Italy is in lockdown as I write and it feels like Christmas Day, such is the silence. Yet the cuckoos have dodged passport control and are here to herald each day. The fields, incidentally, are now flush with spring flowers. The government decree forbids travel, so I resort to assembling reports on old excavations for a new tome and, as it takes shape, I dwell on whom to dedicate it to. Archaeology is as much about people as it is about the past. So, just as I rework interpretations about past discoveries with each new piece of evidence, so I inevitably revise my thinking about people.
This brings me to my dedication of this book: improbable as it seems, in this isolation I realise the obvious dedicatee is Ç, someone whom 25 years ago I judged to be Mephistopheles. Topsy-turvy? Isolation madness? No. Slowly I have come to appreciate how alien I must have seemed to Ç in 1995. Now, I realise he deserves this dedication for having devoted his life as an archaeologist to the place in question: Butrint, in southern Albania. But, let me go back over a quarter-century to Albania on a blissful autumn day in 1995 when, like a Martian, the President of the World Bank descended upon us.
Beginning our second full year at Butrint – ancient Buthrotum– meant entering a new round of negotiations about the terms of excavating. We had launched the excavations in 1994 with great optimism thanks to support from the Butrint Foundation charity. This arcadian site on the Straits of Corfu, with its great Graeco-Roman ruins (notably a theatre, temples, forum, cemeteries, and fortifications) and many medieval monuments, was a sublime opportunity – except that, even with government agreements, our Institute of Archaeology colleagues in Albania refused to let us dig. Our agreement was to permit us to excavate the Roman and later Roman Triconch Palace as well as around the 6th-century Baptistery with its iconic mosaic pavement. Instead, we were inducted into Balkan chess, learning to divide and rule.
As in our first season, so in 1995: the interminable discussions oscillated between Butrint’s castle on the acropolis, where our colleagues from the Institute of Archaeology were bunking, and Miri’s new-age bar, placed directly in front of the gates leading into Butrint. Gjergj – my Albanian counterpart – demanded lists of everything. He needed even to know who we were. What he really wanted to know was how much money we had and could he and his colleagues have some of it. I was prepared to compromise about money by a fraction and pay honoraria, in order to allow our multinational team to work, but only by a fraction. My proffered fraction, unfortunately, was not enough!
After several days of fruitless discussions, Gjergj absorbed my offer, then erupted with unprecedented passion. How could we work without a permit, he demanded? Butrint was the jewel of Albania. Didn’t I recognise how privileged I was to have this chance to excavate here?
My determination had been steeled by the realisation that the French archaeological mission at (the great Hellenistic and Roman city of) Apollonia in central Albania paid no honoraria. Why, therefore, should we? The next day, having slept on it, Gjergj’s face stiffened with fear of failure. In the musty atmosphere we gathered once more around an unstable table. Yet again, as if suffering from amnesia, he had us define who we all were. What was the Butrint Foundation? Was it a mafia organisation, he enquired at one point. Soon we each had elected ourselves a council with a deputy, the portly and affable Petraq taking copious notes. In attendance, almost as an afterthought, was the fidgety Ç, the Institute’s local archaeologist, who laughed nervously and referred to himself in the third person in a miscellany of languages. By now, with my eyes on understanding Butrint in its entirety, as opposed to through designated trenches, I was prepared to play this chess match because we were actively (re)surveying Butrint without my nemesis realising it.
The pendulum swung as Petraq and Luan, his younger colleagues, expressed unalloyed eagerness to gain knowledge and friendship even if we refused them bagfuls of money. So, after hundreds of hours of fretting, we arrived at a deal. We would dig; we would give our colleagues modest honoraria; and we invited them as well to partner with us on several presentational projects – woodland clearance and information panels, in particular. They accepted the fees but not the tasks. Their melancholic dejection was palpable. Doubtless, they explained their plight to their Director, Namik Bodinaku, in Tirana, as well as to their families using Enver Hoxha’s (Communist) chestnut: Western capitalists had cheated them and their children.
The elements intervened and our first day of digging was washed out. That night, our ever-creative cook, Miss Bromley, made us curry in the dead light of our bunker, a collective farmwarehouse in the neighbouring village of Vrina. Wearily we toasted the future with bottles of acidic plonk from a surviving vineyard near Saranda. Rats gambolled around the concrete rafters.
Not all was so perplexing. A counterpoint to this story was our growing friendship with Telemark Llakhana, the local director of the Institute of Monuments. Avuncular and palpably decent in demeanour, he was his own boss hereabouts and, with his sons in Athens, keen to engage with the new order. Nearing 60, with gentle eyes, he was an ex-surveyor who loved the spirit of Butrint, but had no presumptions about owning it or ransoming its secrets to us. His life had been spent in Saranda, although he had trained as a surveyor in the Albanian capital of Tirana. Gjergj was anathema to him; a legacy of a Communist past. Tele, as he was known, counselled us on how to proceed: put conservation funds his way and trust him to do what he said. He proposed reinstating the team that managed Butrint’s glorious canopy of trees, as well as the specialists that maintained miles of fortification walls. Tele was to become the Butrint Foundation’s talisman.
The Institute of Archaeology team left at the end of September, believing the season to be over. Our excavations of the Triconch Palace and around the late Roman Baptistery amounted to little more than gardening. Nonetheless, we held a small team over in our den to manage the cultural heritage projects rejected by Gjergj but championed by Tele. As the days shortened and the nights lengthened, a tranquillity descended upon Butrint. There was also another reason why we had remained.
Thanks to our trustees, Lords Rothschild and Sainsbury, we knew what the Albanians did not: James Wolfensohn, President of the World Bank, was visiting Albania on 30 October. Being a former business colleague of Lord Rothschild, both trustees decided to join Wolfensohn as President Berisha’s guests. Rothschild and Sainsbury urged us to uncover the celebrated Baptistery mosaic pavement for the visit. Careful orchestration was needed. As the first act towards exposing the mosaic, I motored up the potholed road to Tirana, seven hours away. My first call was to the Director of the Institute of Monuments, Tele’s boss, charged with the conservation of Butrint.
The Institute of Monuments occupied an Ottoman house opposite the ruling Democratic Party headquarters, close to the Albanian parliament. It was a bright October day and Tirana was humming with much more traffic than a year previously. Street kiosks were mushrooming everywhere, bringing new resilience and vigour to Albania’s capital. Thanks to Tele, I was expected by Director Stylla. Walter Stylla, an expert on Ottoman roads and bridges, was a thick-set greying man with the now familiar dome for a head. He was happy to speak in Italian; alongside him was his deputy, the frail-looking historian Gjerak Karaskaj, with bloodshoteyes drooping into his sagging, freckled cheeks. Karaskaj had one cigarette alight and grasped a packet of more in his spare hand while gazing at me as though I had landed from the moon.
I pitched to Stylla the grant with a reasonable overhead for the Institute to launch a conservation programme in advance of Wolfensohn’s visit. Then I asked about uncovering the precious mosaic.
‘Have you told Bodinaku [Gjergj’s boss, the Director of the Institute of Archaeology] about this?’ the wily Stylla asked.
I told him that Gjergj had declined all such work as beneath him. Of course, I had not mentioned President Wolfensohn’s visit to Gjergj.
Stylla looked knowingly at Karaskaj. ‘Phone Tele,’ I urged. Using my cellphone, we reached my indefatigable project manager, Sally, who was by prior arrangement with Tele. Moving to a corner of the panelled drawing room, Stylla and Tele spoke feverishly and loudly as though hollering down a bullhorn, while Karaskaj stood close by, his head tipped forward, smoking.
Handing the phone back, Stylla smiled: ‘Bodinaku will not be happy,’ he said, evidently bemused.
I nodded in agreement, shook his hand on the deal, saluted the wary Karaskaj and set off to tell Sally to go ahead with planning, while, humming, I marched down the sunlit boulevard to the Institute of Archaeology. Its triumvirate of leaders forced me to wait, having been caught unawares by my unexpected appearance in Tirana.
Recalling previous discussions in the Institute of Archaeology, I decided to enjoy this hour while Sally set Tele and his woodland team to work in the glades of Butrint and prepared for uncovering the Baptistery floor.
Director Bodinaku, true to character, held forth in a cloud of smoke, slowly denouncing me. Gjergj translated into Italian. His eyes were blank. Bodinaku reproved me for the lack of cooperation, for the poor quality of my team, and constantly compared me unfavourably to the French archaeological mission engaged at Apollonia. I nodded, as though I was a defendant at an old Stalinist show trial.
Bodinaku then invited me to reply. I imagine he expected a full confession or an explosion of pent-up anger. Instead, I told him that this had been the most important archaeological season of my life and, listing the details with Italian dulcet flourish, inflated the experience into one for which I was eternally grateful. On and on and on I gushed. And as I gushed, I detected their discomfort, which, within half an hour of my interminable exuberance, had turned to anxiety because no state trial awaited me, and they knew it. Afterwards, I heard that Bodinaku christened me ‘The Fox’.
Back at Butrint, we set work teams under Tele’s guidance to clear the low vegetation choking the wood, while we removed the sand protecting the floor of Butrint’s celebrated late Roman Baptistery in expectation of Wolfensohn’s visit. This was the first time the polychromatic pavement had been uncovered since Communist times.
The Baptistery is a big, circular structure, 14.5m in diameter, built within an earlier Roman bathhouse. Immediately, we could detect the way the architect of the Baptistery shaped his vision to the earlier building. His building comprised two concentric rings of eight columns, to support a central wooden roof. The columns themselves had been found by the Italian excavator Luigi Maria Ugolini in May 1928. The focus of the building is a central cruciform baptismal font, faced in slabs of polished white marble. This was designed with two interior steps to enable candidates for baptism to descend down into the basin. Here, the bishop of Butrint would have administered the sacrament by pouring water over them.
This floor has long since been regarded as Butrint’s jewel. It appears to have been laid by an artisan in one campaign during the early 6th century, and was conserved in 1930 by the Vetriano brothers from Rome. We marvelled at its radiant condition.Small stones of many colours were used to create a masterpiece, essentially composed of seven circling bands that turn around the font. The first and fifth bands carry a continuous ivy trail; the second and fourth, chains of interlocked medallions inhabited by all manner of animals, birds, fish, and bright red flowers; and the third and fifth bands have bold arcs of interlaced rings. The seventh, innermost ring, framing the font, consists of a carpet of interlocking medallions, containing lozenges of polychrome chequerboard pattern. These bands are interrupted on the main axis between the door and the font by two brilliant, emblematic compositions. One depicts a large vase from which a vine issues, with flanking peacocks and smaller birds. The other shows two stags drinking at a fountain beneath an arch flanked by trees.
Symbolically, the uncovering of the Baptistery was like giving away the keys to Butrint. No sooner was the deep bed of dirty sand removed than Ç, Gjergj’s point person in Saranda, arrived. He was outraged and, in front of us, railed at Tele for treachery. Nevertheless, we recorded the intricate detail of the perfectly intact pavement and had it fully uncovered and cleaned on a late autumnal Sunday, when Tele raced through the shafts of sunlight puncturing the wood to tell us that state television showed President Wolfensohn arriving by jet in Tirana. Ç was hard on his heels. Ç’s brother, the President’s helicopter pilot, had learnt his instructions for the following day. He was bound for Butrint to meet none other than…us, he declaimed in palpable astonishment!
Having prepared for the presidential visit the next day, we left Butrint that evening as the sun was setting. The road to Saranda was thronged with villagers throwing sticks and stones at the olive trees in their first serious post-totalitarian harvest. No one had ladders, it appeared. We ate late in Landi’s restaurant overlooking Saranda Bay, and the team bunked down in the Villa Kaoni (where Nikita Khruschchev had stayed during his visit to Butrint in May 1959), while I was destined for Tele’s front-room settee.
Ç had menacingly denounced Tele, and I figured it was best if I stayed close by him. I have no idea what I might have done if trouble had occurred. But none did. Instead, I was present to witness Tele’s aging face suffused with joy on witnessing Wolfensohn and Lords Rothschild and Sainsbury with Albania’s wolf-like President Berisha on the late-evening edition of the television news. Now he fully appreciated that we were trustworthy in every sense.
Before dawn, Tele and I left his apartment and strolled along the seafront to meet our team. The sky was cloudless. Only the last stars left a pale imprint upon it. The sea as far as Corfu was still, shimmering and grey, with the sun yet to rise from its berth in the Balkan interior.
‘Ten years ago,’ Tele mused, ‘we would have been imprisoned for just pointing at Corfu. Look how far we have come. The President of the World Bank at Butrint.’
Exploiting the soft early light, we photographed the Baptistery’s cleaned pavement from the elevated top of our (vintage) Land Rover. Then, the effervescent Johnny explained to all of us the vivid iconography of the great polychrome masterpiece – where the bishop had sat, how the baptisands had approached the full immersion font, and the meaning of the seven concentric circles and coloured aquatic creatures. It was magical. With that one picture, carefully staged, we had made a giant step forwards towards a full-scale research programme at Butrint and its Homeric hinterland.
The first shafts of sunshine ushered in a platoon of soldiers in baggy khaki drill uniforms to safeguard the wood for the President and we were promptly evicted. The lords swept in by speedboat; Berisha and Wolfensohn arrived by helicopter piloted by Ç’s brother. The helicopter’s backdraught sent the plastic chairs from Miri’s bar spinning into the Vivari Channel and caused the Minister of Culture’s comb-over to rise vertically to reveal a pink bald pate. A cast of thousands suddenly materialised. Television cameras and journalists feted us. Ç was, for once, mesmerised into silence, baffled by the turn of events.
James Wolfensohn, a diminutive thick-set man with a shock of steel-grey hair, was instantly captivated. He wanted to develop the World Bank to help the globe’s cultural heritage, especially in poorer countries such as Albania. He was also a cellist and was clearly enraptured by the Baptistery pavement and its intimate acoustics. Berisha was restless yet compelled by the presence of his guests to offer us every encouragement for the future. His black eyes sought me out as though I was indeed the fox and dismissed the now loquacious intervention of Ç. In the Baptistery itself, standing on the spectacular pavement, we lined up for commemorative photographs. For us, at least, there was the heady realisation that we had notched up our first major work at Butrint. Thanks to Tele, the project possessed a future.
The haunting memory of Ç’s perceived threat to Tele on that Sunday night lingered for years. What would I have done if someone had burst into Tele’s apartment with malicious intent? Had I not blown this out of proportion? Perhaps. As the project evolved over the following decade, Ç played other games and giggled whenever I confronted him. Yet, slowly, I came to see him through other’s eyes. He had grown up under Communist rule at Butrint; archaeology was his life. It was in his bloodstream. He was not interested in money and certainly had no empathy with Tirana politics. He did not emigrate as Gjergj did to find another career. What he wanted was to be involved, to be heard, to explore this treasured site now there was a chance to do it. Yes, on occasions, with his passion he might appear a caricature as he referred to himself in the third person.
Nonetheless, once I sat him down and asked him about the past and his vision of the future, I realised it was me who had invented much of Ç’s persona. I had confused someone who had been excavating sites at Butrint unburdened by foreign collaborations for 20 years before I arrived out of the blue. His unalloyed passion was, when I could look back with a sack of books about Butrint under my belt, really quite special if idiosyncratic. Hence, odd though it now appears, through the prism of a world upended by a pandemic, I have decided on the dedication to the next Butrint tome in the certain knowledge that Ç will have graciously dismissed much of our mutual friction and will recall only the extraordinary opportunities we have had together to explore and understand now-legendary archaeological places. As I do this, I hear his rascal-like chuckle, reminding me that I was the Fox.
For a full study of the Baptistery mosaic, see Marie-Patricia Raynaud and Agron Islami (2018) Corpus of the Mosaics of Albania. Volume 1, Bordeaux: Butrint Intramuros.
For the latest Butrint volume, see David Hernandez and Richard Hodges (2020) Butrint 7. Beyond Butrint: Kalivo, Mursi, Çuka e Aitoit, Diaporit and the Vrina Plain, Surveys and Excavations in the Pavllas River Valley, Albania, 1928-2015, Oxford: Oxbow Books.
This is an extract of an article featured in issue 103 of Current World Archaeology. Click here for more information about subscribing to the magazine.