Located three kilometers inland from the Straits of Corfu and perched above the Vivari Channel which leads to a large inland lagoon, ancient Buthrotum was a Greco-Roman port for many centuries. Butrint experienced a decline in population in late Antiquity, a revival in the Byzantine period, then occupation by the Venetians before coming under Ottoman control. In short, although never a major Mediterranean port, Butrint has had many identities. In this brief yet thought-provoking book, archaeologist Richard Hodges examines how the modern Butrint, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1992, has evolved over time and how narratives about the place have been constructed. Now defined by its “very rare combination of archaeology and nature,” the world heritage site is protected by its position within the Butrint National Park.1 The principal question Hodges considers is whether the unique aspects of Butrint or its “spirit of place” can be maintained in a future that looks to be increasingly dominated by globalization and the homogenizing forces of mass tourism. Archaeologists, Hodges argues, must move beyond the often self-referential world of academia and engage with multiple communities so that archaeological sites can survive with their authentic identities intact.
Hodges’ reflections are based on his two decades of involvement with Butrint, where he served as scientific director from 1993-2012 under the auspices of the Butrint Foundation.2 From 1994-1999, the project involved surveys of topography of the ancient city, its standing monuments, the environmental context, and the traditional field survey of immediate surroundings with small excavations at selected points (p. 42-44). Major support from the Packard Humanities Institute enabled researchers to expand excavations from 2000-2009, opening up the ancient civic center and conducting work in surrounding areas such as at a lakeside villa four kilometers northeast of Butrint (p. 45). The project’s ample funding has made Butrint the exception rather than the rule in archaeological research and site management.
Butrint is a forested site where tourists are advised to spend about three hours. It has two levels or parts. The first is an acropolis on a long narrow hill two hundred meters long and sixty meters wide, buttressed by walls and terraces. The Venetians constructed a fortress there, which now serves as a museum. The second part is a lower town or city, composed of a mix of ruins, walls, and fortifications, situated in the vegetation and going to the edge of the Vivari channel. Some major monuments in the lower level include a Hellenistic theater, a Roman forum and baths, a church with sixth century CE mosaics and a baptistery, and another early Christian construction, the Great Basilica. Outside of the city walls is Ali Pasha’s Castle (circa 1800) opposite the channel. What is visible at Butrint today represents at least two thousand years of non-continuous human activity, or what Hodges calls in the third chapter “the episodic history of the place.”
The Archaeology of Mediterranean Placemaking has five chapters, each with a distinct goal and focus. Sections of this book have appeared in print elsewhere (p. xiv).3 The book presents a coherent whole in its structure and argument. The first chapter introduces the concept of placemaking as a practice of creating an identity that can attract visitors who in turn help sustain a place (p. 5). Hodges uses Marc Augé’s distinction between place and non-place, where “supermodernity” transforms airports, shopping malls, and hotel resorts into non-places of bland conformity. Hodges sees Butrint, by contrast, as a distinct place of enduring authenticity constructed over time with overlapping narratives forged by multiple parties. This layered process of “placemaking” is somewhat akin to Laurent Olivier’s conception of archaeological sites as “archives of memory,” where the meaning of the place changes according to the narratives created about it.4
The second chapter surveys major literary and historical narratives about Butrint. The most enduring narrative comes from Vergil’s brief reference to Butrint, which has been interpreted both as “lofty Buthrotum”5 or simply a “hilltop town, Buthrotum.”6 Vergil put Butrint on the literary map of Western Civilization because the town, supposedly founded by Trojan exiles Helenus and Andromache whom Aeneas met in his travels, was a “Troy in miniature” (p. 11-12). The site’s modern history begins with the work by Luigi Maria Ugolini, Director of the Italian Archaeological Mission, whose excavations at Butrint from 1928 until his death in 1936 focused on recovering the city’s Roman past. After the Albanian communists came to power in 1944, Butrint became a “non-place” rarely accessible to western Europeans. For a while, these limitations protected the ancient site from aggressive development. But by the 1950s, Butrint came to play a significant role in new nationalist narratives. In 1959, Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha brought Nikita Khrushchev to Butrint, building a road to the archaeological site, which facilitated the establishment of collective farms in the surrounding area and allowed Albanians to bring in small groups of tourists and their western currencies (p. 27, 105). Since the 1960s, Albanian archaeologists worked to construct a narrative for the site that documented an Albanian past with direct ethnic and cultural links to their Illyrian ancestors (p. 28). Permission was required to visit the site until 1991.
The third chapter explicates the Butrint Foundation’s goal to create a new identity for Butrint based upon its “Mediterranean connectivity” (p. 40). This effort begins with the assertion that previous definitions of the site’s identity have distorted its history in their selectivity. In this assessment, the emphasis on the site’s Greek and Byzantine heritage in UNESCO literature is as problematic as the literary portraits shaped by the exegesis of Vergil or the Communist accounts focused on the site’s Illyrian connections. The most recent excavations have created a “fourth identity” for Butrint. Occupied since at least the eighth century BCE, the site has experienced phases of intensive settlement and periodic abandonment or reduced habitation.
The fourth chapter, more limited in scope, provides a short history of the Butrint Foundation and its various encounters with Albanian partners and government officials during the tumultuous decade after the collapse of Hoxha’s regime. Hodges delineates the Foundation’s work at Butrint into four rather tidy phases. He describes the first phase, from 1994- 96, as “confrontation of scientific cultures” (p. 81), acknowledging that “in retrospect, our neo-liberalism was verging on what Herzfeld has criticized as crypto-colonialism” (p. 87). Hodges’ willingness to engage in such self-criticism lends more credence to his account of both the successes and failures of the project in subsequent years. The creation of the Butrint National Park and the park’s infrastructure encompassed two phases, in 1998-2000 and 2000-2007 respectively. The fourth phase, from 2008-12 (or beyond), reconsiders the central question of the book, examining what Butrint has become. Successes include the Foundation’s work in protecting Butrint from the “renewed gaze of Tirana’s increasingly wealthy oligarchs” (p. 96). The Foundation also helped negotiate the return of some Roman imperial sculptures that had been looted from the site in 1991; Greek police confiscated three while a fourth was recovered from a Manhattan collector (p. 100). In Hodges’s assessment, the Foundation’s successes are mitigated by its inability to build comprehensive and enduring working relationships with all the local communities. The Foundation’s work had a distinct end-point; Butrint is now jointly managed by the Albanian-American Enterprise Foundation (AAEF), an Albanian NGO, and the Butrint National Park under the Albanian Ministry of Culture.
In the fifth and final chapter, Hodges explores the Butrint Foundation’s work in its fuller international context, assessing its accomplishments relative to the ideals established at the Valletta Convention of 1992 on the protection of European archaeological heritage. Hodges also advances an interesting but too brief discussion of how the Butrint Foundation’s work measures up to the Norwich Accord (2009), which details specific steps for the protection and sustainability of sites and their “spirit of place” (p. 123). While less coherent than the previous chapters because of its numerous subsections, this chapter presents itself as a kind of road map for future archaeological work. For example, Hodges considers whether all the stakeholders at Butrint truly benefited (answer: only select families in local communities; p. 112). Thus his “retrospections” on the Foundation as a terminal NGO include a checklist for archaeologists committed to sustainability, the involvement of multiple communities, and heritage management which includes conservation of sites.
Hodges concludes that Butrint in many ways is “a symbol for Albania,” a reasonable assertion given that the site’s ancient theater appears on Albania’s largest bank note, although it is labeled incorrectly as an amphitheater (p. 134). Butrint was a long term pilot project in archaeological management that remains unique. Hodges’ retrospective on his own work at Butrint offers an oblique apology and critique about his own profession. He sees himself as part of a pivotal generation of archaeologists who have published extensively but often failed in “capacity building” because of institutional “neo-liberal western values in archaeology” (p. 137). Hodges’s meditations on his experience at Butrint underscore the difficulty of responsible archaeology and cultural heritage management, not only in Albania but everywhere. Like so many archaeological sites in the Mediterranean world, Butrint, eternal or timeless it may seem, has a future that is not guaranteed.
4. Laurent Olivier, The Dark Abyss of Time: Archaeology and Memory Archaeology in Society Series. (Lanham: AltaMira Press, 2011), xv.
5. Virgil, Aeneid III 293, transl. David West (1990).
6. Virgil, Aeneid III 350, transl. Robert Fagles (2006).