Time travel might normally be the theme of science fiction novels – but walks in the ancient city of Butrint, from the Hellenistic theater, built in the 4th century BC, to the Roman basilica located only metres away, certainly come close.
Dating back as far as the 10th century BC, Butrint was a Greek colony, a Roman city and a Byzantine bishopric before being deserted in the late Middle Ages, after which its magnificent buildings sank into the marshes.
Located on a bluff overlooking the Vivari canal, which connects Lake Butrint with the Ionian Sea, near Albania’s southern border with Greece, the city is one the most significant Classical archaeological sites in the Mediterranean. “The fact that the city was uninhabited during the modern period, from the 16th century at the time of the Venetians, means that what we have is an example of what happened in the Mediterranean on the course of 2,500 years,” says David Hernandez, an archeologist from the University of Notre Dame, who has been digging in Butrint for ten years.
“What we are looking at is not just the Roman forum although that’s the central complex, but rather the Mediterranean during this period of time,” he added, while standing on the edge of a new excavation where the ruins of a new building are emerging from the ground.
Still largely unknown to the outside world before the fall of the Stalinist regime of Enver Hoxha, Butrint was designated as World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1992. According to Rajmond Kola, Director of the Butrint Archeological Park, 82,000 tourists visited Butrint in 2011.
The 24-metre-long building that is now being excavated occupies the western end of the Roman forum, which in the Antique period was the centre of the Roman colony.
Because of its size and location, Hernandez believes that the building is most likely a basilica or temple dedicated to the Jupiter, June and Minerva. In all likelihood it was the most important structure of the city during the Roman period, comparable only to the theatre, which was built during the Hellenistic period.
If the building turns out to be a Capitoline temple, it is likely to have been built by the colonists to mimic or recreate the Capitoline temple in Rome, in a similar fashion to the city of Pompeii.
The basilica would have had multiple functions, but the most important was judicial, where the magistrates of the city would have dispensed judgments and held courts.
“Given the dimensions of the building, as they are merging from the ground, it’s a very long building; it seems to occupy one end of the forum all the way to the other, and starts to look to me at this stage like a basilica,” Hernandez says.
“Basilicas became the framework for the construction of churches in late Antiquity, so this building might have been a central church as well and could also be one of the earlier churches at Butrint,” he explains.
“This could give us insight into the conversion of the city from a pagan Roman centre to one centered on the Christian religion,” he adds.
Dhimiter Condi, an Albanian archeologist who has worked in Butrint for four decades, says that even the famous inscriptions found in Butrint, which are in the form of decrees, may have come from the building currently under excavation. “These inscriptions are a sort of library for Butrint because they tell us about the toponomy of the city, the name of the military commander – its prefect,” Condi says.
“Most importantly [their study] has delineated the distinction between the Hellenistic and the Epirus culture,” he adds. According to Hernandez the dig will provide important answers concerning the nature of Roman colonization of Epirus.
Colonists came from Rome to Butrint in 44BC, occupied it and came to dominate the city. But, over time, archeologists have noticed that they merged with the indigenous population into a single community.
“It is interesting to witness this phenomenon, because it was one that involves cultural integration, where Roman ideals and ideals that existed here kind of fused,” Hernandez says.
“In terms of the development of the forum over time and the kind of information we get, we want to know what happened to the Roman colony and what was the nature of the relationship between these two groups,” he adds.
Butrint was an important port in Antiquity and the materials archeologist have found during their excavation came from all across the Mediterranean, serving as a form of time capsule about the nature of trade interconnectivity.
According to Hernandez, because Butrint is located in an area that was uninhabited for centuries, it is almost unique and very different from most other archeological sites. “What we witness is the death and destruction of a city, which we are now trying to piece together, and [at the same time] we are surrounded by intense vegetations, birds and trees,” Hernandez notes.
“There is that contrast between life and death that you really don’t see in many other archeological sites, creating a magical environment for the visitor,” he concludes.