above An aerial view of the Hellenistic theatre at Butrint.

Butrint: finding a timeless oasis

Shortly after the end of the Cold War, exactly a decade before CWA was launched, Richard Hodges walked through the ruins at Butrint. Here, he looks back over 20 years of discovery and excavation at this ancient city that sits on the idyllic shores of the Ionian Sea.


Butrint is eternal. It owes a priceless debt to Virgil’s Aeneid: the exiled hero from Troy, Aeneas, pauses here on the way to found Rome. At a stroke, Butrint was on the world map. Virgil’s choice of Butrint – ‘a Troy in miniature’ – was no accident. As a member of Augustus’s new Imperial court at Rome, he was paying personal tribute to the Emperor’s right-hand man, Admiral Agrippa, whose first wife came from Butrint. With such serendipity, this place has been forever sealed in aspic, at least until our era.

above An aerial view of the Hellenistic theatre at Butrint.
An aerial view of the Hellenistic theatre at Butrint. PHOTO: Alket Islami / Butrint Foundation

For most visitors today, however, Butrint conjures up an entirely different experience. It is the ‘Other’, a paradise, a place in a Homeric landscape, somewhere simply and pleasantly timeless. It was extraordinarily beautiful when Enver Hoxha’s infernal regime collapsed in 1991; quite unforgettable when I first ventured here in 1993; and remains a precious oasis within the mayhem of modern Albania today. Returning to visit the new excavations, the glorious assault on one’s senses is as powerful as ever. You need know nothing about Aeneas to be seduced by the shimmering reflections off the lagoon, or to fall in love with the shafts of sparkling light on the monuments, filtered by the woodland canopy where golden orioles flit through the foliage like tropical parrots. Butrint really fits our new global ideals of a UNESCO World Heritage Site – it was inscribed in 1992.

On a mission

I first came here at the suggestion of the British ambassador in Rome. Lord Rothschild and his friend Lord Sainsbury were seeking an archaeologist to dig the site. Together, the lords had created a foundation after briefly visiting this erstwhile pariah state. As for me, I had always wanted to excavate a Classical port on the Mediterranean: being at the crossroads of the Mare Nostrum, this promised to be the opportunity of a lifetime. Then reality intruded.

Plan showing excavated remains at Butrint: 1. Venetian tower and bath; 2. city walls; 3. theatre; 4. forum; 5. gymnasium; 6. Triconch Palace; 7. baptistery; 8. Great Basilica; 9. Lake Gate; 10. Lion Gate; 11. acropolis castle. IMAGE: Studio Inlink.

The barely dressed children dancing with their mutts around the plane when it landed in Albania’s capital, Tirana, illustrated what lay ahead: a land benighted by 50 years of impoverishment. Ravaged by the parched-earth destruction of olive groves, vineyards, and collective farms by its starving peasants as the tyrants fell, it was like visiting a film set on location at the end of World War II. Every encounter was a shrill lament about the loss of opportunity, and profound fear of the future.

With the mention of Butrint, though, there was a visible counter-reaction – Butrint equalled paradise on earth. The first to make this point to me, as chance had it, was the first Albanian I encountered a mere three hours after arriving: Prime Minister Aleksander Meksi. Finding him was a kind of puzzle. No one stopped us entering the tawdry, Italianate government building, so we marched resolutely on, straightening our ties, till beyond the last door in this labyrinth we discovered one of Albania’s previously well-known archaeologists. He described the calamity of his country; but on reaching the point of the meeting, Butrint, he switched gears, and became unexpectedly lyrical. This was more than an archaeological site that he was offering me: this was paradise. There were almost tears in his tired eyes. It was as though he was negotiating the hand of his daughter – precious beyond words. So often afterwards, I sensed, when the hellishness of working in Albania had become too great, this belief in the virginal property of this spiritually exceptional place came to the fore. ‘How could you fail such a maiden?’ was the unspoken question.

left The idyllic setting of Lake Butrint. below Looking across to Kalivo, where remains dating to the Bronze Age have been excavated.
The idyllic setting of Lake Butrint. IMAGES: Brian Donovan / Butrint Foundation.
Looking across to Kalivo, where remains dating to the Bronze Age have been excavated.

Twenty years have since passed, and daily life has mellowed. Albania has prospered despite its arrantly corrupt governments. Amusingly, Albania’s premier treasure today is where brides parade in their gowns with silken trails like flocks of long-tailed swallows once summer has come. After two decades, the sylvan spirit of Butrint, in contrast to so much of Albania that has been needlessly forfeited to craven development, is as magical as ever. Let me try to explain how this miracle of preservation happened.

A fragile idyll

On first seeing Butrint on a misty September morning, I grasped the meaning of Prime Minister Meksi’s unexpected lyricism. Butrint in its lakeland setting owns a Homeric landscape. Here, as Lawrence Durrell remarks, ‘the blue really begins’: the Ionian light grades blues, and the perpetually choppy waters of the Straits of Corfu invest it with even more colour in this unforgettable seascape. It was obvious that the Butrint Foundation, during its watch, must prioritise protection of this place for future visitors while bringing new archaeological thinking to this wonderfully time-warped place.  

But this idyll was fragile. Cut-throat paladins circled Butrint in those first years, and still do. Marinas, golf courses, helicopter pads, and much besides were promised so that the concrete desolation on this coast might resemble the tragic anonymity of Corfu. Our resistance was valiant and idealistic – denounced in one archaeological congress in the palace of ministers as ‘tourism archaeology’ – until our chance arose when a brief civil war in 1997 plunged Albania into chaos. Now off limits to tourists, backed by the Getty Conservation programme, UNESCO, and the World Bank, in April 1998 we mounted a management-plan workshop to create a park at Butrint, and with persistence we contrived the making of a much enlarged world heritage area (encompassing the buffer zone around the site) in 1999.

left Luigi Maria Ugolini with his team from the Italian Archaeological Mission in 1930. above Nikita Krushchev and Enver Hoxha in May 1959. The first paved trail through the woods was made for this occasion.
Luigi Maria Ugolini with his team from the Italian Archaeological Mission in 1930. PHOTO: Institute of Archaeology, Tirana

Then, working with the prescient minister of culture, Edi Rama, and supported by the supreme and steadfast benevolence of the Packard Humanities Institute, we created a Butrint-based administration that, along with new boundaries and strategic plans, was up and running by 2000. Notwithstanding years of corruption and a rollercoaster ride of ups and downs, 13 years later this park is here to stay, a perceived model in Albania. Park director Raimond Kola expects 100,000 visitors this year to pass through the electronic ticket gates, keeping 20 or more in work and, through seasonal projects, many more local workers besides.

Until 1990, a visa was needed to pass the customs’ post just south of Saranda. The narrow coastal road was only made when Nikita Khrushchev visited with great pomp in May 1959. Until then archaeologists and a few bold visitors came by boat. This liminality protected the archaeological site from the wanton destruction around Corfu’s once exceptional coastline. Self-selecting visitors to Butrint were greeted, as I was in 1993, by a world that had barely altered in decades – a bucolic paradise.

Nikita Krushchev and Enver Hoxha in May 1959. The first paved trail through the woods was made for this occasion. PHOTO: Institute of Archaeology, Tirana.

Khrushchev, as it happens, was no admirer of old things. He moaned about the smell of dead vipers (all beaten to death in advance of his visit) and menacingly muttered that from here a submarine base might destroy the West. His hosts, though, grasped the magical properties of Butrint and cautiously conserved its monuments, letting the spirit of place speak for itself. Digs by the Albanian Institute of Archaeology modestly advanced the great excavation campaigns of Luigi Maria Ugolini, made between 1928-1936. Ugolini, being a party member of the Fascist party, could only be fêted cautiously by his Communist successors. So his successors removed his statue in an act of damnation, but excavated to affirm his interpretations of the city’s long 3,000-year history.

Ugolini had visited Butrint first in 1924, drawn to it by Virgil’s description and the contrasting accounts of two spies (on opposite sides) during the Napoleonic wars, William Martin Leake and François Pouqueville. The prominent Roman and Medieval (as opposed to Greek) remains initially put him off, as did its remoteness. Finding any remains of the town visited by the exiled Trojans appeared to be unlikely.

However, Ugolini had an eye for an opportunity. In 1928, with the bi-millennial celebrations of Virgil on the horizon, he returned and within weeks had found the Hellenistic theatre. Using armies of workmen and railway wagons, he excavated on Schliemann’s scale at Troy and provided visitors retracing Aeneas’s wanderings on a bi-millennial cruise with a magnificent new chapter for the archaeology of Aeneas, none of which, I should carpingly note, belonged to the age of Aeneas. But Ugolini’s cruise-ship tourists, like today’s visitors, did not mind this minor anomaly.

Dave Hernandez’s dig

When we began our excavations we naturally turned to Ugolini’s reports, dedicated to Mussolini, as well as those by his successors, tacitly dedicated to Enver Hoxha. With time, over a dozen seasons, we had the good fortune to excavate in just about every part of Butrint, developing a 21st-century picture of its many histories. In previous numbers of Current World Archaeology I have given a flavour of these discoveries. This summer’s visit, though, I am here to see the excavations by Dave Hernandez from Notre Dame University. Dave is fashioning a new, important chapter that builds on the work of his Fascist, Communist, and Butrint Foundation predecessors.

below left Dave Hernandez, who leads the excavations today. below Two decades since work began, current investigation is revealing the forum at Butrint.
Dave Hernandez, who leads the excavations today. PHOTO: Richard Hodges.

Dave began digging with me at Butrint in 2003. In his first week, he nearly decapitated one of his fellow diggers. Worse than the head-wound was a visit to Saranda hospital! The digger survived, thankfully, swathed in thick bandages like a cartoon character, while Dave not only learned how to swing a long-handled shovel but how to become a talented archaeologist.

Ten years on, now a professor of Classics, he is completing an excavation that exceeds Ugolini’s in scale and ambition. Tall, lean, and powerfully focused, he learnt Albanian as a Fulbright Fellow to Tirana. He has used it to great advantage to motivate his workmen to not only dig deeper than anyone before him, but to train local lads to draw and record.

In 2005, Dave began his project at the forum, writing his doctorate on the first excavations. Now, after exploring other sites in Albania, he has returned to unleash three blockbuster seasons. His devoted team have found not only the Roman forum pavement and the well-preserved ensemble of civic monumental buildings around it, but have dug deeper to push below the Hellenistic agora. Deeper, he urged them, using buckets, pumps, and vim! Seven metres deep, pumping frantically, his team excavated like Dickensian mudlarks, until below the waterlogged Archaic Greek levels they struck… oil! The story of the forum encompasses 2,000 years, exactingly peeled away, layer by layer, much of it discovered in a viscous muddy water expelling a mild sulphurous menace. With the promise of a new trail through these excavations, once conserved, Butrint will add more monuments to its already impressive portfolio.

Two decades since work began, current investigation is revealing the forum at Butrint. PHOTO: Dave Hernandez
far left Revealing the aqueducts within the forum at Butrint. left Excavating the remains of an infant buried inside an amphora.
Revealing the aqueducts within the forum at Butrint. Excavating the remains of an infant buried inside an amphora. PHOTO: Richard Hodges.

Dave’s excavations hold a wonderful fascination for me. First, I am ‘excited’, as they say in America, to take pleasure in Dave’s brilliant management of his team and the archaeology to construct a new story. The new discoveries keep Butrint firmly in the news, indubitably helping to protect and promote it. Second, the afterlife of the Roman forum is exceptional. Seldom have ancient civic centres merited careful examination. In Butrint’s case, the story shows how much must have been lost in comparable Mediterranean towns.

In these new excavations, the pavement of the forum, almost as pristine as the day two millennia ago it was laid, has been ripped apart: first by an earthquake in the 360s, followed a decade later by a tsunami – described by Cedrenus as a ‘sea wave’ – that overwhelmed Epirus. Either seismic catastrophe might explain the dramatic change in land-sea levels. Responding to this calamity, Butrint’s grandest 5th-century buildings were constructed on elevated terraces burying (and therefore protecting) the forum pavement.

Excavating the remains of an infant buried inside an amphora. PHOTO: Martin Smith / Butrint Foundation.

Was this the same earthquake that sunk Roman Venice at the head of the Adriatic Sea? If so, Dave’s dig contains certain and vivid evidence of its fury. Here, too, he has found the now inimitable traces of ancient Butrint’s undignified demise: an untidy scatter of 6th-century graves dotted in and out of the desolate buildings, marking the end of a millennium of extra-mural burial of the dead. This left a handful of doughty citizens in what one Byzantine historian later described as ‘mouseholes’.

One such mousehole was a modest stone hall found during these excavations: grand by Dark Age standards, derisory by Classical comparenda. Dave has uncovered a line of new, purpose-built dwellings that are far more impressive, clinging high above the treacherous waterlogged areas of Butrint. It is as though an early 11th-century (Byzantine) Augustus intentionally re-invigorated civic life, safe from flooding. These Mid Byzantine two-storey dwellings brought a mercantile grandeur back to Butrint, and undoubtedly coincide with a powerful renewal of the town’s fortifications.

above left Michael McKinnon processes animal remains recovered during excavation of the forum. above The exquisite mosaic floor of the baptistery and (RIght) a detail painted by Carlo Ceschi in 1930.
Michael McKinnon processes animal remains recovered during excavation of the forum. PHOTO: Richard Hodges.

Another telling index of this significant urban moment is a long boundary wall, separating the properties in much the same way that tenements in English towns like Winchester and York were being fixed at the same time. Massive in purpose, this urban renewal was short-lived. A fine townhouse replaced it, only to perish in a conflagration in the later 14th century as the Venetians took possession of Butrint, and made it Corfu’s ‘protector and right eye’. At this point, the old civic centre was finally eviscerated. Butrint was reduced to a fortress to defend the fishing grounds, and the woodlands, now majestic by any standards, cloak the lower terraces of the acropolis where Dave Hernandez has focused his operations.

Dave Hernandez’s dig complements our efforts to fashion a Mediterranean story from numerous excavations dotted inside and outside the ancient town. Together, we have brought modern archaeology to Albania, trained armies of students, and forcibly adjusted Enver Hoxha’s isolationist history to the geopolitics of the Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Venetian, and Ottoman worlds, just as its modern visitors belong to a larger global picture.

Bright future

Wandering beyond the dig on this sunlit morning, I find all manner of visitors. On the one hand a French team are re-examining our studies of the 6th-century baptistery with its extraordinary mosaic pavement. With the team are members of Albania’s Institute of Monuments giving the pavement its annual check-up (pursuing the programme we instigated a decade ago).

Following the woodland path made for Khrushchev’s visit, I arrive first at the Great Basilica, then veer off along the lakeside fortifications, newly conserved by a Butrint Foundation team. Beyond, a group of Albanian schoolchildren are gathered around the colourful site panel directing them to the Hellenistic hillfort of Kalivo in the hazy distance, and to the villa associated with the Pomponii family that we excavated on the lakeshore at Diaporit.

The exquisite mosaic floor of the baptistery and (below) a detail painted by Carlo Ceschi in 1930. PHOTO: Martin Smith / Butrint Foundation.

From here, the darkened path threads through the Lion Gate, where an Archaic temple tympaneum has been re-used as a lintel in a Byzantine postern gate. Further up, a team is now clearing the vegetation covering the extra-mural Roman cemetery. Climbing still higher, I arrive at the acropolis, where members of Dave Hernandez’s team are quietly processing the crates of finds unearthed by the mudlarks. Pots are washed, labelled, boxed, and prepared for the specialists. Meanwhile, rake-thin Michael McKinnon from the University of Winnipeg, Canada, is measuring, logging, and muttering admiring comments on the animal bones from the forum trenches. From here, the echo of the throng of visitors around the theatre far below can be heard. Soon, in their hundreds, panting after the lengthy climb to the acropolis with its achingly beautiful views, they pause to take photographs and then peep into the museum, nestling in the bowels of a 1930s castle worthy of a Hollywood movie.

The Butrint Foundation refurbished this museum in 2005. It was a labour of love, inspired by the then Director of the Foundation, Danny Renton – many claim it is the best museum in Albania; certainly, it honours the pledge made years before to Prime Minister Meksi. Paying homage to a long history in text, photographs, reconstructions, statues, and small objects, it conveys exactly how the 100,000 tourists – brides included – see it: a glorious confection of Mediterranean history in a seemingly timeless landscape between the Ionian Sea and the Epirote mountains overlooking Lake Butrint.

below The paths lead through the site past the theatre and thread through the woods to the acropolis.
The paths lead through the site past the theatre and thread through the woods to the acropolis. PHOTO: Brian Donovan / Butrint Foundation.

Butrint is a happy place: an island paradise dedicated to the past but articulated now for the voracious appetite of visitors who take pleasure in a lost world. To help them, there is, of course, a restaurant conveniently to hand: the Livia. As in ancient and Medieval times, there is prize fish, koze, not to be missed, as well as mussels. Remind yourself over lunch that batty Venetian fishermen defended this Balkan enclave for 400 years – three times against massive Ottoman armies, for the sake of these aquatic creatures that once eaten are never forgotten.

below The Venetian tower on the water's edge of Lake Butrint.
The Venetian tower on the water’s edge of Lake Butrint. PHOTO: Brian Donovan / Butrint Foundation.

Looking back over 20 years of Albanian adventures, many thoughts come to mind. First and foremost is the heady tenacity of the pioneers of our project. They/we knew it mattered. It did. Today you can enjoy the wealth and status the park has brought to this little country. Above all, we made certain that Butrint continues to be magical.

Whether Aeneas actually came here or his visit was merely a fictitious piece of Imperial propaganda makes not a jot of difference. What really matters is the presentation of this Mediterranean story, and the sustained conservation of the excavated areas that are second to nowhere south of the Alps. Many places tell a Greek or Roman story, or even a Medieval one. None colourfully span all these millennia, taking in the whacky tales of its champions, its archaeological placemakers.

Butrint is a World Heritage Site that works. This is the legacy of the Butrint Foundation – of Jacob Rothschild and John Sainsbury. It is a place that defies the 21st century yet, thankfully, is an established part of it.

Many guidebooks can be found at the site. The latest excavation report is Inge Hansen, Richard Hodges and Sarah Leppard (eds), Butrint 4: the archaeology and histories of an Ionian town, published by Oxbow Books.