BMCR 2021.04.16

Butrint 5: life and death at a Mediterranean port: the non-ceramic finds from the Triconch Palace

, Butrint 5: life and death at a Mediterranean port: the non-ceramic finds from the Triconch Palace. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2019. Pp. 376. ISBN 9781785708978 £45.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This volume, part of the Butrint Archaeological Monographs Series, outlines a decade’s worth of excavation and research of a Late Roman domus, the Triconch Palace, in Butrint, Albania. The adjacent and largely contemporary archaeological area, the so-called Merchant’s House, is included in this outline. The interdisciplinary Italian/Albanian Butrint Project focusses on numerous research topics, including conservation, survey, find analysis, and excavation, across much of the ancient and medieval city of Butrint. This volume is restricted to the non-ceramic finds, with ceramic finds to be discussed in a forthcoming work. Archaeology is too often subject to excavation without adequate publication, and an explicit aim of this volume is to ensure that the excavations at Butrint do not contribute towards this deplorable situation. The scale and quality of the data provided achieve this aim in an impressive synthesis.

Chapter 1 provides an introduction, clearly outlining the excavation process and phasing of the site, with detailed plans that allow for a good understanding of the site. Bowden notes here that the majority of the material discussed in the volume is not actually associated with the initial phase of the Triconch Palace, beginning in c. AD 420 (14). The focus on later phases, it is explained, is due to the scarcity of material from earlier phases of the site. While this scarcity is understandable, I do still wonder about the appropriateness of Butrint 5 as a title. Nevertheless, a focus is maintained on the physical spaces known as the Triconch Palace and Merchant’s House, the title is in keeping with those of previous volumes within the series, and it does not detract from the overall impact of the work.

The next eight chapters are organized according to material and include contributions from various specialists associated with the project. Bowden, as editor of the volume, provides the introduction and final two chapters. Each account begins with an introduction to the specific material concerned and, while these are generally quite brief, they work well to set up the more detailed analysis of each dataset. Throughout, helpful comparisons are drawn from both the local region and the wider Mediterranean. Discussion of the finds themselves begins with the archaeobotanical evidence (chapter 2). It is somewhat rare to have this form of evidence considered separately and in such detail, as is highlighted (15), and this chapter demonstrates the importance of doing so. The methodology employed in the collection and analysis of samples is described in detail, though it is not clear why certain contexts were chosen over others for sampling. The comprehensive dataset offered will undoubtedly prove invaluable for future comparisons. The conclusion that the site appears largely to follow the general consumption habits of the local region, while perhaps not surprising, is valuable for its empirical demonstration of something that could otherwise only be assumed.

The faunal remains are discussed in chapter 3, which offers a methodical classification and analysis of the collection (25), with accompanying graphs and tables providing a very clear and detailed summary of the data at a glance. There is some reference to the non-organic material, citing a mosaic representing cockerels combined with the presence of bird bones as evidence for the consumption of chicken at the site (35). This is convincing, though it would have been good to include an image of the mosaic. Analysis of the changing meat-consumption habits across different phases of the site produces interesting results, with less variety documented in later periods (30). Comparisons with patterns elsewhere suggest that the consumption of meat at the Triconch Palace differed from that observed across the local area, having more in common with urban Italian settings (40-41). This seems to be at odds with the archaeobotanical evidence, and some overarching comment on this seeming discrepancy would have been useful. Nevertheless, both chapters demonstrate the importance of detailed scientific analysis of organic remains.

Chapter 4, on the human skeletons, represents one of the more extensive sections of the volume. While the nature of the remains rarely permits definitive conclusions, as is acknowledged, the authors posit a series of interesting hypotheses. In particular, DNA analysis has contributed data for the discussion of possible familial relationships between group burials. While the results are not conclusive, it is interesting that the relationships between individuals buried at the site seem to change over time, possibly due to an increasingly less settled population in late antiquity (54). Palaeopathological examination yielded important results, with the first positive identification of brucellosis from the ancient world (65). The disease had previously been tentatively identified in ancient remains (e.g., Barnes [2003], 441), but never with a truly scientific confirmation.

The limited evidence for metalworking is outlined in chapter 5. This section is brief, due to the relative scarcity of data. The remains are generally discussed in detail and the conclusions drawn are sensible, with the limitations of the data acknowledged throughout. The use of slag as a building material (76) is discussed briefly, but more detail and clarification of the way in which it was utilized would have been helpful.

The numismatic material is discussed in chapters 6 and 7, with chapter 6 dealing with coins dating from the 2nd century BC to AD 600. The archaeological issues of preservation at the site emerge starkly, as only some 35% of the 1104 coins could be confidently dated (78). Despite these limitations, detailed analysis of the assemblage provides interesting results: more than half of the coins likely date to the period between AD 388-498 (83). Furthermore, their origins confirm that Butrint was well placed on the Adriatic, at the east-west divide of the Empire, to engage in exchange with both sides of the Mediterranean (93).

Chapter 7 continues with analysis of the Late Byzantine to Early Modern numismatic evidence. Of particular note is the identification of a gold tetarteron of Basil II (Emperor from AD 976-1025), seemingly the only example anywhere of a gold coin that can be certainly provenanced to southern Albania (96). This again highlights the archaeological importance of the site and of the detailed approach taken across the project allowing for the identification of unique finds such as this. It is excellent to see the proximity of the Adriatic coast of Italy considered here, and the importance of links across the sea emphasised (100, 102). Too often with Adriatic studies, one coast or the other is considered in isolation. However, there is something of an overreliance on the numismatic evidence for the analysis of economic exchange. While such evidence can, of course, inform our understanding of exchange, it is better used alongside other more direct evidence, such as amphorae. Consequently, I find the assertions made in chapters 6 and 7 about the economy to be somewhat overstated. Presumably, relevant additional evidence will be discussed in more detail in the forthcoming ceramic volume, but perhaps this could have been referenced here, or the analysis of economic exchange left to the final chapters where wider evidence could be drawn upon. Nevertheless, this is an impressive numismatic dataset which is essential for establishing a chronological narrative of the site.

The small finds are detailed and catalogued extensively in chapter 8, organized according to material: metals, ceramic, glass, stone, and worked bone/ivory. This makes it easy to follow the wide-ranging catalogue of objects. Each section begins with a short introduction and brief overview of the objects, but then often descends into a simple list of the relevant items, with minimal discussion. Each small find, however, has its own more in-depth entry, often including convincing interpretations, comparisons, and discussion. As is generally the case with this volume, the data are presented in a manner enabling future comparison and analysis to be conducted relatively easily. The graphs (Fig. 8.4-1, 8.4-2) provided in order to visualise the iron nails are especially useful for understanding the large quantity of material analysed. Similar graphic representation for the rest of the objects would have been helpful. Indeed, the sheer volume of material cries out for an index of some form, as an aid to locating specific objects.

Chapter 9 analyses the vessel glass from the site. The authors begin by acknowledging that there is little evidence for glass production at the site itself (218), though they highlight the possibility of production in Room 26 (219). The previous chapter also pointed to some evidence for glass production (178), though apparently not in the same area of the site. The claim, as I understand it, is largely based on glass wasters, but more detailed discussion, as well as coordination between the two chapters, would have helped to clarify the matter. The catalogue itself is extensive and detailed, though there is not much interpretation of the objects themselves.

The final chapters, 10 and 11, offer a synthesis of the data presented in the volume, with a chronological focus. The chapters are organized chronologically, with chapter 10 dealing with Late Antiquity and 11 with the Medieval activity. This chronological narrative is easy to follow and works very well in bringing together all of the material that has been discussed. Alternations between decline and prosperity can be followed in this narrative, with the end of Roman occupation introducing a more rural and less elite form of subsistence at the Triconch Palace (251-252). The decline, based on the osteological and archaeobotanical remains, seems to continue into the 7th century, though the other material evidence suggests continued integration within wider Mediterranean networks of exchange. After a gap in the numismatic evidence from the end of the 7th century AD to the mid-late 10th century, something of a revival can be detected, and a possible Venetian garrison at the site appears to represent the final period of occupation. This detailed narrative is convincing, easy to follow, and supported by frequent reference to the material discussed in the preceding chapters.

This volume is an exemplary model for good post-excavation recording and publication, something that is all too rare in the discipline. While closer coordination between chapters would have been helpful at points, the closing synthesis helps to bring the volume together as a cohesive and convincing whole. Ultimately, this volume represents a particularly accessible work which showcases the importance of the site, highlights specific significant results, and outlines the data in an easily comparable and understandable manner. The aim to continue appropriately publishing the results of this long-running excavation seems to have been achieved with Butrint 5.


Barnes, E. (2003). ‘The dead do tell tales’, in C.K. Williams, II and N. Bookidis (eds), Corinth, The Centenary: 1896-1996.Princeton, 435-443.

Table of Contents

William Bowden, ‘Introduction’ (1-14).
Alexandra Livarda and John Giorgi, ‘An investigation of the subsistence base at Butrint: the archaeobotanical evidence’ (15-24).
William Bowden, Zoe Knapp, Adriene Powell and James Westoby, ‘The faunal remains’ (25-41).
Jared Beatrice, Todd Fenton, Carolyn Hurst, Lindsey Jenny, Jane Wankmiller, Michael Mutolo, Christina Rauzi and David Foran, ‘The human skeletons from the Triconch Palace and the Merchant’s House’ (42-67).
Patrice de Rijk, ‘Metalworking at the Triconch Palace and the analysis of slags and waste’ (68-77).
T. Sam N. Moorhead, ‘The ancient and early medieval coins from the Triconch Palace c. 2nd century BC to c. AD 600 (78-94).
Pagona Papadopoulou, ‘The middle and Late Byzantine, medieval and early modern coins (95-105).
John Mitchell, ‘The small finds’ (106-217).
Sarah Jennings, with additional contributions from William Bowden and Karen Stark, ‘The vessel glass from the Triconch Palace: a catalogue’ (218-245).
William Bowden, ‘The Triconch Palace and Merchant’s House as lived environments in late antiquity’ (246-259).
William Bowden, ‘Living and dying at the Triconch Palace in the Middle Ages’ (260-268).