BMCR 2020.01.22

Excavations on the Vrina Plain, Volume 1: The Lost Roman and Byzantine Suburb. Butrint archaeological monograph series, 6

Simon Greenslade, Excavations on the Vrina Plain, Volume 1: The Lost Roman and Byzantine Suburb. Butrint archaeological monograph series, 6. Oxford; Philadelphia: Oxbow Books, 2019. xi, 404; 14 p. of plates. ISBN 9781789252132 £65.00.


The site of Butrint, a promontory at the southernmost limit of Albania’s Adriatic coastline, has been occupied since prehistory. Supposedly founded by Trojan refugees, Butrint was home to Roman colonists, Byzantine bishops, and Norman garrisons. Since 1994, the site has been subject to an extensive programme of archaeological research conducted under the auspices of the Butrint Foundation. The team comprises archaeologists from the University of East Anglia and the Albanian Institute of Archeology, as well as commercial archaeological units, and students and residents of the village of Shëndëlli. Previous publications have advanced an admirably diachronic archaeology, investigating long-term developments within domestic structures without unduly privileging any particular historical moment; the present volume follows in this tradition.1

This sixth contribution to the series Butrint Archaeological Monographs presents the results of excavation on the Vrina Plain, an alluvial valley separated from the city by the brackish waters of the Vivari Channel. The excavated structures were originally positioned on the southern shoreline, close to the point from which an aqueduct and a bridge for wheeled and pedestrian traffic led across the channel to Butrint proper. They therefore formed part of an extramural suburb. Excavation took place in three discrete areas over the period 2002-2008. Smaller trenches exposed the rectangular base of a column monument of the later second century and the remains of a third-century prostyle Temple-Mausoleum. These were slightly to the northeast of a series of trenches covering an area of roughly 65 by 45m, within which a series of superimposed domestic and ecclesiastical structures were brought to light. The volume currently under consideration, Butrint 6.1, addresses architectural developments and offers a holistic historical interpretation of the site. Two further volumes are forthcoming. Butrint 6.2 will present the small finds, numismatics, sigillography, glass, and medieval ceramics, along with faunal and archaeobotanical data.2 Butrint 6.3 will cover the ancient and late antique ceramics.3

The earliest structures on the southern shore of the channel were erected around the middle of the first century AD. Several distinct houses were built, some with commercial units facing the roads. In the third century the neighborhood appears to have come under the control of a single elite family; the existing houses were demolished and amalgamated into a sprawling mansion, for which the authors employ the Latin domus or villa. The excavated portion of the domus incorporates a grand apsidal audience chamber, two separate bathing complexes, a peristyle with an ornamental pool at its center, and several rooms equipped with exquisite geometric floor mosaics. Geophysical survey indicates that the domus extended far beyond this area, with a much larger courtyard and triconch triclinium to the south. The prostyle mausoleum dates to the same period as the domus. Here members of the family were laid to rest in Pentelic marble sarcophagi imported from Aegean Greece or Asia Minor. The mausoleum fronted onto the road leading from the interior of the Vrina Plain. Alternatively, guests and clients might arrive by ship, mooring at a jetty projecting into a narrow inlet perpendicular to the Vivari Channel. The domus was damaged in a major earthquake that affected much of the urban infrastructure of Butrint in the mid-fourth century. It was temporarily abandoned; an intriguing burial of two adult males was made in the entrance foyer to the apsidal hall and covered by roof-tiles. Nevertheless, the domus was soon reoccupied, with new floors constructed at higher elevations to preempt the rising water table. In the early fifth century the Vrina Plain aqueduct collapsed, depriving the occupants of the domus of fresh water. This appears to be the cue for the abandonment of the complex as a residential hub.

Around the turn of the sixth century the site was reoccupied. Workers used the ornamental pool in the peristyle courtyard as a convenient basin in which to mix the mortar for the construction of a Christian basilica. The basilica was perpendicular to the apsidal audience hall, the narthex within the hall itself and the apse projecting into the peristyle to the southeast. The nave and sanctuary of the basilica were paved in an elaborate mosaic. Sea creatures, wild beasts, and birds are depicted within octagonal frames. Two inscriptions on mosaic tabulae ansatae give hints as to the patrons. The first recognizes multiple anonymous donors – those whom God knows – while the second, an unfortunately fragmentary text positioned closer to the sanctuary, implies a single female patron ([δο]ύλης σου). Many of the other chambers of the domus were reoccupied. A second-century cistern provided the shell for a small bathhouse. The jetty remained the primary means of accessing the complex from the channel. The Christian complex was abandoned in the later sixth century, perhaps on account of a fire. Evidence for architectural interventions in the seventh and eighth centuries is non- existent. But the authors report significant quantities of ceramics that may be attributed to this period in later contexts, so the site may not have been totally abandoned.

The ruin of the basilica must have remained a major landmark on the plain. Around the middle of the ninth century it was appropriated as the residence of a Byzantine official. The authors use the Greek term oikos to distinguish this residence from its ancient predecessor. Lead seals, used to authenticate documents, provide a tell-tale sign of the Constantinopolitan state in action.4 White Ware sherds likewise show connections with the capital, while amphorae from Otranto indicate integration into southern Italian commercial networks. The residential focus was a hall on the second story (American English) of the former narthex. The new occupants cleared the accumulated earth within the basilica to reveal the sixth-century mosaics. A wall was constructed above the stylobate of the sanctuary barrier, dividing the sanctuary and apse from the nave. The sanctuary would now serve as a small chapel, while the nave functioned as an open-air courtyard and a cemetery for privileged burial. Walls between the piers that separated nave from aisles enabled the use of the latter for light-industrial activities. A kiln in the north aisle produced cooking wares for local use. The oikos was a relatively short-lived affair. In the middle of the tenth century it was mostly demolished in order to provide construction material for the resurgent Middle Byzantine settlement on the Butrint promontory. The sacred status of the site was maintained until the thirteenth century, reaffirmed through the placement of burials in the ruins of the complex.

The excavators have inferred this narrative of recurrent occupation, maintenance, and abandonment from an immensely complex stratigraphic sequence. The successful translation of such a sequence into a comprehensible archaeological report is no mean task. In his opening chapter Simon Greenslade offers an account of the hydromorphology of the plain. This is followed by David Bescoby’s analysis of Roman centuriation, revisiting in the light of the Vrina Plain excavations his earlier research employing aerial photographs taken in 1943 by the RAF.5 These first two chapters are brought together under the heading “Introduction.” The subsequent seven chapters, under the heading “Excavations,” present a detailed stratigraphic report. Chapters three through nine, authored by Greenslade, deal with the domus / basilica / oikos. The Temple Mausoleum and the Monument are discussed in chapters eight and nine by Greenslade, Sarah Leppard, and Oliver Glikes. The authors assign all features to sixteen numerically ordered phases, from the first century AD to the later thirteenth century. A handy table gives summaries of each phase and correspondences between the three areas of excavation. Discussion proceeds chronologically. An impressive number of labelled photographs, plans, sections, and axonometric reconstructions illustrate the text. Plans in these chapters generally pertain to a single phase, with attested masonry and extrapolated walls clearly distinguished. These plans are complemented by a series of multi-period state plans color-coded by phase at the back of the volume. The abundance of images allows the text to be clear and concise.

Chapters ten and eleven, by John Mitchell, analyze the floor mosaics of the domus and basilica. Mitchell discusses both the technical details of the mosaics’ construction and the symbolic and allegorical function of the images on the paving of the basilica. The mosaics are situated both within the assemblage of known mosaics from Butrint and in a broader Epirote context. Line drawings adjacent to the text are supplemented by forty-three color photographs arranged in plates at the back of the volume, illustrating particular motifs as well as providing orthorectified models of entire floors.

The final three chapters, co-authored by Simon Greenslade and Richard Hodges, interpret the broader significance of the domus / basilica / oikos complex. Discussion is divided into three broad periods: Roman suburb, villa to church, and medieval oikos. Throughout there is a consistent emphasis on landscape and on the medial role of the complex between the Butrint promontory and its rural hinterland. Readers of Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies will recognize the final chapter as a lightly edited version of the authors’ 2013 paper published with the same title.6 The authors clearly acknowledge the reprint. The only significant addition is a summary of the faunal remains; the bones of a significant number of bears raise the evocative possibility of exotic pets or furs. The structure of this chapter, incorporating many descriptive paragraphs that essentially rehearse the information provided by the preceding stratigraphic report, is perhaps more appropriate for a freestanding article than for the conclusion of a monograph.

Greenslade and his team have produced an exemplary archaeological monograph, lucidly written and clearly structured. The publishers at Oxbow are also to be congratulated for an attractive book with generous provision of glossy illustrations at a reasonable price tag. The diverse materials uncovered during the excavations will no doubt ensure a wide scholarly audience. Specialists will understandably be tempted to mine the text for those passages pertinent to their own research, be that Roman centuriation or Byzantine sigillography. But there is much to be gained from reading the volume as a coherent, diachronic whole. The Vrina Plain excavations invite reflection on material culture and place, made and remade by successive generations.

All archaeologists know that material culture rarely accumulates in discrete horizontal laminations. An artifactual environment will always be a messy coincidence of features ancient and recent. This is made very clear in figure 7.144 of this volume, showing a grave made in the ruins of the basilica in the thirteenth century. The grave cuts a sixth-century mosaic floor to reveal the truncated foundations of a third-century wall; the skeleton is not oriented to the rising sun but is instead aligned to contours established over the landscape during centuriation carried out by the surveyors of the Augustan colony. The allotments of the centuriation were determined in relation to a road running the length of the Vrina Plain, which is likely prehistoric in origin. The material past always makes itself legible—unfinished and inviting intervention. How we chose to intervene is a political question for the present, whether we are medieval mourners or modern archaeologists.


1. Bowden, W. and Hodges, R. (eds.), Butrint 3: Excavations at the Triconch Palace (Oxford: Oxbow, 2011).

2. Greenslade, S. (ed.), Butrint 6: Excavations on the Vrina Plain, Volume 2: The Finds (Oxford: Oxbow, 2019).

3. Reynolds. P. Butrint 6: Excavations on the Vrina Plain, Volume 3: The Roman and Late Antique Pottery from the Vrina Plain Excavations (Oxford: Oxbow, 2019).

4. Editions of these seals have been published by Pagona Papadopoulou: “Five Lead Seals from Byzantine Butrint (Albania)” Studies in Byzantine Sigillography 11 (2012), 125-134.

5. Bescoby, D. J. “Detecting Roman land boundaries in aerial photographs using Radon transforms” Journal of Archaeological Science 33 (2007), 735-43.

6. Greenslade, S. and Hodges, R., “The aristocratic oikos on the Vrina Plain, Butrint c. AD 830–1200” Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies 37 (2013), 1-19.