Butrint from the air: an aerial perspective of a Classical and late antique Mediterranean city


Joint excavations between the British Butrint Foundation and the Albanian Institute of Archaeology are revealing the complex history of the ancient Adriatic port of Butrint. With funding from the Packard Humanities Institute, a well-preserved archaeological sequence, and a team of internationally recognised specialists, Butrint is becoming a benchmark for Roman and medieval studies in the eastern Mediterranean. As an extra boon, during July this year, the archaeologists were able to view the city, its suburbs and current excavations in a new, exciting and dramatic way: via a two-pronged survey from the air. Though aerial photography is a long-established element of the modern archaeological discipline, the material and financial means to carry out such surveys in Albania have hitherto been unattainable. Until, that is, the Butrint Foundation devised a pragmatic and innovative solution to offset these difficulties. Here, Andy Crowson Project Manager for the Institute of World Archaeology, University of East Anglia, Norwich, and the Butrint Foundation excavations in Butrint, takes us on a flight through time.

Albania: Site location map. (Butrint Foundation).

Magnificent men and their flying machines: Massimo Zanfini and Alket Islami

Phase one of the aerial survey saw the recruitment of Massimo Zanfini, an Italian archaeologist from the University of Bologna in Ravenna, and his aquilone, or kite. Aside from building a composite photographic plan of a large early Christian mosaic, Massimo’s mission was to obtain detailed aerial views of some of the monuments in and around the Butrint National Park. With a camera suspended in a cradle delicately stitched in to the kite fabric by his grandmother, Massimo skilfully piloted the kite above his targets while an assistant took the photographs with a radio-control unit.

The second aspect to the survey drew upon the considerable airmanship of Alket Islami, President of the National Aero Club of Albania. Alket’s services were only secured on the penultimate day of the excavation, and driving the 300 difficult kilometres overnight from Tirana, he arrived with his paramotor, a contraption that is part parachute, part jet-pack and part lawnmower. Taking off from the flat, alluvial Vrina Plain to the south of Butrint, Alket ascended to fly over the current excavations outside the walled city and to record some of the more established monuments within the city as they have never been seen before.

Italian archaeologist, Massimo Zanfini, piloting the camera-kite that captured many of the following images.
Alket Islami, President of the National Aero Club of Albania, prepares the paramotor – ‘part parachute, part jet-pack and part lawnmower’ – for take-off.

The hero’s heroon

First of the excavations outside the city walls was an early Roman temple or heroon, a sanctuary for the worship of a hero, who may be interred in an adjacent (unexcavated) structure. The building is a prostyle temple, originally with four columns, approached by seven steps with a cella to the rear. It would have reached between 10-12m high and stood out as a remarkable feature of its lowland landscape setting. Though robbed of marble veneer from the surviving walls, it still displays some extremely fine limestone mouldings along its southern side. Equally refined fragments of mouldings from sarcophagi were found in the excavation, along with the imprints of the sarcophagi bases in the cella floor. Although the excavators are investigating a potential Augustan origin, the presence of verde antico veneer (which does not come in to use before the 2nd century AD) and the temple’s alignment on a secondary actus grid that post-dates the earliest structures in the vicinity, would appear to fix its construction in the second century. But to whom was the heroon dedicated? This question has prompted much speculation. In his Aeneid Virgil relates that Butrint is home to a heroon for Hector, but while this interpretation is appealing, in reality the building could be (Qu to author: was more likely?) the cult focus of a demi-god or mythical figure or even dedicated to a prominent local citizen.

The early Roman heroon, or sanctuary for hero worship, just outside Butrint’s city walls. (Alket Islami)

The palaeochristian church

A second major excavation on the Vrina Plain was that of a 5th century AD church and the Roman buildings that it grew out from. Adjacent 1st and 2nd century AD structures, including a bath-house and a town-house, had been investigated in previous years; but it was only this year that the morphology of the site was truly realised – through Christian worship during late antiquity to a market/meeting place in the medieval period. A much-modified aula (a substantial chamber) of probable 2nd century date was further adapted following a 3rd century earthquake that wrought widespread destruction upon extra-mural Butrint. In the later 5th century, a twin-aisled church with a central nave separated by a stone screen from an apsidal bema (or sanctuary) was constructed within and to the south of the earlier buildings. This phenomenon of transition from villa to church has numerous parallels in late antique Italy, and it is likely that the church retained a function as an estate centre with all attendant facilities.

The heroon and temple in relation to Butrint (the heroon/temple is on the left with Butrint in the background on the left). (Alket Islami)
Heroon and church location. This is a scaled photomosaic comprising multiple vertical shots taken from the kite to provide accurate locational detail. (Massimo Zanfini)

The nave was occupied by a bright and colourful mosaic made of limestone, glass and tile tesserae. Surrounded by broad borders, the central field of the pavement consisted of irregular octagonal panels arranged on a grid. The panels contained a menagerie of creatures of the earth, air and water along with fruits, flowers, other motifs and an anonymous ex-voto dedicatory inscription in front of the western door. The structure and details of the pavement mark it out as belonging to a coastal school of mosaicists working in northern Greece and southern Albania.

Composite photographic plan of the church nave mosaic.

The church progressively fell out of use, possibly as a consequence of rising groundwater, and its internal walls collapsed. The area of the narthex (the portico, originally separated from the nave by a railing or screen) and the church entrance continued in use as a meeting place. It was here that an immensely important group of ninth and tenth-century coins were recovered. The building was subsequently robbed of reusable masonry and a sequence of burials, including an ossuary pit, were inserted through the mosaic floor during the early medieval period.

The Roman civic centre

Alket Islami’s survey then took him across the Vivari Channel to record some of the better-known monuments in the heart of Butrint? city.

The core of the early city, essentially a sanctuary to the god of medicine Asclepius, was extensively ‘Romanized’ at the height of the early Empire. This restructuring included rerouting access through the sanctuary, a remodelling of the theatre and the imposition of a forum to the east of the principal buildings.

The floor of the Roman forum was revealed for the first time during Butrint Foundation/Institute of Archaeology excavations this summer, and its discovery will enable the archaeologists to both re-interpret the monuments in the city’s nucleus and to re-assess the impact of Rome not only in Butrint but throughout the Balkans.

The sanctuary, theatre and forum – the heart of the Roman city (Alket Islami)

The Triconch Palace

The conservation of a sprawling late Roman residence known as the Triconch Palace, the focus of 10 years’ excavations, was completed by the Butrint Foundation in 2005 to make it accessible to visitors. The house belonged to a wealthy grandee whose name and senatorial rank were recorded in a mosaic inscription. The building was framed around a colonnaded courtyard and included an arrangement of private and public rooms and spaces. Layout of, and access to, these spaces evolved through time, and admittance to particular areas of the building reflected a visitor’s status within the prevailing social hierarchy. At the west end was an apsidal reception hall with a geometric mosaic whilst to the south ran a porticoed gallery with another mosaic floor and views across gardens to the Vivari Channel. Aggrandisement of the house culminated around 420 AD in the construction of a large triclinium, a tri-apsed dining room (the Triconch), which impinged on an adjacent property plot on the east side. The character of the building changed dramatically during the later 5th century as water levels rose and the once splendid rooms were taken over for small-scale industrial purposes.

View of the sprawling late Roman Triconch Palace, the subject of a decade’s excavations by the Butrint Foundation. (Butrint Foundation/Alket Islami)

The Great Basilica

The peninsula city of Butrint, Albania
(Alket Islami)

The so-called Great Basilica was the principal church in late antique Butrint and sections of a 6th century mosaic floor are still preserved. The church was erected on the site of a cistern belonging to the Roman city’s aqueduct and is over 30m long. It followed the characteristic plan and architectural devices prevalent throughout Epirus, employing a central nave flanked by aisles that were screened from the nave by closed colonnades. At the east end was a tripartite transept and a central pentagonal apse. Remains of the mosaic pavement include trailing ivy tendrils and scrolling guilloche that are also found in the Baptistery, indicating that these two religious monuments are broadly contemporary. The devices are characteristic of mosaicists working in Nikopolis in north-western Greece. Some time later, most likely in the thirteenth century when Butrint began to boom once more, the Great Basilica was extensively rebuilt and effectively became Butrint’s cathedral.

Butrint’s Great Basilica, with its still-preserved 6th century mosaic floor in the central nave Butrint Foundation/Alket Islami)

The Baptistery

Sacred waters: The 6th century AD Baptistery, developed from an earlier Roman bath-house. (Butrint Foundation/Alket Islami)

Early in the 6th century AD a Roman bath-house was remodelled into a circular baptistery, apparently in isolation from the Great Basilica, but on a scale comparable with the size and situation of the baptisteries of Ravenna and Milan. Two internal rings of re-used Hellenistic and Roman columns supported a cupola above. The floor of the Baptistery is occupied by an astonishingly intricate and well-preserved mosaic that comprises seven concentric bands radiating out from a central font. Medallions within the bands are inhabited by the icons of baptism, including beasts, waterfowl and fish. The Baptistery continued in use during the seventh century, and recognition of it as a cult structure continued into the medieval period when it became the focus of a cemetery and a small church was erected close by.

The Triangular Fortress

Composed of an irregular triangle with a tower at each point, this imposing fortress originally stood on an island in a pre-canalised river mouth, protected by an outer siege work or ravelin. The keystone of one the interior buildings bears a relief of the Lion of St. Mark, the symbol of the Republic of Venice. The Venetians began to invest in Butrint in the late 15th century, which seems a likely date for the fort’s construction. Musket ports opened at both ground level and along the parapet walk. Vaulted storerooms inside the fort carried artillery platforms above to train cannon on the approach to Butrint up the Vivari Channel. In 1798, however, the fortress was slighted by General Chabot, the commander of the garrison of the French dependency of Corfu.

The breath-taking 15th century Venetian Triangular Fortress (Butrint Foundation/Alket Islami)

Malathrea fortified villa

Massimo, meanwhile, was dispatched with the kite team to two sites along the valley south of Butrint towards the border with Greece, and to the lakeshore villa and church site at Diaporit which was excavated by the Butrint Foundation and Institute of Archaeology between 2000-2004. The first of the valley sites was a fortified villa known as Malathrea on the northern slopes overlooking the valley. Dated to the 3rd century BC the building was probably the stronghold of a rich estate. Based on a square plan around a central courtyard and portico the villa had a substantial tower at each corner with only a single entrance. It was re-occupied during the Roman period and new ranges of rooms were built to store items including oil and grain.

The 3rd century AD Malathrea fortified villa, near the Greek border. (Butrint Foundation/Massimo Zanfini)

Çiflik church

The second valley site was the Late Byzantine church of Çiflik. Architecturally typical of the Epirote Despotate, its 13th century construction belongs to a rich period of ecclesiastical revival in the area. Whilst the standing remains have now been incorporated into a sheep and goat farm, the aerial view clearly shows a church with a distinctive plan comprising a nave with flanking aisles and a small narthex. The aisles were separated off with a combination of masonry piers and re-used Roman columns. The east end of the church has two apses: a three-sided polygonal apse, semi-circular on its interior onto the nave, and a smaller semi-circular apse on the northern aisle.

The opulent bath-house buildings at Diaporit. This was once a glamorous area in which one of Cicero’s influential friends is said to have lived (Butrint Foundation/Massimo Zanfini)

Diaporit – villa, church, and more (ok?)

At Diaporit a series of villa buildings were raised on artificial terraces between the late 3rd century BC and the 3rd century AD, becoming increasingly more grandiose and covering an area of some 2,000m sq.. One phase has been associated with a villa known to have been owned in this region by Cicero’s friend and correspondent, T. Pomponius Atticus, although it now looks likely it was built and owned by one of his relatives. A large central courtyard and garden surrounded by a peristyle and four wings formed the basis of the plan from the mid1st century onwards. Conspicuous use of water was evident in the discovery of an impluvium, a fountain and an extensive range of opulent bath-buildings.

Sacred landscape: The Late Byzantine Çiflik church (Butrint Foundation/Massimo Zanfini)
Daiporit church (Butrint Foundation/Massimo Zanfini)

In the late 5th century AD a large church was built from stone and tiles taken from the dilapidated villa complex. This three-aisled basilica with a central nave and western narthex was accompanied by residential buildings, a small chapel, a small private bath-house and a tower. These structures, and certain other discoveries, point to the Diaporit church becoming a late antique pilgrimage centre. The recovery of a lamp mould shows that ceramic lamps bearing Christian insignia were manufactured here during the 5th or 6th centuries. In addition, three marble-lined tombs in the chancel originally contained the bones of saints, martyrs or the church patrons who built the church to serve as a funerary oratory. The site continued to be venerated by a Christian community until the 14th century when the bones were removed, an act dated by a coin at the base of one of the tombs.

Team Kite (Butrint Foundation)
Alket and Massimo have proved that high quality aerial images can be obtained through somewhat unorthodox approaches. The BF have invested in 12 years of archaeological fieldwork and documentary research at Butrint, but have never before been able to appreciate the fruits of their labours and investigations from the spectacular perspective afforded by an eye in the sky. Alket has already been charged with flying over joint Albanian/Greek excavations at nearby Antigonea, and it is hoped that the paramotor and kite will be visiting many more of the stunning archaeological sites that Albania has to offer in the near future.