Albania: Butrint from the Air

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This year’s survey from the air allowed us to view the current excavations, and other parts of the city and its environs, in an exciting and dramatic way. Though aerial photography is a well-established element of archaeology, until now we have had neither the material nor financial means to carry out such surveys in Albania.

Aerial photography is enormously helpful. It allows us to visualise a site or excavation within its landscape, and, aside from adding a new dimension of detail to our existing satellite images, this survey has helped us complete our research archive records on numerous monuments at Butrint.

Magnificent men and their flying machines: Massimo Zanfini and Alket Islami

To undertake the photographic survey, we recruited Massimo Zanfini, an Italian archaeologist from the University of Bologna in Ravenna, and his aquilone, or kite. Massimo’s mission was to obtain detailed aerial views of some of the monuments in and around the Butrint National Park. With a camera suspended in a cradle – delicately stitched in to the kite fabric by his grandmother – Massimo skilfully piloted the kite above his targets while an assistant took the photographs with a radio-control unit.

In addition, we drew upon the considerable airmanship of Alket Islami, President of the National Aero Club of Albania. Alket’s services were only secured on the penultimate day of this summer’s excavations, and driving the 300 difficult kilometres overnight from Tirana, he arrived with his paramotor, a contraption that is part parachute, part jetpack and part lawnmower. Taking off from the flat, alluvial Vrina Plain to the south of Butrint, Alket ascended to fly over the current excavations outside the walled city and to record some of the more established monuments within the city as they have never been seen before.

The hero’s heroon

The first of the excavations to be photographed was an early Roman temple, on the Vrina Plain, to the south-east of Butrint city. Given its location – situated at the edge of a sprawling necropolis, on one side of an open space surrounded by other public monuments – the temple may well have been a heroon; that is, a sanctuary or the focus of a funerary cult, for the worship of a hero – a Hellenistic concept continued by the Romans. In this case, our hero may be interred in an adjacent (as yet, unexcavated) structure.

The heroon is an Italic-style temple in an Ionic order, namely with a colonnade across the front only. Originally, it had six columns, approached by seven steps, with a cella (sacred inner room) entered via a wide doorway to the rear. It would have stood c.10m high and been a remarkable feature of its lowland landscape setting. Though its surviving walls have been robbed of their marble veneer, its southern side still displays some extremely fine limestone mouldings. During excavation, we found equally exquisite fragments of mouldings from sarcophagi, including two modelled dogs’ heads and a lion finial, all of which may come from a hunting scene. The quality and scale of the sculpture reflects considerable investment in the funerary architecture. Imprints of where the the sarcophagi had stood were found in the cella floor.

The palaeochristian church

A second major excavation on the Vrina Plain was that of a 5th century AD church, together with the Roman buildings that it grew out from.

Adjacent 1st and 2nd century AD structures, including a bath-house and a town-house, had been investigated in previous years; but it was only this year that the morphology of the site was truly realised – from Roman occupation, to Christian worship during late antiquity to a market/meeting place in the medieval period. A much-modified aula (a substantial chamber) of probable 2nd century date was further adapted following a 3rd century earthquake that wrought widespread destruction upon extra-mural Butrint. In the later 5th century, a twin-aisled church with a central nave separated by a stone screen from an apsidal bema (or sanctuary) was constructed within and to the south of the earlier buildings. This phenomenon of transition from villa to church has numerous parallels in late antique Italy, and it is likely that the church retained a function as an estate centre with all attendant facilities.

The nave and chancel was occupied by a bright and colourful mosaic measuring 15.75 x 6.75m and made of limestone, glass and tile tesserae. One of Massimo’s major contributions was to take a series of aerial photographs from which we were able to build the composite photographic plan of the early Christian mosaic that you see here.

From ongoing excavations we know that the church progressively fell out of use, possibly as a consequence of rising groundwater, and its internal walls collapsed. However, there is evidence – including an immensely important group of 9th and 10th century coins – that the area in front of the church and the narthex (i.e the entrance chamber which would originally have been separated from the nave by a railing or screen) continued in use as a meeting place.

The Roman civic centre

Alket Islami’s survey then took him across the Vivari Channel – the tidal waterway that separates the walled city from its suburbs on the Plain – to record some of the better-known monuments in the heart of the ancient city. We particularly wanted aerial images of these structures to use for public presentation in publications, exhibitions, lectures and interpretative material to help convey both the history and beauty of the city.

The core of the early city, essentially a sanctuary to the god of medicine, Asclepius, was extensively ‘Romanized’ at the height of the early Empire. This restructuring included rerouting access through the sanctuary, a remodelling of the theatre and the imposition of a forum to the east of the principal buildings.

The Triconch Palace

The Triconch Palace is a sprawling late Roman residence. Its recording and conservation, the focus of 10 years’ excavations, was completed by the Butrint Foundation in 2005, in order to make it accessible to visitors.

The house belonged to a wealthy grandee whose name and senatorial rank were recorded in a mosaic inscription. The building was framed around a colonnaded courtyard and included an arrangement of private and public rooms and spaces. Layout of, and access to, these spaces evolved through time, and admittance to particular areas of the building reflected a visitor’s status within the prevailing social hierarchy.

The Great Basilica

The so-called Great Basilica was the principal church in late antique Butrint and sections of a 6th century mosaic floor are still preserved. The church was erected on the site of a cistern belonging to the Roman city’s aqueduct and is over 30m long. It followed the characteristic plan and architectural devices prevalent throughout Epirus, employing a central nave flanked by aisles that were screened from the nave by closed colonnades. At the east end was a tripartite transept and a central pentagonal apse. Remains of the mosaic pavement include trailing ivy tendrils and scrolling guilloche that are also found in the Baptistery, indicating that these two religious monuments are broadly contemporary. The devices are characteristic of mosaicists working in Nikopolis in northwestern Greece. Some time later, most likely in the 13th century when Butrint began to boom once more, the Great Basilica was extensively rebuilt and effectively became Butrint’s cathedral.

The Baptistery

Early in the 6th century AD a Roman bath-house was remodelled into a circular baptistery, apparently in isolation from the Great Basilica, but on a scale comparable with the size and situation of the baptisteries of Ravenna and Milan. Two internal rings of re-used Hellenistic and Roman columns supported a cupola above. The floor of the Baptistery is occupied by an astonishingly intricate and well-preserved mosaic that comprises seven concentric bands radiating out from a central font. Medallions within the bands are inhabited by the icons of baptism, including beasts, waterfowl and fish. The Baptistery continued in use during the seventh century, and recognition of it as a cult structure continued into the medieval period when it became the focus of a cemetery and a small church was erected close by.

The Triangular Fortress

As Alket Islami’s aerial shot shows, the imposing Triangular Fortress takes the form of an irregular triangle with a tower at each point. Originally, it stood on an island in a pre-canalised river mouth, protected by an outer siege work or ravelin (a crescent-shaped defensive wall).The keystone of one the interior buildings bears a relief of the Lion of St. Mark, the symbol of the Republic of Venice.

The Venetians began to invest in Butrint in the late 15th century, which seems a likely date for the fort’s construction. Musket ports opened at both ground level and along the parapet walk. Vaulted storerooms inside the fort carried artillery platforms above to train cannon on the approach to Butrint up the Vivari Channel. In 1798, however, the fortress was slighted by General Chabot, the commander of the garrison of the French dependency of Corfu.

Malathrea fortified villa

Meanwhile, Massimo Zanfini was dispatched with the kite team to two sites along the valley south of Butrint towards the border with Greece, and to the lakeshore villa and church site at Diaporit, which was excavated by the Butrint Foundation and Institute of Archaeology between 2000-2004.

The first of the valley sites was a fortified villa known as Malathrea on the northern slopes overlooking the valley. Dated to the 3rd century BC the building was probably the stronghold of a rich estate. Based on a square plan around a central courtyard and portico the villa had a substantial tower at each corner with only a single entrance. It was re-occupied during the Roman period and new ranges of rooms were built to store items including oil and grain.

Çiflik church

The second valley site to be photographed by Massimo was the Late Byzantine church of Çiflik. Architecturally typical of the Epirote Despotate, its 13th century construction belongs to a rich period of ecclesiastical revival in the area.

While the standing remains have now been incorporated into a sheep and goat farm, the aerial view clearly shows a church with a distinctive plan comprising a nave with flanking aisles and a small narthex. The aisles were separated off with a combination of masonry piers and re-used Roman columns. The east end of the church has two apses: a three-sided polygonal apse, semi-circular on its interior onto the nave, and a smaller semi-circular apse on the northern aisle.

Diaporit – villas, church, and celebrity dwellers

At Diaporit, a series of villa buildings was raised on artificial terraces between the late 3rd century BC and the 3rd century AD. Over time, they became increasingly grandiose and covered an area of some 2,000m sq.

The place has something of an erstwhile celebrity connection: Cicero’s friend and correspondent, T. Pomponius Atticus, was said to have owned a villa in this region – although we now think the villa in question was probably built and owned by one of Atticus’ relatives. A large central courtyard and garden surrounded by a peristyle and four wings formed the basis of the plan from the mid-1st century onwards. Conspicuous use of water was evident in the discovery of an impluvium (a cistern or tank), a fountain and an extensive range of opulent bath-buildings.

Time Fliers

Alket and Massimo have proved that high quality aerial images can be obtained through somewhat unorthodox approaches. Though the Butrint Foundation has invested in 12 years of archaeological fieldwork and documentary research at Butrint, this is the first time that we have been able to appreciate the fruits of our labours from the spectacular perspective afforded by an eye in the sky.

But there is more to come! Alket has already been in archaeological business again, flying over joint Albanian/Greek excavations at nearby Antigonea, and there are high hopes that both his paramotor and Massimo’s kite will soon be visiting many more of the stunning archaeological sites that Albania has to offer, to record and present the breadth of the country’s rich and diverse history – from the Classical city of Apollonia to the Ottoman citadel of Gjirokastra.

This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 14. Click here to subscribe

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