The Sanctuary of Asclepius is one of the landmarks of Butrint, the Graeco-Roman city in south-west Albania. The complex dominated the centre of the lower city and was first built between the end of the 4th and the beginning of the 3rd century BC, before being expanded under the Romans. Sanctuary structures include a well-preserved theatre and nearby shrine, alongside numerous surrounding buildings linked to the cult of Asclepius, with a temple dedicated to the deity on an upper terrace. Together, they testify to how grand and industrious Butrint once was. Its regional significance, as one of the most important cities in the Hellenistic tribal territory of Chaonia, is now becoming clearer thanks to a new project devoted to a set of exceptional inscriptions found in the Sanctuary.
The inscriptions, carved in white limestone at various places around the theatre, became visible as soon as the building was unearthed in 1928, by Luigi Maria Ugolini, director of the first Italian Archaeological Mission in Butrint. In 1933, Ugolini summoned Luigi Morricone to become part of his team, with the specific task of studying these new inscriptions, since it was clear how important they were for understanding the history of the city. This posed a considerable challenge, because back then much less was known about not only Butrint, but also the wider region of Epirus in which it lay. Morricone was, then, faced with trying to reconstruct and interpret all the philological and historical problems that the inscriptions unleashed.
Most of the inscriptions appear to be documents in stone concerning the freeing of slaves, many of whom were women. In total, 597 freed slaves are recorded, most of whom were released by using a combination of civil and religious formulae. Many slaves were freed by the same families, which suggests the existence of large landowners controlling the Butrint area. The inscriptions often show entire families numbering between two to eight individuals taking part in the ritual of freeing a slave. A good illustration of this is to be found in an inscription (n.31 in Pierre Cabanes’s Corpus of Butrint Inscriptions) that names three men and five women who granted a certain Stratonika her freedom. Similarly, several of the same individuals appear in another inscription granting Neira her release from slavery.
Another striking feature of these inscriptions is the important role assigned to women. They did not simply participate in the liberation ceremonies as daughters, wives, or daughters-in-law of a master, but they could also dispose of their own capital, their own slaves, and free them without the intervention of a man, as appears to have been the norm in Athens. A good example is to be found in another inscription (n.6 of Cabanes’s Corpus), where Teimagora, daughter of Nikolaos Ophyllis, frees Hiero and her daughter Sotia (unusually, in this case, the parentage of the slave is mentioned). The names of both slaves and their former owners, as well as those of political and religious figures, all highlight their origins from the northern parts of Greece (Epirus and Macedonia) and, in some examples, also Corfu and Corinthian territories.
Morricone, who made the ‘squeezes’, divided the theatre inscriptions into three main groups, all of which broadly belong to the period from the 3rd to 2nd century BC. On the second lower row of seats just above the orchestra, there is a commemorative inscription, which celebrates the construction of the theatre and mentions the magistrates (prostates) of the Chaones and the priest of Asclepius. This also describes the revenues derived from the cult of the god. Morricone identified a further 29 inscriptions on the western entrance wall of the theatre (analemma), 27 of which document the manumission of slaves, over a period of almost 30 years. In addition, the walkway dividing the lower and upper seats yielded 14 more inscriptions referring to slaves receiving their freedom. These texts are later in date than those inscribed at the theatre entrance and more specific in nature. They span about a decade and include remarkable details, such as the time of year and the witnesses participating in the manumission ceremonies. Notably, they mention key political figures (the strategos and prostates) in the local tribe (Prasaiboi). They refer, too, to the presence of the main magistrates (prostates) of the Chaones and, most of the time, the priest of Asclepius, who was the caretaker and the guarantor for the manumissions. The names of both the prostates and the priests can be used as reference points for dating the inscriptions.
Following Ugolini’s discoveries, more manumissions were discovered, built into the so-called Tower of Inscriptions, excavated by the Albanian archaeologist, Dhimosten Budina, in 1977. The Tower was located about 150m from the theatre, and formed part of the city’s south-facing Hellenistic fortifications. It was constructed of reused blocks, almost certainly taken at some point from the Sanctuary of Asclepius.
The history of the publication of these inscriptions is long and far from finished. As the noted Italian Classical scholar Giovanni Pugliese Carratelli would later observe, Morricone’s desire to overcome all the uncertainties relating to the background of the inscriptions and his personal desire for precision, along with his premature death, prevented him from publishing his work. As a result, while Morricone was the first to study this epigraphic material, the first publication was a volume by Budina in collaboration with Koço Bozhori in 1966. Other studies soon followed. The French historian Pierre Cabanes presented a new and improved version of the 1966 volume in 1974. Then, in 1986, Pugliese Carratelli revised all the material gathered by Morricone and published it, finally bringing to fruition the endeavours begun almost 50 years before.
Such is the importance of these manumissions that scholars continue to pore over their content. This information is fundamental for understanding the functioning of social life of, as well as religious and political institutions in, Butrint and its hinterland during the Hellenistic era. The Butrint Project is now directed by the present author for the University of Bologna and by Belisa Muka for the Albanian Archaeological Institute in collaboration with the Butrint Archaeological Park, with the contribution of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The project, which began in 2015, has focused on the Sanctuary of Asclepius, and started by undertaking a new topographical survey, as well as an analysis of the state of conservation of the temple. This was later extended to cover the whole sanctuary. More recently, two new lines of research have been launched in order to understand the sanctuary complex better, and, by so doing, the Hellenistic and Roman phases of the city. On one hand, this involved reassessing the objects found in the sacred repository (favissa) of the shrine of Asclepius, and on the other hand it brought about a collaboration with Simona Antolini, an epigrapher at the University of Macerata, in order to undertake a fresh analysis of the inscriptions.
Restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic meant a temporary reduction in fieldwork during 2020, although, thanks to collaboration with Albanian archaeologists, our research was not brought to a complete halt. Instead, the 2020 campaign focused on conservation and restoration work. To our great surprise, this period of working remotely was rewarded by a crucial rediscovery. The epigraphers found in their warehouse at Macerata, in Italy, over 60 ‘squeezes’ – essentially, paper casts – which were made of the Butrint Theatre inscriptions in the 1930s. Quite how, when, and why these ‘squeezes’ ended up in Macerata is still something of a mystery. The only certain fact about their travels is that the heirs of Antonino di Vita, Director of the Italian Archaeological School of Athens in the 1930s, gave them to Gianfranco Paci, Professor of Epigraphy at the University of Macerata, at some point in the 1980s.
These delicate paper ‘squeezes’ were made using absorbent filter paper, which created three-dimensional reproductions of the letters engraved on the stone. Their value is twofold. Not only do they show the state of conservation of the original inscriptions at the moment of their discovery in the late 1920s – before being exposed to the elements for almost a century – but they are also important for understanding the history of archaeology at the site. In particular, they demonstrate that these important texts were recorded to a greater level of precision than was previously appreciated.
So far, 19 inscriptions have been recognised among the 38 ‘squeezes’ that have been analyzed. An estimated 25 more inscriptions are present among the ‘squeezes’ currently undergoing restoration. Parts of these papers are glued to each other, though, so they need to be separated with great care and then repaired before they can be studied. These ‘squeezes’ have opened up exciting new possibilities for our research. We can only make assumptions about how they arrived in Italy, and we do not know yet if Pugliese Carratelli consulted them during his signal revision of Morricone’s work. On the strength of what has been seen so far, it seems likely that these casts come from the theatre inscriptions (as opposed to those discovered later in the Tower of Inscriptions). If so, the ‘squeezes’ offer a valuable opportunity to overcome one of the challenges facing modern scholars. Because the actual inscriptions have deteriorated due to weathering, leaving their texts less legible, there was previously no way to check that early transcriptions of the manumissions were accurate.
The first phase of analysis has just finished with promising results. A selection of the best-preserved ‘squeezes’ has undergone RTI (Reflectance Transformation Imaging). This involves photographing them multiple times, with light directed from different angles, so that the shadows reveal all-but invisible impressions on the surface. The team is also considering how best to present these remarkable records to a public eager to understand the ancient history of this spectacular UNESCO world heritage site. In the meantime, researchers from both the University of Bologna and University of Macerata, in agreement with the Albanian Institute of Archaeology, are planning to create virtual versions of the ‘squeezes’. It could not be more apt that the invaluable information preserved on these fragile 20th-century impressions will now be recorded in 3D once more, this time using modern digital methods.
PHOTOS: Pierluigi Giorgi.