Confronting Climate Change at Butrint

A new report spells out the risks that rising sea levels pose to some of the world’s greatest archaeological sites. Richard Hodges and David Prince consider the situation at Butrint.


The recent COP26 meeting in Glasgow has helped concentrate many minds on climate change. Projections of future temperatures and their impact on world sea levels pose complex challenges for the present. At the same time, a new study by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reveals that our past is also at risk. The report ( presents chilling scenarios about the impact of sea-level rises on great archaeological sites in the Mediterranean. These projections are spurring decision makers to ponder a fundamental question: can we seek to confront it? At the ancient city of Butrint in Albania, plans are afoot to achieve exactly that.

Dire warnings

The August 2021 IPCC report is unequivocal in its conclusion that since the start of the Industrial Revolution changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere, and biosphere have occurred with increasing rapidity and intensity, particularly over the last 20 or so years. The cumulative effect can be seen in phenomena such as the retreat of glaciers and ice sheets, heatwaves, droughts, cyclones, wildfires, increased rainfall, and the movement of climate zones poleward. The scale of these changes is unprecedented in recorded history. Many of these climatic effects, including extreme temperatures – with the potential for both wildfires and drought – are of concern at Butrint, but by far the most significant is the rising sea level. The IPCC report states that, ‘Many changes due to past and future greenhouse gas emissions are irreversible for centuries to millennia, especially changes in the ocean, ice sheets and global sea level.’

Models predicting future sea levels at Butrint indicate that most of the ancient city will be submerged within decades. Some of its monuments are already permanently or periodically waterlogged.
One example of the latter is this 6th-century baptistery, which contains a glorious mosaic that is judged to be under severe threat.

Global mean sea-level rise approaching +2.0m by 2100 – 78 years away – cannot be ruled out due to deep uncertainty over ice-sheet processes. The impact of such sea-rise would vary from region to region. UNESCO, however, has concluded that the eastern Mediterranean is at risk particularly from flood, erosion, and gradual inundation due to rising water tables. Considering the Mediterranean more widely, the list of sites threatened by the changing sea levels includes some of the most well-known sites in the region (see box, above right).

Butrint and its hinterland at present. Changes in sea level over thousands of years have had a major impact on where and how people lived and worked in the region.

At Butrint, where the new Butrint Management Foundation exists, there is the will to confront this anticipated calamity.

Butrint’s environmental resilience

The UNESCO World Heritage Site preserves some 650ha of archaeological remains, primarily from the Hellenistic and Roman periods, with significant overlaying, principally Venetian, monuments. As a Ramsar Site (a wetland of international importance designated by the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands for its unique wetland assemblages conserving biological diversity) and sitting within the Butrint National Park created in 2000, the ancient site offers a unique combination of archaeology and rich ecology in what has been described as a classically ‘Homeric landscape’. There can be no doubt that the mix of landscape, seascape, archaeology, woodland, wetland ecology, history, mythology, and aesthetics makes Butrint one of the Mediterranean’s most magical historic places.

Unfortunately, a large part of the archaeological remains lie between the present local sea level and about +1.5 to +2.0m. There is a small, significant assemblage of remains on higher ground (around the Acropolis) but nearly everything else is on low-lying land on either side of the Vivari Channel. These include many of the most significant early remains, such as the Roman forum, theatre, and temples, as well as the entirety of the Roman bridgehead suburb on the Vrina Plain.

A view over Butrint (just left of centre in the photograph) from Mount Mile. As well as being a World Heritage Site on the strength of its outstanding archaeology, the region is also home to an internationally significant wetland habitat.

The predicted rise in sea level will absorb Lake Butrint as it once more becomes a bay of the Ionian Sea. This will consequently increase the isolation of the ancient site as a denuded peninsula linked to the mainland by a projecting promontory of higher land.

Flooding will affect other aspects of life here as well. Part of the only road will be submerged. Rising sea levels will swamp current access arrangements not just for visitors, but for all other users including the Hotel Livia (outside the site), the only hotel close to Butrint at the current main visitor entrance. Access to the picturesque chain ferry across the Vivari Channel linking Butrint to the villages beyond the Vrina Plain will disappear. Contemplating such dramatic changes calls for inventive solutions. Creating alternative overland access is highly problematic. New roads and cuttings will be needed, all within the World Heritage Site. Needless to say, these are certain to raise their own issues.

The anticipated submerging of Butrint would not be new. The community has had an oscillating relationship with its lagoonal environment over the past 50 millennia. In early prehistoric times, the Acropolis was a solitary upstanding peninsula extending out into an embayment, which trebled the extent of the present Lake Butrint. An archaeological survey at Xarra, 5km east of Butrint, produced an array of lithics showing that Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic foragers came seasonally to fish from the low, waterside promontory. This eastern limit of the embayment endured for thousands of years. Excavations at nearby Mursia show that a Mycenean-period site sits on the crest of ancient sand dunes, just above the embayment. Mursia’s Bronze Age inhabitants occupied a coastal village and engaged with traders en route between the Peloponnese and southern Italy by way of the Corfu Straits.

Excavations underway on the fortifications of a Bronze Age settlement founded on ancient sand dunes at Mursia.

Huge environmental change, accelerated by deforestation, happened over the following millennium. By the Archaic Greek period, the embayment was receding. In its place, marshes formed that might be crossed by following high points in the landscape. The dropping level of the sea continued steadily into the early Roman period. The Hellenistic and Republican Roman villa at Diaporit on Lake Butrint – once a property of the famously rich Pomponii family – was constructed at almost a metre below the present (lowest) water-level. This drop in sea level made possible the creation of Butrint’s Roman forum, its rich cloak of inner-city villas in the lower city, and its sprawling suburb that began life as a colony. Almost at once, however, seasonal rises in the sea level called for drains to be inserted into all public and private properties.

Then Butrint was struck by a catastrophe. A massive earthquake in the 360s ripped the forum pavement apart. Its south side slumped downwards by almost a metre. Inundation by water in the lower city from AD 400 became a regular nuisance. The grand bishop’s palace – the Triconch palace – was mostly built with rooms paved with mosaics in the early 5th century and then promptly abandoned. Almost certainly, regular flooding made living here untenable.

Excavating the Hellenistic and Republican Roman villa at Diaporit. Once occupying an enviable plot on the shore of Lake Butrint, elements of it are now a metre underwater.

These were the circumstances in the 6th century, when the later Roman world was blighted by climatic changes triggered by a volcanic dust veil, coinciding with the Justinianic pandemic. Cassiodiorus, among many authors at the time, lamented about the fearful weather. In Butrint’s case, its community adapted, but dwindled. Byzantines, Normans, Venetians, and Ottomans all came to terms with the seasonal rises in sea level. Resilience was reinforced for each age by the evergreen market for Butrint’s fish.

Then the post-war Communist dictator, Enver Hoxha, knowing he must exact every possible ounce of food from his self-isolated country, embarked on reclaiming Albania’s marshes using imported pumps. At Butrint in the early 1960s, Czech engineers made levees and a lattice of canals in the lowland surrounding the site. A pumping station controlled the water levels, supported by armies of labourers cleaning the canals. For 30 years, maize was grown on an industrial scale. This cumbersome system functioned until the Communist regime fell in 1992. Along with the departure of Communism went the will to manage the sea level. The pump failed and the seasonal marshes returned, each year growing in size without fail. By happenstance, then, Butrint’s ‘Homeric landscape’ has a long history.

A devastating earthquake struck Butrint in the AD 360s. This diagram shows ground level before the catastrophe (a), with parts of the forum dropping by almost a metre as a consequence, prompting serious flooding (b). Afterwards, sediment deposition saw ground level rise again (c).

Within this century, if the IPCC report is correct, Butrint’s landscape is likely to reprise its prehistoric shape, with the embayment submerging most of the celebrated archaeological site and its setting.

The anticipated sea-level rise will impact all aspects of life here. This will be felt particularly in the villages occupying isolated areas of higher ground: Shen Delli, Vrina, Xarra, and Mursia, many of whose inhabitants derive a living, either directly or indirectly, from activities at Butrint. The effects on these villages will include compromised access to fresh water, the noticeable reduction of biodiversity as brackish environments are destroyed, together with significant disruption to transport, both by land and sea. In addition, the mandarin orchards of the Vrina Plain and freshwater mussel production in Lake Butrint, both highly significant local economic enterprises, will be compromised.

The visitor experience?

Butrint was lost to the world for centuries. It only began to gain international recognition following the collapse of Communism. From just a few hundred visitors in the 1990s, it attracted around 200,000 in 2018. These numbers led to the promotion of business models anticipating growth to around 300,000 visitors a year by the mid 2020s. The vast majority are projected to be non-Albanian visitors and arriving via the established tourist routes, including the cruise-ship market centred on Corfu, a short ferry ride away. Whilst valid at the time, this projection was brought to a halt by the COVID pandemic. Albania was no exception in trying to mitigate the pandemic’s affects by putting in place highly restrictive measures. Its heritage and cultural organisations, as important parts of the tourism industry, were one of the worst-hit sectors. After all, such settings are among the hardest in which to maintain social distancing, and hence public safety, coupled with the fact that they fundamentally need the throughput of large numbers of people to sustain their business models. There is currently hope that the Albanian economy will approach pre-pandemic levels in 2022. But how can Butrint confront the even greater threat from climatic change?

The Triconch Palace was built in the early 5th century and then abandoned soon afterwards, presumably because of flooding. Here, excavations are underway in the structure, while its riverside loggia – complete with mosaic floor – is waterlogged.

Places like Butrint obviously cannot counter climate change or respond to global economic forces on their own; what they can do is set an example of how to tackle these challenges. To do this, a plan was called for. As it happens, thanks to perspicacious foresight in Albania’s heritage sector, a new Integrated Management Plan (IMP) for Butrint and its hinterland was devised in 2019 and archived in 2021 by UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre as a Document of Record. It now forms part of the World Heritage Site’s inscription.

Planning for Butrint’s future

The plan sets out the case for a new foundation to take on the management of the Butrint National Park, with the majority of the funds provided initially by the Albanian American Development Foundation (AADF). Accepted formally by both UNESCO and the Albanian Government, Butrint therefore has a new management structure and philosophy in place. This bold and timely initiative amounts to a combination of the not-for-profit and public sectors, with the freedom to envisage a long-term, stable financial future for the site and, importantly, to plan accordingly.

The reclaimed marshes around Butrint. From the 1960s to the 1990s, a combination of pumps, drains, and levees allowed this land to be cultivated.

The plan sets out a number of activities and challenges over an initial period of ten years that calls for local community support and engagement for many of the proposals. This is deliberate. Archaeological sites all over the world rely on local people for their day-to-day protection. Visitors come and go; communities are rooted in their land. Given the dire prospects for the heritage resources as well as the villages, action to combat climate change is now the key issue on the Butrint Management Foundation’s agenda.

Heritage planners must consider the fact that the assets they manage may no longer be accessible in 20, 30, or 50 years. And whilst 50 years may seem a long time, it isn’t. Archaeological work at Butrint has been ongoing on a professional level for 100 years, and much more awaits discovery. But should the emphasis now change from discovery and on-site conservation to recording, interpreting, and accepting the inevitable?

The vegetation present in the Butrint region has varied significantly over the centuries, with this diagram charting the changes between the Classical Greek and High Medieval eras.

The Butrint Management Foundation is not alone in trying to come to terms with these challenges. Over the last 30 years or so, many UNESCO World Heritage Sites have increasingly been managed by a variety of not-for-profit organisations, with their host countries retaining ownership of the primary assets, as is the case in Butrint. The main reason for this, even before the pandemic, was that governments were systematically reducing direct spending on their country’s cultural infrastructure by encouraging others – through the formation of trusts, charities, foundations, and the like – to cover the majority of operating costs. Far greater attention has been paid to promoting sites as ‘attractions’, encouraging increased admission fees and other paid-for-at-site activities, particularly from foreign tourists. For most countries (and for many sites) until 2020 this approach appeared to be working well. But what if the future means that the very assets managed by these third parties, and from which they generate income, begin to fail or become inaccessible?

Physically protecting and conserving Butrint in its current state is impossible for the reasons described. In particular, changes in soil moisture and chemistry are certain. These are recognised as being highly problematic, leading to, for example, the loss of data-types only preserved in oxygen-free conditions and the destruction of archaeology preserved close to the ground surface or at embrasures around the exposed edges of the embayment. Changes in vegetation are also a major concern as these control the balance between Butrint’s archaeology and its mature and significant woodland covering much of the site. This balance discretely creates Butrint’s unique sense of place.

Water up to 0.5m deep is permanently standing in the orchestra of the Roman theatre.

Hence, the Butrint Management Foundation will need to consider implementing policies that cover two elements simultaneously. The first is maximising income from visitors – both on-site and via remote means by developing the Butrint brand – to build up capital reserves for future expenditure and/or to underpin future borrowing. This is a major priority since these activities will be compromised over time, in some aspects within the next decade or so, as sea levels rise.

The second element is planning and delivering sound, well-researched responses to the submerging of the site. Here there are many options, which could include: acquiring reliable, annually-maintained data on the destructive effects of inundation by way of a hydrological study; consolidating relationships with the local villages, since their well-being and that of Butrint are inexorably intertwined; developing and implementing a programme of archaeological works that record and document as much of the archaeology as possible, including through the use of salvage archaeology where material is at risk of being lost; planning for significant changes in Butrint’s ecology that will arise from the insidious effect of increased groundwater salinity (this is a particular issue at Butrint because of the high importance placed on its woodland); and exploring options for the reorganisation of access arrangements to the site, bearing in mind that making changes will likely take many years to implement as a result of local land ownership issues. Coupled with this, new access arrangements will need to comply with World Heritage Site criteria. In this, access for visitors by sea via a future-flooded Vivari Channel might be explored. Whilst this would have the added interpretive benefit of reflecting historic access arrangements, though, it could also create its own site-conservation problems.

An early 19th-century Ottoman stronghold known as Ali Pasha’s castle now lies partially in, rather than just at, the mouth of the Vivari Channel.
As water level rises, it could become possible to restore the historical access arrangement to Butrint via the Vivari Channel.

Suddenly, a number of fundamental issues will challenge the Butrint Management Foundation. New ideas and, perhaps, radical solutions are required to confront a multitude of issues. These include: What are the essential aspects of Butrint that merit conserving, and why? What is Butrint prepared to do to preserve its assets? Here, potential options include sheet-piling to hold back the rising waters of Lake Butrint and the constant pumping of groundwater. Whilst superficially attractive, both would have little or no effect on rising groundwater over the long term and will considerably diminish visitor enjoyment, for as long as that lasts, and could have collateral deleterious effects on the monuments.

Of course, the questions don’t end there. How will the mosaics, among them the spectacular Baptistery pavement, and the many more that have yet to be excavated, be best preserved? What urgent excavations are needed in the Roman colony and other low-lying land to extract information before it is inundated? How will the existing information on Butrint, substantial as it now is, be digitised, archived, and made available to all researchers? How will access to the villages on the Vrina Plain be affected when the chain ferry across the Vivari Channel no longer functions? What can be done to protect the livelihoods of the local villages, either because they farm locally or because they are engaged in the tourism business? Can Butrint look to become one of the world’s first fully interpreted underwater archaeological sites? These and doubtless many more as-yet-unanticipated issues should be seen as challenges to the new Foundation: as problems that require solutions.

Today, the edge of the Vrina Plain (in the foreground) lies only just above sea level. A Venetian tower is visible in the background, on the site of Butrint.

Now, more than ever, sites like Butrint – and there are hundreds, if not thousands – around the world faced with such issues need proactive, creative management, bold decision-making, and conviction. They will also need excellent PR as cultural sites disappear and local livelihoods are destroyed.

The nub of the issue

In this regard, whether or not COP26 managed to keep alive the target of limiting global warming to +1.5°C by 2100 matters little to Butrint. The fact is that every degree Celsius adds about a metre of sea-water inundation. Following that logic means that Butrint will be largely underwater by around +1.5m in 2040 even if the target set today was zero.

The panorama from Butrint Bay to Lake Butrint, with the ancient city visible in the middle distance to the right of the photograph.

While the majority of ancient sites in the eastern Mediterranean have witnessed highly damaging, even catastrophic, natural events over millennia (volcanoes, earthquakes, floods and tsunamis, plagues), so much more is now known about the science behind such events that projections can be made sufficiently in advance to plan how to respond, particularly in terms of ensuring that information is not lost and significant artefacts are preserved.

This is the key challenge for Butrint (and for other sites threatened by the rising Mediterranean Sea), its new management arrangements and for all similar organisations invested in championing past places. The Foundation believes there is no excuse for waiting to see how things pan out. That time has passed.

Dr Richard Hodges and Dr David Prince discuss Butrint and the Integrated Management Plan on an episode of The PastCast. You can listen to their conversation here.
About the authors

Dr Richard Hodges, President Emeritus of the American University of Rome, was a member of the team that produced the Butrint Integrated Management Plan and has been appointed by the Albanian Government to the new Butrint Management Foundation.

Dr David Prince, Director Prince+Pearce, is a Visiting Professor in the Faculty of Social and Historical Sciences, University College London, and led the team that wrote the Butrint Integrated Management Plan.
IMAGES: Stoyan Haytov |