Corpus of the Mosaics of Albania Volume 1: Butrint intramuros

Review by Oliver J Gilkes

Everybody likes mosaic pavements; they are ancient artefacts that entrance and beguile the visitor at Greek and Roman sites. No matter that floor mosaics (the majority of survivals) were little more than rugs and mats, and it was the walls that mattered most to antique taste. Mosaicists were some way down the line when it came to being paid; painters came first. Nevertheless, mosaics have survived where the paintings mostly have not.

For an archaeologist, too, mosaics are a rather dubious discovery. Initial euphoria soon gives way to the awful realisation that excavating, conserving, and displaying such delicate artefacts is a challenge. Excavate one and you have excavated them all in this sense. The time and money for conservation are tricky to find on thinly stretched projects. In other words, not something to be undertaken lightly.

My own experience with ancient mosaics began in Winchester, where as a neophyte digger I tried to carefully scrape around the edge of a patch of flooring without dislodging too many of the tiny tesserae. Thereafter, at Butrint in Albania, I was responsible for uncovering a number of much larger floors. This is a place where I have of course led groups to see the site, and so have experienced the glory and the grief, the joy of discovery and the disappointment when visitors realise that most of Butrint’s pavements are simply covered over for their own protection. For these reasons, this study of the pavements within the historic site by Marie-Patricia Raynaud of the French National Centre for Scientific Research and Agron Islami of the Albanian Institute of Cultural Monuments is very welcome.

While this attractive book can be used as simply a useful catalogue, with excellent photographs (including many period images), line drawings, and illustrations, it is far more than simply a pretty-looking list. The authors and their collaborators have delved into the rich archival material for the site stretching back to the 1920s to see how the successive interventions by the Italian Archaeological Mission, the Albanian Institute of Archaeology, and the Butrint Foundation (which I worked for) have impacted on the site and its mosaic pavements. All of these are put into context of the buildings they were found in and within the wider site, alongside a deconstruction of the different workshops of the workers who laid the tesserae in the first place. It is good to see a regional picture emerging with strong connections, for some periods, with the great site of Nicopolis in Greece. The usual suspects of style, parallels, and dating are all examined, while further chapters cover issues of conservation.

These tasks of codification may seem reactive, but the authors have created their own values and momentum by building on earlier projects and producing their own discoveries. Among these is one whole new unsuspected early Christian church in the walled city and the rediscovery of a Hellenistic masterpiece, a unique serpent pavement from Butrint’s central shrine of Ascelpius, the ancient god of medicine. Reading the text gives the strong impression that Butrint exerted its magic upon this team, as it does upon almost everyone who visits; a suggestive gateway to another world.

This is but the first volume in an ongoing series on the relatively unknown mosaic pavements of Albania, and so it should be. Butrint intramuros, ‘within the walls’, is a model of how art historical and archaeological work can and should interact. For those who have not experienced Albania’s fine heritage, or who disconsolately pondered the covered-over wonders of Butrint, now is your chance to see them! I look forward to future volumes with anticipation.

Corpus of the Mosaics of Albania Volume 1: Butrint intramuros, Marie-Patricia Raynaud and Agron Islami (eds), Ausonius Editions, £33, ISBN 978-2356132215.