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At the time of Richard Hodges’ first visit to Albania in 1993, less than three years after a peaceful transition from the hardline communist regime of Enver Hoxa to a democratic government, the country was experiencing great hardships. Back then, the archaeological site of Butrint was far from being internationally recognised as a tourist destination and suffered heavily from looting. After almost 20 years of groundbreaking discoveries and cutting-hedge management activities in collaboration with international organizations, in 2012, Richard Hodges left behind a state-of-the-art national park – Butrint National Park – which is today one of the most interesting tourist destinations of Albania, but most importantly, a significant source of wealth for the entire region.
This memoir describes Richard Hodges’ first visit to Butrint, chaperoned by archaeologists from the Institute of Archaeology of Albania, coming to terms with the effects of the transition from communism to a democratic republic.
Hodges, R. 2017. Butrint before the Butrint foundation. Archeostorie Journal of Public Archaeology. 1: pp. 25-33. DOI: https://doi.org/10.23821/2017_2b
Toward evening we arrived at a village called Livari, a corruption, it is thought of Vivarium, from the fisheries in the lake, which here finds an outlet into the sea by means of a river. By the people of the place the lake is also called Boïdoperes. At Corfu the village is known as Butrinto or Vutzindro, but in the country itself we found these names unknown, a source of confusion, which caused us much difficulty. On the opposite side of the water is a rocky height, with remains of walls, which mark the site of the ancient Buthrotum, the celsam Buthroti urbem of Virgil. As we were embarking to cross to Corfu, I said to a Turkish official who was standing by, “Now we are leaving Turkey?” “Yes,” he replied, “now you are going to Europe.”The old off-blue Volkswagen drew up behind the Mercedes and out, a little sleepy-eyed, came Astrid and Kosta. Kosta beamed at me as if to say we, as real archaeologists, were in the right place now. Gjergj motioned stiffly and we passed through the narrow gate into the site. No one stopped us; no one, indeed, was around. Across the Channel an old man yelled, the guttural shout running like a ripple over the water to be caught by Kosta. Dapper man that he was, he stopped and hurled back a reply, then muttered and hawked, the spittle propelled in a parabola into the burnt grass. Before us was the Venetian tower, its quaintly cocked hat roof sorely in need of new tiles. But the path led us away up the gentle slope through an avenue of langerously tall eucalyptuses. Gjiergj paused under the canopy of trees, the trampled streamers from a grassy nest that had been blown out of the boughs at his feet. “Stalin gave these trees to Enver Hoxha,” he said in Italian. Astrid with studied disdain looked away. “And you see the two pillars here. These were for an Italian war memorial to their fascist dead in the mountains near Vlora. Winter 1940. Hoxha sent it here.” My companion and I stared at the bleached white fluted columns. As I entered this avenue, I turned over in my mind the capricious nature of history and monuments: an Italian gift to shape an uneasy post-war peace translated into a triumphal way. We advanced in silence, conscious for the first time of the steady chatter of cicadas in the woodland. Within moments we were upon the site of Luigi Ugolini’s great excavations. From the crazy-paved path laid for Nikita Khrushchev’s visit everything was clear. Above us lay the acropolis. The Greeks were working there, Astrid explained jauntily. Then he pointed to the Temple of Asklepios, lodged above a cyclopean terrace wall on the mid-slope. The bust of the god was stolen two years before, he whispered. My companion and I looked at him. “Many things were stolen so the Institute closed the museum and took the rest to Tirana,” he admitted. His sadness was infectious. “Who stole them?”, I asked naively. Kosta shrugged before Gjergj interjected in Italian: “You must remember how poor we all were in 1990. Everything was possible. Even archaeologists need to feed their families.” Three years ago or less. I guessed his studied gaze into my eyes was intended to say that our companions were probably culpable. And indeed, there was an unfounded rumour four years later that Astrid met a wretched end in Greece mixed up in smuggling antiquities. Our eyes rested upon the Theatre nestling at the foot of the slope. To one side a prytaneum, the council chamber, to the other the baths. Ugolini started his excavations here in the spring of 1928 believing that the protruding piers of the theatre were a bathhouse. With a legion of workmen raised in the surrounding villages and a little railway line along which the trucks took the soil, the zealot uncovered the steps and soon the line of toppled imperial statues that assured him of immortality, in Albania at least. Steps led to a wickerwork bridge into the tight little arena. But the paving slabs were deep below viscous water where turtles peered us from the shapeless patches free of floating lichen. Kosta picked up a pebble and hurled it into the water, causing the turtles to dive. “You can see the pavement below,” he ventured, averting his eyes. Gjergj drew us towards the shrine, pointing out the manumissions along the parodos, the main entrance. The French School is publishing these, he said with an unmistakable grandiloquence as though we were plenipotentiaries of perfidious Albion once more vying with Napoleonic interests. High above us a rude asbestos canopy extruded from the rock face. It sheltered plasterwork partially painted with ochreous reds and greens. “Ugolini began at the level of the roof,” Kosta said, grasping my interest. “The church is thirteenth century.” Now I recognized one half of the building. “See its paintings,” he said, looking at the feint colouration on the bleached plaster. With this knowledge, the mammoth scope of Ugolini’s vast dig became apparent. Half-a hillside had been removed to unearth the Theatre. My mind fixed then and later on what manner of man he was. Suffering from a World War I wound – to die before he ever published much of his work at Butrint, aged 41 in 1936 – his resolve must have been prodigious. Everything had to be brought by boat to this mosquito-ridden place. His zeal was missionary, as were his bold ventures in self-publicity as he trumpeted his discoveries to audiences throughout Europe with majestic photographs made into lanternslides. His contemporaries were not impressed, as I discovered. A year later I had lunch in Cambridge with N.G.L. Hammond and his wife, both well into their eighties – genial, studious Oxbridge types – and he recalled how he visited Ugolini when working on his doctoral thesis in 1930. Ugolini, he recalled, insisted that his workmen salute him each day. The poverty in comparison with Greece (where he was at the British School at Athens) affected him. But he chuckled heartily with the recollection of being arrested as a spy for bathing naked in the Pavllas river not so far from Butrint. Two years later I had dinner with Hasan Ceka (‘the father of Albanian archaeology’) in a poky apartment in the centre of Tirana. By then in his nineties, but plainly bright-eyed at the prospect of reminiscing, he told me in faultless German that Ugolini was a fascist and he did not care for him. This said, as we advanced through the wood, then and since I have never ceased to admire Ugolini’s industry and his devotion to recording all facets of Butrint. He truly believed he was walking in Schliemann’s shoes to trace Aeneas for his fatherland. I spied a golden oriole as we strolled along the path. The flash of primary yellow, I calculated, was a harbinger of fortune. Veering off into the woods along a trail towards the Channel, Kosta halted before the well-preserved ruins of a large building. He thought it was a church. I nodded in agreement to satisfy him. It was obviously the dining room of a channelside palace. This kind of building was comprehended while Albania was still under the regime, hence it was beyond the knowledge of the eager Kosta or his mentors. Plainly he wanted to dig here and Gjergj, now acting as the commissar-cum-real estate salesman, pointedly talked up the merits of the site. Next we paused at the Baptistery. In places the sand flecked with leaves covering the mosaic had been scuffed back to reveal a patch of polychrome pavement. Gjergj let his shoulders drop and spoke rapidly in Italian. At the time, in my innocence, I was puzzled. He was recalling how he had been trained as an architect (he had told us this already and even shown us his sole handiwork near Fier two days before). The Party had despatched him to be an archaeologist here, at this very place, the baptistery. He had worked with Aleksander Meksi, then an archaeologist, now the Prime Minister, whom at the start of the week had launched our trip. In 1982 the Institute of Archaeology had descended for a summer school at Butrint and young pretenders like Gjergj were given personal tuition. All learnt the art of joining a klan, identifying patrons and the mincing avoidance of confrontation, as they imbibed Enver Hoxha’s texts and each endeavoured, in his or her individual way, to shape an origin myth for the land of the eagles. Each, I have no doubt, was trained in dissembling and the practice of making much out of little. Here, too, I imagine, they learnt to distinguish between those blessed with a Tirana pedigree and those from the provinces. Months were spent here, resulting later in Meksi’s seminal essay about the Baptistery. Years later I realized that the summer school was the Institute’s response to the brutal confusion in Albania after the near-demented dictator had his lifelong colleague and prime minister, Mehmet Shehu, commit suicide. Hoxha had been almost blind and crippled by diabetes. Obsessively confused about who should succeed him, he had first selected Shehu, then denounced him as a multiple foreign agent and traitor to the motherland. Worse still then followed as Shehu’s family was persecuted for treason. One son died and Shehu’s aging wife, once a devoted partisan, was imprisoned and, for fear she would kill herself, her head was ‘protected’ by an iron mask. Shehu, an alumnus of the International Brigade, had been the ramrod that navigated Albania to victory against the Germans and thereafter through confused alliances with the Yugoslavians, then the Soviets, then with Mao’s cultural revolution. Gjergj never explained his version of these events to me. Instead I can picture him in the dancing beams of sunlight penetrating the woodland canopy above us, day-dreaming of unshackled times devoted to archaeology. His freedom had been curtailed by ruination as Hoxha slipped inexorably towards death and bequeathed a nation mired in illusion. Queuing for bread in the early hours was how Gjergj summed up this transition to the present. Now, illuminated by the warm pencils of light, he spoke of youthful digging days and drinking, as all archaeologists worldwide tend to do. As we skirted around the Baptistery Gjergj boasted of a plan to cover it with a roof equipped with solar panels, which would, somehow, keep it heated and dry and permit the pavement to be displayed. The European Union would pay for the contraption. It took little imagination to appreciate that this was exactly what the European Union would do. I nodded and trusted the infernal bureaucracy would defeat the project. But my companion winced in pain and launched into an assault on the idea that was so vehement that Gjergj froze stiff, as though he had inadvertently mislaid a fortune. I encouraged us to walk on and we passed through the Great Basilica, an oasis flooded with sunlight in the dense woodland. Here, in years to come, oblivious to the romance of the wood, a group of Italian researchers were to propose a new roof to make a museum. Better here, on the path – they were to address me – than in the castle on the acropolis, far away. On we walked, following the dark passage beside the Hellenistic wall to a point on the brink of Lake Butrint and its sleeping mussel beds. Out in the still water a fisherman was working with nets. Gjergj’s speeded up, past the Scaean Gate, where Ugolini briefly convinced himself Aeneas entered the city, and onto the Lion Gate, where in May 1959 Khrushchev, according to Hoxha, whispered to his Defence minister that this was a great place for a nuclear submarine base. We dipped below the tympanum depicting a lion in shallow relief savaging a bull, climbed the steps past the sacred well dedicated by Junia Rufina – a second-century noble-woman – to the memory of the nymphs, and clambered up the mossy steps to a rising path above the mussel-fishermen’s harbour. Far below us the curtain of towered walls sketched in 1857 by Edward Lear ran down through still reeds to the dark rim of water. Turning onto the acropolis, and now sweating, we followed the track to the spine of the hill immediately above the theatre. Gjergj then proposed we take a boat out onto the lake. A fisherman with a green vessel made himself available. He rowed us standing through the rusting line of an old state fish trap, its posts angled every which way. A young man in torn clothes hung from the weir to unravel the metal grid gate that permitted us to slip onwards towards Lake Butrint. Then past greying men with lines, we sailed onwards into the open water. Here we carved a path through the water past the concrete mussel beds, their sides pocked with holes from which dried grasses – the remains of nests – carefreely emerged. On to a distant shore below the steep flank of Kalivo. Our gondolier propelled the heavy boat with all his force onto the pebble beach, then bounded over the boat’s high sides into the water and, grappling with the raised prow, dragged us inwards. The urgent current, however, countered his efforts, causing the boat to rock. Kosta could not contain himself. He now leapt out, sinking to his stomach in the water, and helped to secure the boat ashore. All the while Gjergj sat hunched, motionless until instructed to disembark. Then we followed. Nearly half a mile of beach separated us from our destination, but almost at once Gjergj stopped to gaze at the intruding plastic bottles left by villagers picnicking here. Reaching down, he grasped one and turned to us as he did: “When we were children and found these on our beaches, our parents said they were made by men from space. Now, in two years, they are everywhere”. Was he angry or simply marvelling at change? He left us to decide as he stepped forward. Kosta meanwhile had taken off his trousers and shirt to reveal long, pressed boxer shorts, and with unexpected vanity plunged into the lake. Now released from our company, he skimmed like a teenager along twenty or so yards out from us. Our gondolier smiled. Having manoeuvred the rocking boat out into the wind-whipped water, yelled at him: “Koçi, Koçi!” Kosta took no notice of the guttural affection. Astrid did, though. Almost envious of his liberty, he paused to inform us that Kosta had been a swimming champion but smoked too much now. Gjergj had reached an inlet opposite a ramshackle fishing weir. As he did, on the bank five yards away a white mongrel bounded out and baring its teeth, barked ferociously at us until an old man appeared. He eyed us, shouted at the dog, which whimpered, advanced without a word to his pontoon boat and, concentrating, with one push of his pole, reached us. We bi-passed the snivelling dog and the dwelling with its drifting wood-smoke, and once more came alongside Kosta. Gjergj pointed to the ruin on the far shore, and perhaps, feeling challenged by Kosta’s exhibition, he accelerated so that we arrived first. This was Diaporit. A single angle of a Roman building remained, a finger of resistant brick and tile some 10 metres high. It was all that bespoke the promise of the site, a Roman villa that occupied a grassy hillside extending down to the lake, with thin-mortared walls running into the water. Kosta, now more confident after his aquatic bravado, advanced towards us with some water-rolled sherds from the shoreline. “East Mediterranean,” he said, handing me the pieces. Indeed they were. We walked back at some pace, retracing our steps to the fisherman with an eye on his mongrel. Then up through the thick thorns to reach the rudimentary cyclopean wall of the Kalivo, the hog-backed hill that separated us from Butrint. Picking up the track, Gjergj urged us to be vigilant for snakes. Faintly pink anemones carpeted the open flank of the hill from where the ancient city came into view, a woody knot in the grey hillslope beyond. An hour later, following the channel, now thoroughly ruffled by the wind, we reached Butrint and, more to the point, the restaurant famed for its mussels. The British ambassador had enthusiastically commended the mussels served on skewers. Apparently the waters were too sulphurous by EU standards for mussels; but nevertheless, since Soviet times, if not long before, these had been a staple here. Part concealed in patches along the Vivari Channel we had passed bare-foot fishermen cooking the shells to release their contents. Butrint’s restaurant at this time was their only client. We sat at reinforced concrete tables on reinforced concrete benches, relics of Albturizmo, the (communist) state tourist authority. Served by a tall elegant young woman with a long ponytail, we ate mussels, crayfish and fresh fish with under-heated chips larded with oil and a Greek salad of sorts. Gjergj spoke mostly. He reminisced about the French School of Archaeology in Athens, then of Paris where he had been in the 1980s on a scholarship. He had even persuaded his minder to accompany him to a concert by Madonna. Such mischief had been a highlight of his life.