Cutting edge: Sally Martin

January 4, 2002

Archaeology does not limit itself to the past in Albania.

The Butrint site lies in the south of Albania, just inland from the Straits of Corfu. Humans first settled there in the Middle Palaeolithic period and it has been more or less constantly occupied from 8BC onwards. The Butrint archaeological project began as a research excavation looking at the transition of Butrint from AD400-1500. I was incredibly naive in my first season there in 1994 and found myself responsible for 30 people on a six-week excavation with only bread and mussels to sustain us. Corruption was rife, but there was an underlying sense of hospitality expressed in small actions such as the return of the cook's float by local police after a robbery - albeit in a number of different currencies.

Archaeologists are increasingly aware of the context in which they work and the many, often conflicting, demands and voices that surround sites. We can no longer confine ourselves to the past, carrying out excavations and retreating to universities to distil the information and communicate it to peers. Nowhere is this clearer than in Albania.

Seven years on, the Butrint project has developed into a multifaceted programme that tries to respond to the circumstances in Albania. The excavations are well under way, and recent work has led to the identification of the main area of the Roman colony that occupied the area and the dating of the late-Roman city wall. We have also discovered a late-Roman palace and associated quayside and, some distance off, a large Roman villa site with a late-Roman basilica built out of its ruins. We have looked at the history of archaeological work at Butrint and tried to divorce archaeological interpretation from its contemporary political context. We have also assessed the discipline of archaeology in Albania and developed a project for student programmes, a research institute and a rescue archaeology unit. And we have looked at how socioeconomic needs can be balanced against conservation concerns and modern cultural values. My work over the past two years has focused mainly on this last area and has included building a school in a local village.

I work part time for the Albanian ministry of culture, youth and sport on the transition of the old archaeological site into a national park. The work involves research into the site as a 20th-century phenomenon: who visited it in the past and why, how it was conserved and managed and why, how it was interpreted and displayed and why. Statistical information, together with that gleaned from surveys, can be used to show what the different institutions and communities want for the future of the site. The results so far have been surprising. In 1994 the Butrint Park and its World Heritage designation covered 16 hectares and was visited by 6,000 people: about 4,000 foreign visitors and 2,000 nationals. In 2001, it covers 2,900 hectares and has been visited by 20,000 people: 15,000 nationals and 5,000 foreign visitors. The increasing numbers of domestic visitors is an important indicator of the role Butrint plays in Albania's new sense of identity. It is now a place where the visitor can feel part of a larger entity, rather than part of an isolationist regime - a point illustrated by an entire village turning out to watch an open-air theatre performance in Neapolitan dialect on a stormy evening last September.

Sally Martin is a research associate for the Institute of World Archaeology in the School of World Arts and Museology at the University of East Anglia, working with the Butrint Foundation and the Packard Humanities Institute.

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