul away all the dirt.

Ugolini excavated most of the city as it is seen today, including a Greek theater, a temple to the god Aesclepious, and a large 5th-century baptistry with a tile mosaic floor.

Besides the project on the Vrina Plain, the two other big digs of this decade were the excavation of a Roman villa and Byzantine church across Lake Butrint and a private home in the city called the Triconch Palace, a site Hodges calls "the best excavated sequence of a large Roman home in the Mediterranean."

The original aim of the Vrina dig was to investigate the Roman colony, and from its preliminary work the team has been able to reconstruct the way the Romans settled the plain. "The landscape is centuriated -- in other words, divided up and made into this planned colonial world," Hodges said. His team can discern street lines and building plots. Team members have identified a fallen aqueduct that brought water from a spring about four miles away.

Still, project director Oliver Gilkes said the most interesting discovery is from a later period. He and Hodges believe they have found the first ceramics dating from the Middle Ages ever recovered in the central Mediterranean.

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