Archaeology of Albania

Author: Dr. Karl M. Petruso, Program in Anthropology, University of Texas at Arlington

Albania is a country rich in ancient history, and this richness is reflected in its surviving archaeological remains. Butrinti, Apollonia, Durrës, and Byllis are a few of the better-known sites of classical antiquity; their temples, theatres, and basilicas have impressed visitors for ages. The farther back into the past one goes, however, the less visible are ancient remains in the landscape. Archaeological reconaissance and excavation carried out early in this century turned up meager evidence for human activity going back into the Stone Age, but the systematic investigation of the nature of the earliest human occupation of Albania has only recently begun.

In 1991 a collaborative excavation project was proposed to the Instituti Arkeologjik in Tiranë by the University of Texas at Arlington. The co-directors of the project, Dr. Muzafer Korkuti and Dr. Karl Petruso, along with a staff of archaeologists and other specialists from several countries, have been investigating an extraordinary cave on the Saraqint ridge northwest of the town of Konispol at the southern tip of the country. In four summers of excavation and study funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute for Aegean Prehistory, the team has uncovered evidence for the crucial economic and cultural change from hunting and gathering to agriculture, which took place in southeastern Europe in the 7th millenium B.C.

While the earliest occupation in the Konispol Cave apparently goes back some 20,000 years into the Paleolithic period (according to our radiocarbon dates), the site was most intensively occupied in the Neolithic, or late Stone Age, from about 6000-2500 B.C. The finds are prosaic, consisting mostly of utilitarian ceramic pottery, chipped stone tools, bones of animals, and carbonized seeds. Reconstructed profile of excavated pot dating to late 6th-early 5th millenia B.C.

The faunal remains are especially copious, and show clearly the transition from hunting (e.g., wild pig, deer, and bovids) to a concentration on sheep and goat, which formed the basis of pastoral nomadism and eventually — along wth wheat and barley, and later olive and grape — a fully mixed farming economy. These livestock and crops still form the economic basis of villages throughout the Mediterranean today; indeed, a local goatherd still uses our cave when we are not on site, as he moves his stock through the hills seeking pasturage for them.

There was sporadic use of the cave in subsequent millenia, including the Bronze Age and Early Iron Age (2nd-1st millenia B.C.). From late classical stratigraphic levels (4th-1st centuries B.C.) we have excavated terracota figurines which suggest that the cave was used as a cult site at that time.

These artifacts and organic remains are the fragmentary residue of a cultural context and an economic adaptation to the landscape that was so successful that it has changed very little over the millenia. As our research project now winds down and prepares for final publication, we are confident that we will be able to document the nature of the transition to farming in this part of the Balkans, and thus fill in one more small piece in the jigsaw puzzle of the archaeology of Albania.

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