View Full Version : Albanian Heritage
03-04-2012, 07:29 PM
Butrint, ancient Buthrotum, a port from Hellenistic to Ottoman times, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in south-west Albania. Situated on the Straits of Corfu, and surrounded by a picturesque lagoon, it is one of the most remarkable archaeological sites in the Adriatic Sea region.
Following twelve years of archaeological excavations and major investment in site management, the site and its museum make it an exceptionally attractive place to visit. A short ferry or hydrofoil trip from Corfu will bring you to the Albanian port of Saranda, from where you can reach Butrint, 20 km to south, by either bus or taxi.
03-04-2012, 07:39 PM
- I -
The changing settlement
Walking through the ruins of Butrint, it is hard to imagine the different forms the town has taken, and the differing fortunes of its inhabitants through the generations.
Butrint through the ages
03-04-2012, 07:43 PM
The changing environment
The landscape and environment surrounding Butrint has altered greatly during the last 10 millennia. During full glacial conditions of the last ice age, c. 10,000 years ago, sea levels were as much as 120 m below current levels, making it possible to walk across the Straits of Corfu. The large costal plain of open vegetation would have provided an important resource for Palaeolithic hunters known to have occupied the region.
At the close of the last glacial period, rising sea levels were the main agent of environmental change, drowning the former coastal plains and surrounding Butrint with a body of water that stretched northwards as far as Phoenicê and south towards Mursia. Today, Lake Butrint and Lake Bufi are all that remains of this once large coastal embayment. Marine foraminifera recovered from Lake Bufi indicate it remained open to the sea until 5,000 years ago.
Over time, rivers flowing along the surrounding valleys brought large volumes of sediment into the embayment, gradually infilling it and leading to the formation of large deltas growing seawards and the emergence of swampy, estuarine environments. While this is a natural process, climatic fluctuations, tectonic movement and human activity in the area would have acutely affected the rate and extent of these changes. There is evidence for Mesolithic exploitation of the emerging wetland areas, and by the Bronze Age, c. 3,500 years ago, soil erosion resulting from forest clearances is likely to have accelerated the deposition of sediments within the valley. These cultural impacts are clearly recorded in regional palynological records.
By the 1st century AD, a large floodplain had grown to infill the greater extent of the valley south of Butrint, providing fertile agricultural lands. The valley bottom would have contained a major river system, meandering its way seawards within what would have become an intensely managed landscape during the centuries of Roman influence.
Over the last 2 millennia the floodplain has continued to grow, with accelerated wetland development around the western margins during the medieval revival of the city. Today Butrint is over 2 km inland from the seashore, linked to the coast by a narrow channel draining from Lake Butrint. A series of boreholes along the margins of the floodplain south of Butrint clearly show the environmental transformation of the area from an open coastal embayment, to estuarine wetlands and finally to a well drained floodplain.
This sequence of environmental change is common to coastal areas in the Mediterranean, and has transformed the setting of many ancient towns and cities such as at Ephesus, where the displacement of the city’s port occurred on more than one occasion. The ancient site of Troy in Anatolia is now also well inland of the current coastline.
03-04-2012, 07:46 PM
Prehistory and early history
Epirus in antiquity was known to be rich in pasture, cattle, pigs and sheep, and later Butrint was effectively a fish-farming enclave. This wealth would have attracted hunters and fishermen since at least 100,000 BC to Butrint and to the edges of the marsh judging from surface finds. The rich landscape also meant that, following the Upper Palaeolithic, it was to sustain a large population.
Neolithic bone tools from Konispoli (Butrint Museum)
Lithic finds of Neanderthal hunter-gatherers have been found around the edges of Lake Butrint. The best collection of flints comes from a fossilised beach site near Xarra near Butrint. These belong to a long timescale, ranging from Middle Palaeolithic of c. 100,000 years ago to the Mesolithic, or post-glacial period. The former period is represented mainly by Levallois flakes, scrapers and denticulates; the latter period by a single but crucial microlith, an almost unique find in Albania.
Neolithic bone tolls from Konispoli (Butrint Museum)
Recent excavations by the Institute of Archaeology and the Butrint Foundation at Himara and at the Kanalit rockshelter north of Saranda have added substantially to the knowledge of the Mesolithic period. At these sites a series of extremely rare Mesolithic stone tools in flint and black jasper came to light as well as evidence for a stone tool production site.
A number of small pebble-tools, probably Palaeolithic to Mesolithic, found near Butrint resemble specialised shellfish toolkits found in Italy dated to between 10,000 and 7,000 BC. The most exciting aspect of the assemblage is the small number of tools reminiscent of the Aurignacian technology, dated to about 40,000 years ago and indicative of the transition between Neanderthals and Modern Humans.
Neolithic pottery from Konispoli (Butrint Museum)
The Neolithic and Bronze Age communities are less in conspicuous, but Albanian-American excavations at a cave-site near Konispoli south of Butrint have brought to light a range of finds showing that early-Neolithic pastoralist communities were making use of the cave – as did modern peasant groups until recently.
Neolithic pottery and spindle whorls from Konispoli (Butrint Museum)
03-04-2012, 07:58 PM
- II -
Butrint owes its growth and early fame to a sanctuary dedicated to Asclepius, the god of medicine, founded in the 4th century BC. The sanctuary was located on the south slope of the acropolis (hill).
Worshippers came to the sanctuary in order to be healed. leaving symbolic objects and money to the god and his attendant priests. The Sanctuary was the making of Butrint and the sacred power of Butrint's water were to be revered as long as the town lasted.
Remains of the temple of Asclepius above the theatre
As the Sanctuary grew in fame a circuit wall of finely hewn stone blocks, fitted together without mortar, was constructed around the 10 hectare site to protect it.
Butrint and Epirus – like many other cities and communities in the Mediterranean, not the least Rome – could claim Trojan links of ancestry. The most famous account of Butrint’s origins is that given by Virgil in the Aeneid (3.292-505). Here the Trojan hero Aeneas, during his travels through the Mediterranean, stops at Butrint where a surprise awaits him: the city is populated by his own kin and ruled by Helenus, the son of King Priam, and Andromache, the widow of Hector. Indeed the city is built to resemble Troy itself in miniature.
Map of the journey of Aeneas according to Virgil
Though the story of Aeneas visiting Butrint was well established in Virgil’s time, the detail and description of the city as a miniature Troy is a Virgilian invention. It must have served Butrint well in its relationship with Rome during the early empire, but to represent itself the city preferred a different mythological story to highlight its Trojan origins. Teucros of Cyzicus in the 1st century AD recounts how Helenus and other Trojans stopped in Epirus on their journey west fleeing from their sacked homeland of Troy. Here they prepared to sacrifice a bull, but the animal escaped, swam across the gulf, and promptly expired as it reached land. Helenus acknowledged this as an omen and founded a city on the very spot, naming it Buthrotum in honour of the bull.
Butrint coin with standing male figure
This story is explicitly depicted on Butrint coins from the period of Claudius; while the portrait of the emperor occupies the obverse, in the centre of the reverse field is depicted a swimming bull, its head thrown back and its front legs and hooves thrashing with palpable effort in the curvy lines of the water. Indeed, throughout the Julio-Claudian period bulls were a popular motif on the Butrint coinage: shown standing calmly, or with its head down thrashing the ground with its hooves, or simply as a frontal head.
Butrint coin depicting the head of a bull
Butrint coin depicting a swimming bull
Bronze Age cooking pots (Butrint Museum)
Archaeologically, objects of a Bronze Age date have been found in the region, but as yet nothing has been found at Butrint. However, this should not surprise us. The association with Troy was most probably only developed during the 5th century BC, as this part of Epirus was taken over by the Molossian tribe. The Molossian royal house promoted its status as having both Greeks and Trojan ancestry: their eponymous ancestor, Molossus, was said to be the older son of Pyrrhus Neoptolemos, the son of Achilles, and Andromache. Later the Molossian King Pyrrhus would choose to favour the Greek Achilles as his ancestor – almost certainly to reinforce his familial links to the Macedonian general Alexander the Great and to establish himself as a natural opponent of Rome.
For 1st-century AD Butrint, the bull referred to the auspicious foundation of the city by the Trojan seer Helenus. The rapid appearance and longevity of this image hint at its long-established use, just as the adaptability of the iconographic form indicates the continued engagement with articulating the mythical origins of the city.
Bronze Age weapons (Butrint Museum)
03-04-2012, 08:03 PM
Butrint and Corfu
The early urban history of Butrint is uncertain. Earthenware fragments that may date to the 10th–8th centuries BC have been found on the acropolis hill, but mainly the assemblage consists of fine, painted Corinthian wares.
Rim of the Corinthian aryballos (Butrint Museum)
Corcyra (modern Corfu) as a Corinthian colony grew into a great emporium, covering what is today known as Kanoni, with an agora accessible from two harbours and encompassing by the 6th century BC as much as 600 hectares. As trade between Greece, Italy and Dalmatia prospered, so Butrint with its safe anchorage must have prospered too.
At the eastern end of the acropolis hill, a sacred pit (bothros) was found, containing proto-Corinthian and Corinthian wares dating from the 7th century BC, as well as Attic pottery of the 6th century. The conspicuous and highly visible location, on the highest point of the acropolis hill, in which the pit was found, suggests that this was the location of a sanctuary; the temple having been demolished in the construction of the late antique basilica there.
The restricted space on the acropolis and the absence of a contemporary cemetery has led to the suggestion that Butrint initially was little more than a seasonal refuge. However, it is possible that the inhabited area was situated on the western plateau of the acropolis, where the reconstructed castle now stands.
The sections of polygonal walling remaining on the top of the acropolis are usually thought to be Archaic in date (6th centuries BC). However, it is uncertain whether they represent a complete circuit wall or an enclosure for the sanctuary (temenos). The relief of a lion devouring a bull, incorporated in late antiquity into the Lion Gate, provides a tantalising glimpse into the elaborate urban adornment of this period.
Polygonal wall-section on the acropolis
Given the importance and proximity of Corcyra (modern Corfu), Butrint may have formed part of its domain, its periraia. The historian Thucydides (3.85.2) tells how in 427 BC factions from Corfu escaped the city’s civil war and occupied ‘Corcyrean territory across the channel.’ The so-called Dema wall north of Butrint, and the settlement at Çuka e Aitoit to the south, has been interpreted as delimiting this territory.
03-04-2012, 08:06 PM
Butrint and Pyrrhus
Along the coast of the Adriatic were located several important cities. Kassope, 100 km to the south of Butrint, and Apollonia and Epidamnos (Roman Dyrrhachium, modern Durrës) to the north were important commercial and strategic centres for sea traffic into the Adriatic. During the 4th and 3rd centuries BC many smaller towns, too, were given a monumental urban aspect. This was undoubtedly much due to the aspirations of the Molossian royal house of creating a unified kingdom of international standing. Indeed, unlike previously thought, the early defensive walls at Phoenicê, Butrint and Çuka e Aitoit may all belong to this period.
The Molossians, who inhabited the inland area around the great sanctuary of Zeus at Dodona (near modern Ioannina), had prospered from the marriage of princess Olympias to Philip II of Macedon, and from the triumphant conquests in the east by their son Alexander the Great. However, unlike Macedonia, Epirus was less united under its monarch, and after the death of Olympias’ brother, Alexander Molossius, an Epirote Alliance was created. This alliance included the Molossians and the Chaeonians, whose capital city was Phoenicê, and the Thesprotians to the south of Butrint. A sub-region to this, the koinon of the Praesebes, was administered from Butrint.
Modern statue of Pyrrhus in Arta
Coming to power in 297 BC, the Molossian King Pyrrhus sought to emphasise his links to Alexander the Great. The links to Corcyra (modern Corfu) and towards Italy were established through military aid and through Pyrrhus’ marriage to Lanassa, the daughter of King Agathocles of Syracuse, who brought Corcyra as her dowry. Though his reign failed to develop Epirus beyond an essentially tribal stage, the urban development at Butrint in this period is striking with the sanctuary of Asclepius being expanded and monumentalised, and the walls of the extended city being constructed in this period.
Portrait of Pyrrhus from Herculaneum
In 230 BC the Illyrian Queen Teuta invaded the region and captured Phoenicê. The Illyrian attempt at gaining control of the eastern Adriatic attracted reprisals from Rome who needed to secure her seaway into the eastern Mediterranean. Butrint does not seem to have been affected by this, as it does not seem to have been affected some 30 years later when Greece was made a Roman province and the general Aemilius Paullus is said to have sacked 70 Epirote cities and taking 150.000 people as slaves.
It is possible that the harshest treatment was reserved for the Molossians, and that the Chaeonians and Butrint had come to terms with the Roman invaders. Certainly at some inland cities, like Antigonea in the Drinos Valley, the archaeological evidence point to a complete abandonment at this period – an aspect of which there is no trace at either Phoenicê or Butrint. Indeed, Butrint seems to have continued a quiet, unremarkable existence until falling within the spotlight of the attentions of Caesar, and later the emperor Augustus, in the middle of the first century BC.
03-04-2012, 08:12 PM
- III -
The sanctuary of Asclepius
The Sanctuary complex rises on a series of terraces from a paved area in frontof the present theatre. The earliest Sanctuary comprised a temple to the God (1), a stoa (covered walkway) (2) and a treasury to hold the offerings made to the god (3). By the 3rd century BC the Sanctuary had been modified to include a theatre (4) and a perisytyle building (probably a pilgrim's hostel) (5). The complex was enclosed by a "temenos" wall (6)to define the precinct of the Sanctuary.
Marble head of Asclepius found at Butrint
A gate was constructed in the wall to allow worshippers into the lower part of the complex. The Sanctuary has at least one spring within the precinct. When the stoa was demolished, the ceremonial street constructed alongside the wall provided access to the spring.
The sanctuary of Asclepius
The healing god Asclepius
Asclepius was the most important of the healing gods of antiquity. He was the son of Apollo and a mortal woman (Coronis or Arsinoe) but soon became a god himself. Asclepius was married to Hygieia (Health) and became so skilled at his art that he could bring the dead back to life, an action for which he was killed by Zeus. The largest sanctuary to Asclepius was at Epidaurus, but sanctuaries were established also in Athens and Corinth – even in Rome.
Head of Asclepius from the Theatre
The marble head from Butrint is characteristic of depictions of Asclepius. He is shown as a mature man with a rich mass of wavy locks loosely held in place by a plain band around his head. He has a finely curled beard and moustache, and his eyes are rendered expressive by the firm outline of both upper and lower lids. The head was found in 1932 near the staircase to the east of the theatre; its statue body has never been found.
Asclepius’ main attribute was a staff with a snake coiled around it, and this symbol appears several times on the coinage of Butrint – indicative of the importance of the cult for the city. In fact, already the first two known Roman magistrates of Butrint – P. Dastidius and L. Cornelius – depicted Asclepius on their coins. On the obverse is a bust of the god, bearing a strong resemblance to the marble head with his curly hair and plain band around his head; behind him is his symbol of the serpent-staff. The reverse of the same coin depicts a standing bull – a reference to the mythological foundations of Butrint. In other words, the cult of Asclepius was from the first considered an image epitomising the identity of Butrint.
The marble head was stolen from the Butrint museum in 1991 but its whereabouts has now been traced and the bust located to Italy. Negotiations are ongoing for its return to Butrint.
Butrint coin with bust of Asclepius and snake-staff symbol
03-04-2012, 08:17 PM
The sanctuary and the ritual
Sanctuaries of Asclepius were most often situated outside or on the outskirts of cities – often in proximity to rivers or the sea. The separation of the sanctuary not only provided isolation for infectious diseases but equally a tranquil environment to assist the healing process.
Water played a major role in the cult, with a fresh water source being present at all sites. However, the essential part of the healing rite was the sleep in which the god would appear in a dream, perform cures or suggest remedies.
The sanctuary of Asclepius
Once arrived at a sanctuary, the worshipper would offer up a sacrifice, and afterwards a healing fee would be deposited with the temple priests. The temple above the theatre is undoubtedly the one dedicated to Asclepius; certainly it predates any other structure found in the sanctuary area. The shrine-like building next to the theatre has for long been interpreted as serving this function but may rather be a treasury; that is, were the wealth and valuable objects of the cult were stored. Indeed, one whole and one partial strongbox (thesauros) still exist within the treasury building.
The well by the Acropolis hill
The participant would then wash in a ritual of cleansing, and offer up cakes to Mnemosyne (the goddess of memory who would assist him in remembering his dream). At Butrint a source of fresh water would have been available from the so-called well at the foot of the acropolis hill. Rather than a proper well, recent investigations have revealed the structure to be more akin to a cistern, gathering water and leading it off the hillside.
In the evening the patient would enter the incubation room (the abaton or enkoimeterion) – the most sacred room where the worshipper in sleep would come into contact with the god. The portico or stoa-like structure alongside the well may originally have served as the incubation room, as suggested by its elevated position and its proximity to a water source.
Plan of the sanctuary area in the Hellenistic period
The theatre served not only for public entertainment, but would have been an integral part also of the cult. Here hymns to the god, declarations of healing and sacred performances could take place. The building, with a columned peristyle court, to the east of the theatre remains enigmatic. It may have served as a dwelling for the priests of Asclepius or as a hostel for the relatives of the sick seeking a cure.
The terracing of the area with the theatre and treasury building below and the temple and portico/stoa above, indicates a two-tier division of the sanctuary space – a symbolic division between public activities and sacred activities.
The peristyle building
03-04-2012, 08:23 PM
- IV -
The Italian archaeologist Luigi Maria Ugolini discovered the Theatre in 1928-30. Ugolini's greatest discovery was a line of statues - including the famous “Goddess of Butrint” - in front of the stage building.The first theatre followed the “Greek” style and would have been used by worshippers and the priests of the Sanctuary for religious ceremonies and public discussion. A late 4th-century BC inscription (located on the seating banks in the theatre) tells us the theatre construction was funded by donations to the Sanctuary.
The so-called “Goddess of Butrint”
Ugolini and colleagues, 1931
On the surrounding walls are numerous “manumission” inscriptions that record the freeing of slaves in honour of the god, Asclepius. In the 2nd century AD the theatre was rebuilt and enlarged in the Roman style with a stage. The Roman theatre was the centrepiece of the town.
Plans of the theatre in the Hellenistic and Roman periods
Reconstruction of the sanctuary in the Roman period
03-04-2012, 08:25 PM
The Theatre and the Treasury
The theatre at Butrint is constructed against the slope of the acropolis hill facing out over the Vivari Channel. Making use of the natural incline of the hill offered a practical solution for the seating area and is a common feature in ancient Greek theatres.
The earliest theatre is likely to have been quite small. This was enlarged in the 3rd century BC and the seating area (cavea) extended right up next to the treasury building. Six narrow staircases divide the semi-circular auditorium into ‘wedges’ for easy access. Seating arrangements were organised hierarchically, with the seats closest to the stage reserved for the most prominent members of the city. At Butrint the first real row of seats has footrests and is decorated with handsome lion’s feet, whereas further back the seats are plain blocks.
The theatre at Butrint
Performances would have taken place not on the flat circular area (orchestra) but on a raised stage (scaenae frons). The stage building was heavily remodelled some time during the Roman period making it deeper and at least two storeys high. The three large openings seen today provided entrances and exits for the performers and in the niches would have been a wealth of statuary.
Also the auditorium was enlarged in the Roman period to accommodate the growing population of the town. The passageways into the theatre from either side of the stage building were covered with a barrel vault; most likely, special boxes (tribunalia) reserved for dignitaries were built on top of these. Though not providing very good sightlines of the stage, the boxes provided very good visibility of those seated within them.
The lid of the strongbox from the treasury
The treasury building, which formerly had stood out as an independent structure, was by the Roman period covered by the seating. The motivation may have been practical, but the effect was undoubtedly also highly symbolic.
During the Hellenistic period the priests of the sanctuary had an important position in the city and could hold high political office. The inscriptions visible on the wall between the treasury and the theatre detail how slaves were manumitted in the name of the god and under supervision of the priests. Indeed, an inscription along the edge of the seats tells how the 3rd-century BC monumentalisation of the theatre was paid for ‘by the sacred money of the god’ – that is, from the funds stored in the treasury.
With the grant of Roman status to Butrint the political system was remodelled and the priests of Asclepius lost their former status. Public benefaction was now the responsibility of the city council and of elite individuals. The lesser visibility of the treasury and the heightened visibility of the stage with it statues of outstanding individuals might be read as a symbolic expression of this shift in power, and the sanctuary from now on primarily had only a religious function.
Statue of a draped woman from the theatre
03-04-2012, 08:27 PM
The demolition of the Theatre
When the theatre fell out of use is still uncertain, but it seems likely that this happen in late antiquity as seen elsewhere in the Mediterranean world. Certainly the demolition of the structure and its reuse for other purposes seem to have been a long, drawn-out process.
Early medieval terracing walls have been found dividing up the space within the theatre, and a church was later constructed on the upper level (the Stoa church). Indeed, a gradual infill of the theatre is what seems to have preserved the lower part of the seating from the stone robbers who removed the blocks of the upper banks of the auditorium. However, even before the theatre area was filled in, decorative and other materials had been removed for reuse elsewhere.
Head of a woman from the theatre
The statues found in the theatre have for long posed a particular conundrum in this respect. When they were excavated by Luigi Maria Ugolini in the 1920s he interpreted them as having fallen from their original location within the niches of the stage building (scaenae frons) and simply left. Since a whole series of these statues were found lying in a row in immediately in front of the scaenae frons, the proposal seemed attractive.
Excavating a statue in the theatre
However, since all of these statues were lying face down with their heads towards the stage building they cannot have fallen from the niches, but must have been deliberately removed from their original position and placed there. Further, marble sculpture was found not just in front of the stage building but over the entire area of the theatre – and in only very few cases can the various fragments be shown to belong together.
Rather, it would seem that the various statues were collected in the theatre area as a kind of statue store. Marble in late antiquity was an important component for creating lime needed for construction, and the statues could have been assembled in order to be broken up. Why this process was not completed we can only guess at. Large-scale earthquakes are recorded in Epirus in the 4th and 6th centuries AD – could it have been an event of this nature that stopped works and instead encouraged the terracing of the entire area?
Row of statues from the theatre
03-04-2012, 08:32 PM
- V -
The Roman colony
Caesar arrived at Butrint in 44BC and recognized its potential as a town. After his bitter struggle with Pompey he designated Butrint a Roman colonial city. Augustus, Caesar's adopted son, further developed the colony after defeating Anthony and Cleopatra at nearby Actiumin 31 BC.
The colony required a major building programme, which was funded by Augustus, his family and private sponsors. The funds paid for public works in the 1st century AD such as a new aqueduct and bridge across the Vivari Channel.
The larger-than-life size early Imperial statues discovered in the theatre (which can be seen in the museum), include Augustus, his wife Livia and his successful general Agrippa. They were daily reminders to the citizens of Butrint of their patrons' generosity.
Roman imperial portraits and busts in the Butrint Museum
Caesar and the colony at Butrint
Julius Caesar first arrived at Butrint in 48 BC. Engaged in the war against his fellow Roman, Pompey, he arrived to seek provisions for his army from the rich pastures and fishing around Butrint. after that the sources are silent until, in 44 BC, Caesar awarded Butrint Roman status and declared it a suitable location for settling veteran soldiers.
Portrait of Caesar in the Vatican
Ostensibly the reason for the veteran colony was Butrint failing to pay its taxes. However, of greater imperative was undoubtedly the strategic position of Butrint. Much of the civil war between Caesar and Pompey had been fought in the Adriatic with each of the generals seeking to establish power bases along the coast; having routed Pompeian forces from Corcyra (Corfu), for Caesar to hold Butrint too would effectively have ensured control of the Straits.
However, the inhabitants of Butrint did not welcome the prospect of veteran soldiers on their land and appealed to Titus Pomponius Atticus for assistance. The rich and influential Atticus had substantial landholdings around Butrint, and agreed to help by paying the taxes owed. In Rome, Atticus’ friend the orator Cicero kept up a constant lobbying of Caesar eventually managing to extract a promise that the veteran colony would not be realised at Butrint.
All might have been well if Caesar had not been killed in March 44 BC. The general’s promise had not been ratified by the senate and much confusion reigned as to the status of Butrint. In the end Atticus and Cicero were forced to cede defeat: the colonists arrived at Butrint and the city, as suggested by its new coinage, was named Colonia Iulia Buthrotum in honour of Caesar.
However, the group of settlers and colonists was not the invasion of veteran soldiers the city had feared, but rather a smaller group of civilians. These were not only more easily integrated into the city but their presence now gave the city an illustrious status as a Roman town.
Caesarian coin with legend CIB (Colonia Iulia Buthrotum)
03-04-2012, 08:37 PM
The millionaire: Titus Pomponius Atticus
Born in 110 BC Titus Pomponius was one of the richest men of his time, managing his fortune by investing in land and by acting as a financier. Such was his wealth that he could lend money not just to individuals but also to cities and communities. The name of Atticus (the Athenian) by which he is best known was a nickname acquired from living for almost 20 years in Athens and from his interest in Greek culture and philosophy.
Atticus bought an estate near Butrint in 68 BC. It is possible that his landholdings in the area were spread also over Corfu, and northern Greece. However, the villa near Butrint is the only one mentioned specifically in the correspondence with his friend the Roman orator Cicero, and Atticus spent much time there during the late 60s and early 50s BC.
Little is known about the villa but several references are made to an amaltheum – a shrine to the goddess of fruitfulness of the land; appropriate since Epirus was famous for its fertile land and rich pastures. The Butrint villa has not yet been found, but the open, fertile valley along the river Pavllas, with a view to Butrint and aired by breezes during the summer, is a possible location.
Inscription from Butrint from statue base honouring Atticus
Atticus’ wealth and influence gave him great influence in Epirus. Cicero jokingly calls the area around Butrint Atticus’ ‘province’ (Letters to Atticus 6.3.2). It was to him that the citizens of Butrint appealed for help when Caesar planned to establish a colony of veteran soldiers in the city, and it were clients of his that were to reach the highest position of duovir in the new Roman city. Not surprisingly, the city erected a statue in honour of Atticus calling him “well-deserving”.
View across the Vrina Plain
Atticus consistently refused public magistracies and preferred to remain on good terms with all the various political players – a position that undoubtedly suited his financial engagements. Thus, he could claim to be the friend of both Mark Antony and Augustus. He died in 32 BC – the year before Augustus’ victory at Actium. However, already around 37 BC Atticus had married his daughter Caecilia Attica to Agrippa, the friend and general of Augustus. The influence of Atticus at Butrint was hence to continue through the authority of his son-in-law.
Augustus and the refoundation of the colony
Portrait of Augustus from Butrint
The Roman status granted to Butrint by Caesar was reaffirmed by his adopted son, the emperor Augustus. Having defeated Marcus Antonius and Cleopatra in 31 BC at Actium some 200 km south of Butrint, the new princeps needed to assert his position in the Ionian and to guarantee the important crossing point between Greece and Italy. Almost immediately the coinage of Butrint changed to reflect its new loyalties; as well as including Augustus’ portrait, the city’s name now appears as Colonia Augusta Buthrotum.
Butrint coin with portrait of Augustus and legend CAB (Colonia Augusta Buthrotum)
For Butrint the change seems to have been easy; indeed, it may have been welcomed. The city had for long had a close relationship with the rich landholder Titus Pomponius Atticus, and Atticus’ daughter had already six years previously married Augustus’ friend and general, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa. For Butrint the link with Agrippa ensured not only continuity but provided an important link to the emperor himself. Not surprisingly the city erected not one but two statues in honour of Agrippa.
The most radical changes to the urban layout of Butrint may date to the reign of Augustus. The city was furnished with an aqueduct bringing in copious amounts of water and soon fountains and bathhouses sprang up everywhere. The alignment of the aqueduct is intimately linked to the layout of the suburb on the Vrina Plain, and it is likely that the latter was designed in this period. Changes may have been planned also for the forum and sanctuary area; certainly portraits of Augustus and his wife Livia have been found here.
Portrait of Agrippa from Butrint
Erecting statues to the imperial family would have confirmed the city’s loyalty and acted as a bid for imperial support and investment. For Butrint associating itself with Augustus probably had very real economic motives, too. Immediately after the Actium victory, Augustus founded a new city on the site of the battle, Nicopolis. This became the new focal point for the region and an essential link between Italy and Greece. Undoubtedly Butrint hoped to form the northern counterpoint to Nicopolis and increase its status in the trade through the Ionian.
03-04-2012, 08:40 PM
Butrint and Nero
There is no evidence that Nero ever visited Butrint. However, the emperor’s visit to Greece in 66-67 AD – when he also stopped at Corcyra (Corfu) and at Nicopolis – was to have a big impact on the city.
Butrint coin with portrait of Nero
The Butrint mint was reinvigorated, producing more divers issues than ever before – practically all of them carefully including the portrait of the emperor. The most popular image on the coinage is the aqueduct, just as it had been during the reign of Augustus; hence, it is possible that the construction started by Augustus was finished by Nero in this period. Indeed, it is possible that not only the aqueduct but also the settlement on the Vrina Plain was developed in this period.
Why should Nero have taken any interest in Butrint? Firstly, a rededication of the colony would have affirmed his links with Augustus from whom he was a direct descendant. Secondly, he might already have had a longstanding client-base in the area. Nero was the son of Agrippa’s granddaughter and it is possible that the links between that family and Butrint were still strong. Similarly, Nero’s grandfather – Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus – had been the patron of Butrint and undoubtedly there were still many supporters of this family in the city.
Visible signs of the support extended by the families of both of Nero’s parents would have been evident at Butrint. Statues show local women fashioning their hair in the style of Nero’s mother Agrippina the Younger, and the name of a freedman of his father’s family is still inscribed in the paving slabs next to the theatre. Cnaius Domitius Eros, paid for the relaying of the piazza and included his own name in lead letters inscribed in the floor: CN. DOMITIUS CN. L. EROS – Gnaius Domitius Eros, freedman of Lucius Domitius [Ahenobarbus].
Inscription by Cn. Domitius Eros
Promoting Butrint would also have served imperial objectives well. Nero was in Greece not only to take part in games and festivals, but to restore firm links between the province and Rome. An endorsement of Butrint – with its long tradition of loyalty to Rome and to Augustus, Agrippa, Atticus and the Ahenobarbus family – would have seemed an ideal way to create a Roman focal point in the region.
Ahenobarbus, patron of Butrint
The inscription was set up in 16 BC to accompany a statue of Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, the grandfather of Nero. Ahenobarbus is honoured as the patron of the colony, that is, of Butrint. Lucius’ own father was a successful naval commander, defeating, in 42 BC, Brutus and the conspirators in Caesar’s murder. In 31 BC, he had supported Marcus Antonius and Cleopatra – defecting to the Augustan side only on the night of the Actium battle. The honour paid to Lucius may have hence been a conciliatory gesture between the Augustan and the Ahenobarbus family. It may also have been in recognition of family ties, for Lucius was married to Augustus’ niece.
Inscription honouring Domitius Ahenobarbus
03-04-2012, 08:48 PM
- VI -
The expansion of Butrint
By the late 1st century AD the urban area had grown beyond the line of the original circuit wall, down to the shore of the Vivari Channel and onto the plain opposite.
The heart of the town was redeveloped to create many public buildings, some paid for by private sponsorship, including a public bath house. This complex is only partially excavatedand continues under the modern path. The removal of the old temenos wall, at the time of the colony's foundation, probably made way for the new Roman forum, where the citizens met and conducted daily business.
The Vrina Plain suburb
The low-lying pastoral area of the Vrina plain, beyond the Vivari Channel, once formed a thriving suburb to Butrint. Extensive geophysical work along with on-going archaeological excavations has uncovered a series of public, private and religious buildings across the area.
The occupied area was bounded to the north by Lake Butrint and a navigable river channel to the west. The ‘urban’ centre was located to the west, while to the east the area was originally given over to a substantial necropolis, although by the beginning of the second century a number of private and commercial buildings seem to have encroached upon this area.
The dividing line between the two sectors may have been represented by the aqueduct, erected in the late first century BC, which appears to have been aligned to the main road that ran through the valley between Butrint and Çuka e Aitoit. This road has been located just to the west of the aqueduct.
Aerial view of the Temple and part of the road
Close to the road the remains of a temple on a raised podium can be seen. The cella chamber with its wide doors and steep set of steps give access directly onto the road. Equally as visually imposing would have been the free-standing column monument situated near the road at the water’s edge. Visible for anyone arriving by land or sea, the monument must have provided a focal point for Butrint and its hinterland.
The early topography of the suburb seems to have consisted of rather modest sized dwellings intended for the new settlers of the colony created by Julius Caesar in 44 BC and re-established by Augustus after his victory at Actium in 31 BC.
In time these structures gradually vanished as individuals bought up the plots and converted the buildings into larger complexes, which culminated sometime in the late first century AD, when the entire western area appears to have become one or more large and rather luxurious villa complexes centred around large courtyards.
Excavations in the northern of the two courtyards has exposed a large ornamental double-walled fountain, along with a number of rooms off the courtyard including a very large apsidal reception hall that would have given guests spectacular views across the channel to Butrint. This part of the villa was entered via a doorway, which originally had a monumental tile façade, with stone benches placed either side for the attendants and slaves of visiting clients to sit on.
In late Antiquity the area appears to have been partially abandoned, the surviving structures later forming the basis for an ecclesiastic complex in the 6th century AD.
Aerial view of the Vrina Plain towards the Vivari Channel
A relief to the victory goddess
Undoubtedly the finest find from the Vrina Plain, the relief was found by fishermen in 1930.
It depicts a winged Nike or Victoria, the goddess of victory, standing in front of a trophy of armour.
The outline of wings of a second figure can be seen in front of her, suggesting a processional composition.
Its classicising, neo-Attic style was particularly popular in the Augustan period and could be a subtle reference to the emperor’s victory at Actium south of Butrint.
Measuring c. 0.8 x 0.5 m, the relief probably decorated a public monument though it could possibly come from one of the villas identified on the Vrina Plain.
Relief of Nike/Victory
03-04-2012, 08:51 PM
Together with the laying of a new forum space, the other main public building programme instigated in the new Roman city of Butrint was undoubtedly the aqueduct. The line of its brick-built piers stand proud across the Vrina Plain and in front of the Tower Gate in Butrint. The line can be traced to a point slightly to the southeast of Xarra and the source of the water was probably a spring 12 km south of Butrint near Çuka e Aitoit.
A header tank – originally situated on a shingle bank in the Vivari Channel, but now on the edge of the Plain itself – marks where the aqueduct traversed the channel before entering the city at the Tower Gate. There, the water fed into a large cistern (or castellum divisorium) located in the area now occupied by the Great Basilica where the Hellenistic city wall had been removed.
Aqueduct piers on the Vrina Plain
The aqueduct may have formed part of a bridge carrying pedestrian and possibly wheeled traffic across the channel. This bridge was a substantial engineering feat, spanning a considerable stretch of water (at least 200 m), and must have had a significant impact, both visually and symbolically, emphasising the fact that Butrint was no longer just a small port, but was connected by road to the wider entity of the Roman world.
Remains of the header tank
The alignment of the aqueduct appears to coincide with the grid plan of the suburb on the Vrina Plain and other features in the valley. It seems likely then that it formed part of a programme of centuriation, as found elsewhere in Greece and at Phoenicê and Nicopolis.
The aqueduct was clearly rebuilt or altered on at least two occasions; the technique of one of these provides a approximate terminus ante quem of the second half of the 1st century AD for its construction. Augustan period coins minted at Butrint depict the long arcade of the aqueduct bridge. Coins with a similar motif were also minted during the reign of Nero; hence the first grant was probably made during the reign of Augustus and continued or finished during the time of Nero. Aqueducts were extremely costly to build and consequently many were state-sponsored initiatives. They tended to be grand imperial gestures rather than essential public amenities sponsored by private patronage.
The supply of copious quantities of water, primarily for conspicuous public use in the form of bath-houses and fountains, is essentially a Roman innovation, and was a key feature of a number of Roman towns in Greece and Epirus. Some towns such as Corinth and Athens do not appear to have acquired aqueducts until the reign of Hadrian, but at Butrint it seems to have been an important symbolic and practical feature of the city’s new Roman identity.
Neronian and Augustan coins from Butrint depicting the aqueduct
03-04-2012, 08:54 PM
The Roman villa at Diaporit
Diaporit on the southeast side of Lake Butrint provided an ideal location for luxurious living. Sheltered by low hills and with spectacular views across the lake, the site was occupied from the late 3rd century BC.
The early Hellenistic villa may have covered an area of up to 2,000 m2 and was laid out on terraces facing the lake giving it an extensive, open aspect. This is quite different from the fortified farmsteads – like those at Malathrea, Çuka and Metoq – characteristic of the 4th and early 3rd centuries BC, and is suggestive of the greater prosperity and self-confidence of Epirus in the period of King Pyrrhus.
Part of the Roman bathhouse at Diaporit
In the early decades of the 1st century AD, at the very end of the reign of the emperor Augustus and as Butrint benefited from substantial imperial investment, a new Roman villa was constructed. Much of this building now lies beneath the waters of the lake, which have risen since the Roman period, or was destroyed in later building activity, but enough survive to show that it followed the alignment of the earlier Hellenistic villa, facing towards Lake Butrint.
Around AD 40-80 a much larger and more grandiose villa was laid out across the site. Arranged over a series of terraces, it included an elegant east wing with rooms decorated with mosaic and painted wall plaster. The west wing of the villa included a monumental nymphaeum fountain set close to the water’s edge. This may conceivably have been attached to a porticoed walk, giving the villa an imposing aspect when approached from the lakeside, and providing dramatic vistas towards Butrint when viewed from inside the west wing of the building. The southern wing was dominated by a major bath complex that by the late 2nd century included an apsidal room with a cold plunge pool, a large hexagonal room and an elegant internal courtyard.
Roman Bronze objects: bell, bowls and fittings (Butrint Museum)
A striking innovation of this new villa was its different orientation. No longer facing the lake, the design of the new villa was instead orientated directly towards Butrint. We don’t know who its owner might have been, but its definite visual links to Butrint make it at least likely that it belonged to one of the new local elite dominating the political life of the city.
This luxury residence was not without its quirks. Though lavish in design, structurally the work – especially the 2nd-century refurbishments of the bathhouse – appears carelessly and hastily executed. It is possible that the villa during the later period of its life was not permanently occupied, but owned by a person who was resident elsewhere coming only occasionally to Butrint.
Roman objects of adornment and personal use (Butrint Museum)
03-04-2012, 08:58 PM
- VII -
Roman Town planning
A measure of Butrint's prosperity in the mid Roman period can be seen in its townscape. The plan of the new Roman town was very different to the earlier 10 ha fortified site associated with the Sanctuary of Asclepius. The new town was laid out using a regular system of streets which divided the town into insulae (equal-size units of land within the urban area). The area around the so-called Gymnasium is part of one insula.
The building forms a suite of rooms with mosaic pavements separated from a stone-paved courtyard by a large fountain. Its exact function is unknown. It was modified and re-built over four centuries and was finally converted into a church (constructed around the fountain) with a cloister located in the original courtyard in the Late Roman period.
The so-called Gymnasium at Butrint
The heart of an ancient Roman city was the Roman forum. The forum was the religious and civic centre of the city, an open space lined with monumental buildings and marble statues erected in honour of emperors and leading citizens. It was also the city’s commercial hub, a place where people exchanged money and goods.
Excavations in the Forum area
The forum at Butrint is situated close to the sanctuary of Asclepius in the heart of the Hellenistic city. The earliest building found in the excavations is a large Hellenistic building, having the characteristic shape of Greek Stoa, measuring 4.5 m x 25 m. A Stoa is a long roofed building supported by rows of columns, offering a place for informal assembly and a shelter from the scorching summer heat. The Hellenistic building was constructed in the late 2nd or 1st century BC, not long after the Roman conquest of Greece and the Balkans. The building, which was constructed next to a sacred well, may have formed part of a larger complex related to the theatre and the sanctuary of Asclepius.
The Forum pavement
The Roman redevelopment of the complex, probably undertaken after the grant of Roman status to the city, reconfigured the Hellenistic building into a Tripartite building, which overlooked the Roman forum. By the late 1st century AD under the Flavian emperors, the Tripartite building was aggrandized and connected to the forum pavement by five marble steps, while 20 marble steps connected an adjacent two-story building to the forum as well. In front of the Tripartite Building, a large monument was built for honorific statues.
Reconstruction plan of the Forum area
The precise function of the Tripartite building remains unknown, but it may have served as a series of shrines as suggested by an inscription to Minerva. Certainly, it was richly adorned with imported marble wall revetment and wall paintings. The excavations have revealed several sculptures, as well as an exquisite intaglio glass gem (10x20 mm). This depicts a semi-nude standing female, possibly a nymph, wearing a shawl draped loosely about her shoulders.
Sometime after the mid-3rd century AD the Roman complex, along with accompanying statuary, was systematically demolished and despoliated, while the forum pavement remained in limited use.
A dedication to Minerva
Translation: Sacred to Minerva Augusta: this statue(?) and shrine were set up by Manius Otacilius Mystes at his own expense on land voted to him by decree of the city councilors.
Judging by his name, Manius Otacilius Mystes was a freedman; possibly even one of the colonists sent to Butrint by Caesar. The worship of Minerva Augusta was frequently the result of a personal vow, and, indeed, Otacilius Mystes used his own funds for the benefaction.
Mystes’ project received the approval of the council of the city, which provided a suitable site. Such approval was necessary for the construction of a public, as opposed to a private shrine.
The dedication appears to have been made in the early 1st century AD.
The dedication to Minerva
03-04-2012, 09:03 PM
Sculptures from the Forum
Among the fine and varied sculptures and reliefs found the forum area, two freestanding marble statues are particularly interesting. Despite the prosperity of Butrint in the Roman period, these two statues are the only ones found to date depicting figures in the traditional Roman garb of the toga.
The most complete of these statues was discovered carefully deposited within a drain alongside the forum square. It is a striking, life-size figure of a man wearing a toga. The angled base suggests that it was intended for display in a niche, but the original location cannot be determined. Though now headless, it would almost certainly have been a portrait of an important individual, like a local dignitary or an emperor.
Life-size togate statue in situ
His Roman identity is indicated by the imperial style toga he is wearing, and his high social rank is demonstrated by his patrician shoes – evident from the double knots and four long laces around his ankles. The left arm was made separately and in his hand he may have held a book-scroll as a sign of learning and authority. Unusually, the right arm was placed across the chest with the hand resting on the edge of the toga folds.
Stylistic aspects suggest that the statue was made in a Greek workshop sometime around the mid-2nd century AD. This is not the least interesting given its clear Roman iconography; whoever the craftsmen were they must have been intimately aware of the symbols of status in Rome.
More enigmatic is an over life-size statue found near the forum square. Its odd appearance is due to several antique attempts of recutting and changing it: first, by reducing it in size, seemingly to create a smaller figure; secondly, by roughing out a bust from the chest area. None of these reworking attempts were completed. Luckily, enough survives to give an idea of the original appearance of the statue. It would originally have been 2.7 m high and have depicted a Roman man wearing patrician shoes and a toga of a type popular in the late Republic (around 50-25 BC).
Life-size togate statue
One proposal is that the statue would have depicted the emperor Augustus and that it was erected soon after his victory over Marcus Antonius and Cleopatra in 31 BC at Actium south of Butrint. The occasion of could have been to celebrate the contemporary refounding of Butrint as a Roman colony, and to stress the city’s loyalty to the new emperor.
Recently, part of the statue’s right shoulder was discovered indicating that the arm of the figure was raised in a sign of address (adlocutio). This gesture is common in cuirassed statues, but it is highly unusual for a togate statue. The mix of civic and military connotations might be a deliberate reference to the foundation of the city of Nicopolis at the site of the Actium battle. In this way Butrint could associate itself with the Augustan city and promote its participation in a new Roman network of cities in the Ionian.
Over life-size recut statue
Reconstruction of the over life-size recut statue
03-04-2012, 09:05 PM
The Roman Landscape
At Butrint, the Romanisation of the region led to a rearrangement of the hinterland, and the introduction of new systems of land division. The principal division used by Roman land surveyors was a ‘century’ (centuria), commonly a square of 20 by 20 actus (after the Augustan age, equivalent to 50.4 ha).
The fertile alluvial soils found within the valley south of the city would have been a valuable agricultural resource. Aerial photographs taken in 1943 show an intensive land-use history within the valley, revealing a complex network of field systems and land divisions that span over two millennia. Using these images, it has been possible to trace surviving remnants of the Roman land divisions or centuriation.
In accordance with Roman concepts of planning, the layout of urban areas and the organisation and division of the surrounding land was undertaken using a basic unit of measure, the actus, and followed a principal alignment. The layout of the Roman settlement on the Vrina Plain was planned in this way. The orientation of the settlement, determined by the alignment of principal streets (decumani and kardi), appears to relate to a roadway running along the axis or the valley from the southeast, forming the kardo maximus. This general alignment can be seen today by the position of surviving aqueduct piers close to the settlement, which are likely to have run parallel to the roadway.
Working from the position and orientation of the settlement, specially developed image processing routines have been used to detect linear features within the aerial photographs, which follow the same principal alignments of the settlement and which are spaced at distances divisible by actus derived units. These features are boundaries such as banks, track ways and roads separating individual ‘centuries’ – often providing access to individual land allotments. From these detected remnant landscape features, it has been possible to reconstruct patterns of centuriation within the Butrint hinterland.
Centuriation in the Pavllas Valley
A network of land-divisions measuring 20 by 20 actus were discovered, aligning with the street grid of the Vrina Plain settlement at the northwestern end of the valley, indicating that the division of the valley into 20 by 20 actus plots was broadly contemporary with the planning of the settlement. A similar organisation of the landscape has been found at the Augustan colony at Nicopolis in northern Greece where centuries of 20 x 40 actus were used.
The most prominent divisions detected run along the axis of the valley, surviving as track ways important for access along the valley. Fewer of the divisions running across the valley survive. Centuries are likely to have been further sub-divided into smaller plots, such as into four equal parts or into a series as strips. Southeast of the modern village of Vrina, several of these narrow field divisions, visible also in the aerial photographs, are still discernable within the current landscape, surviving as low denuded banks.
03-04-2012, 09:10 PM
- VIII -
A private residence - the triconch palace
Butrint had many townhouses and villas. Of these, the so-called Triconch Palace has been examined in great detail. The original townhouse was developed into a great palace around AD 400.
The early house followed a traditional Roman villa building plan - elegant rooms with mosaic floors and wall paintings arranged around a central courtyard, cooled by a fountain. An inscription on the mosaic at the entrance reveals that it was owned by someone of senatorial rank. The conversion of the villa into a grandiose palace after AD 400 involved the expansion of the original courtyard and a new east wing. This housed a luxurious triconch dining room attached to a riverside entrance.
The rising water table soon compelled the owner to abandon the Palace, although the unfinished shell accommodated many generations of fishermen and craftsmen until the late 6th century AD. In the 9th century AD it was occupied again as a temporary market area. Dwellings and possibly a church were built here in the 13th century AD.
Excavating the Triconch Palace
Reconstruction of the Triconch Palace
From villa to palace
The earliest excavated levels date to the mid-third century AD, when the area appears to comprise three separate plots of land divided by narrow alleys. The town house occupying the central plot probably dates back to the late first or second centuries AD and fronted the Vivari Channel with a handsome view towards Çuka e Aitoit.
By the late third to fourth centuries the central plot was occupied by a large, well-appointed domus. This house was owned by a local grandee who announced his name and status to his visitors by inscribing it in the mosaic floor of the entrance to the building. Only his rank of lamprotato (clarissimus) now survives indicating that he was of senatorial rank. The heart of the building was an elegant colonnaded peristyle courtyard paved with geometric mosaics in the portico and limestone slabs in the centre. A central well drew water from a cistern that collected rainwater from the roofs of the building.
Aerial view of the Triconch palace
Late Roman houses articulated social hierarchies not only of their owners but also of the visitors – the particular parts of the building visitors were allowed to enter and the routes they were allowed to follow varied according to their social status. Here the principal rooms were on the south. A long gallery, probably facing out onto a small garden, offered views across the water and was paved with an elaborate geometric mosaic. At the west end of the gallery was a large apsidal reception hall or dining room. At the eastern end was a small vestibule with the finest mosaics of the entire complex and painted to resemble a colonnade in order to increase the impression of space. Could the two entrances of the domus have been reserved for different classes of visitors?
Around 420 AD the owner embellished and extended his property, creating a palatial complex, by expanding onto the eastern plot. The peristyle was enlarged and the focal point of the building now became a great Triconch dinning room. The relationship with the waterfront continued to be important for the commanding, sweeping vistas and an elegant marine entrance was added to the complex. That the owner was able to block the old streets on either side of his palace suggests not only the importance of the proprietor but also that the urban topography of Butrint was changing.
In fact, the building works were apparently abandoned close to completion before decoration and paving were added. What brought this about? The likeliest answer is the rising water table. A labyrinth of drains indicates that attempts were made to raise the levels of the floors – but to no avail, and the house was abandoned.
Objects from the Triconch Palace (Butrint Museum)
03-04-2012, 09:14 PM
Amulets and talismans from the Triconch Palace
Amulets and protective imagery are characteristic features of the late Roman world, intended to assure safety, health and success in a period of increasing social insecurity and urban decline.
Within in the Triconch Palace various images were designed to protect the house and its occupants. In the mosaic pavement, immediately in front of the main doorway, was a large eye surrounded by a variety of motifs, including crosses. This Evil Eye motif was designed to protect against the effects of envy or malicious spirits, and an element of superstition is here combined with Christian symbols to protect the main entrance into the house.
Apotropaic designs were also incorporated into the four main windows of the dining hall: crosses, Chi-Rho monograms and six-pointed stars. Other than the Christian protective symbols, the pointed star was a common sign on magic gemstones. These window grilles would have protected the hall and the guests from evil spirits and demons that might slip in on a breath of wind or a shaft of light.
A number of amulets similarly reveal something of the everyday practices and beliefs of this period.
Bone plaque with dog and evil eye
On a bone intaglio plaque, a magnificent hunting dog with trailing leash leaps over a large eye. The hunting dog was often used to denote status, power and control. The idea behind the plaque is similar to that in the mosaic floor; here the hound leaps over and brings to bay the dangerous eye.
Similar sentiments are expressed on a two-sided copper tag. On one side is depicted a horseman with haloed head and flying cloak who lances a prone figure, while a lion bounds along below. The surrounding legend reads: ‘One god who conquers evil’. This holy rider can be identified with Solomon, the master of demons, who was empowered to control and bind all evil spirits. The image on the other side shows the Evil Eye assailed by spears and a trident, and surrounded by aggressive creatures, like a lion, serpents and a scorpion. At the top is inscribed ‘Iao/Jawe, Lord of Hosts, Michael, help’, calling on a popular trinity of protective powers of Jewish association. This type of amulets is thought to have been worn by children and by women to guard against mishap in childbirth.
Lead pendant with cross
Purely Christian imagery appears on a small circular lead pendant inscribed with a cross within a circling band – the halo of light associated with the second coming of Christ – and on a cruciform anchor incised on a finger ring. Here the salvation sign of the cross is combined with the apotropaic symbol of hope, the anchor.
The mosaic pavement, the windows and the bone plaque with the leaping dog all belong to the Triconch Palace when it was one of the largest and most prominent houses of the late antique city. In superstitious beliefs little separated the educated elite from their poorer clients.
Yet, most of the small protective amulets date from an age of anxiety, at a time when the palace was in ruins and subdivided. For individuals whose lives were fragile and insecure, the amulets represented personal security and preservation.
Tag with horseman (front and back)
Modern-day domestic magic
Practises to protect the house and its occupants can still be found in use in Albania today.
In southern Albania it is customary when constructing a house to set up a doll or figure in an elevated position.
The purpose is generally apotropaic: to safeguard a structure from calamity, misfortune or from the envious glances and ambitions of a neighbour.
The figures remain up during construction, watching over the building while it is open and the windows and doors still bare holes.
They may stay in place if further work, like an extension or second storey, is planned for the future.
The practice is widespread, and can catch one’s eye and even haunt one’s imagination quite dramatically on first acquaintance.
03-04-2012, 09:17 PM
The grandiose building works for the Triconch Palace were never completed. The building was abandoned and was immediately given over to a series of smaller, less impressive dwellings. Both domestic and industrial buildings now occupied the shell of the former palace. Most of these were constructed of timber and drystone or clay-bonded walls – and none lasted more than a generation before being reconstructed. It cannot be determined if the inhabitants were seasonal occupants or town-dwellers who somehow coped with the rising water levels.
Postholes of a medieval house
In the fifth century many of the buildings were used for industrial activity whereas in the sixth century most seem to have been fishermen’s dwellings. It is tempting to see this period as one of crushing poverty – but, in fact, the finds from this period are rich. Coins, imported amphorae, fine tableware and quality glass all distinguish this period. The finds do, however, evidence a change in the axis of trade. Where imports mainly come from the west up until the mid-fifth century, after that and until the mid-sixth century the majority of imports come from the east Mediterranean.
Excavating a medieval burial
Many amulets designed to protect the wearer have been found from this period of greater anxiety – but also objects of decoration and leisure, like bone gaming pieces. A small lathe-turned ivory piece is particularly fine. Resembling most of all a chess piece, it is probably an elaborate finial from a deluxe domestic object.
Then, around 550 AD the imports died up and the character of the area changed: simple graves, including infants buried in transport amphorae, now accompanied the simple dwellings. Analysis of the skeletal remains evidence many disorders – urban life was obviously taking on a new and more stressful character.
Infant buried in an amphora
03-04-2012, 09:19 PM
3 eras of the Triconch Palace
03-04-2012, 11:05 PM
- IX -
The Baptistery and early christian Butrint
By the 5th century AD Christianity was flourishing at Butrint and the city had its own bishop. The Baptistery and the Great Basilica were constructed in the early 6th century. The Baptistery was discovered in 1928 by the Italian Archaeological mission. It is the second largest baptistery in the Eastern Roman Empire, the largest being that of Hagia Sofia in Istanbul.
Every aspect of the architecture and decoration of the Baptistery is symbolic of the baptismal rite, with the fountain on the far side of the Baptistery representing the fountain of eternal life. The intricate brightly coloured mosaic has representations of land (animals), air (birds), and water (fish), symbolizing aspects of Christian salvation.
The attention of the visitor crossing the threshold of the main entrance is held by two large peacocks in a vine growing from a great vase. The peacocks symbolise paradise and immortality, and the vase and grapes, the Eucharist and the blood of Christ.
The Baptistery at Butrint
Aerial view of the Baptistery
The mosaic pavement of the Baptistery
03-04-2012, 11:08 PM
The mosaic pavement
The extraordinary polychrome mosaic floor of the Butrint Baptistery is the most complete and complex mosaic pavement of all surviving baptisteries of the period. It can be dated to the second quarter of the 6th century AD, and may have been the work of craftsmen based at Nicopolis.
The overall design of the floor consists of seven bands circling the baptismal font at the centre – making in all eight, the Christian number of salvation and eternity. Salvation is one of the principal themes of the mosaic, expressed as the water of baptism and the water of life; that is, the salvation brought to the faithful. Water and salvation is further associated with the sacramental blood of Christ and the wine of the Eucharist: the rebirth out of water into a new life and the prospect of salvation.
Detail of panel with stags
Detail of fish on line
The theme of awakening to a new life is announced by two cockerels situated immediately inside the threshold – symbols of the proclaiming of the new day, of rebirth and resurrection. Between these and the font are two emblematic panels: one, a large vase with vines, peacocks and other birds; the other, two stags drinking at a fountain beneath an arch flanked by trees: Both readily understood by contemporaries as the related themes of salvation through the water of baptism and through the blood of Christ’s sacrifice and death. In the first panel, the vine can refer to Christ and his followers, and by extension to the church, and the peacocks establish a paradisiacal setting suggestive of rebirth. The deer or stags in the second panel figure as symbols of the faithful aspiring to Christ, and to neophytes at the font of baptism.
Detail of panel with peacocks by Igenio Epicoco
Over the rest of the floor, terrestrial quadrupeds, birds (for the most part water birds), a few fish, and plants with gay red flowers, set in two circling medallion chains, represent God’s new creation. There are surprisingly few fish in the mosaic considering their association with Christ and baptism. In one medallion two fish brings to mind the image of Christ and the apostles as fishers of men, suggesting they symbolise the initiates rescued from sin through baptism. The only narrative element in the medallions occurs in three panels in the outer ring where a black hound is chasing an ass into a net. Read symbolically they may represent the faithful chased by Christ into the net of the church, or as Christ pursued by the devil into death and resurrection.
Detail of three panels with dog, ass and net
The decoration in the room to the north differs from that in the baptistery, and though roughly contemporary they were the work of two distinct ateliers. A running ivy scroll runs round the walls of the room. Within this are two large areas, one consisting of squares and medallions with various motifs – birds, branches bearing fruit, and peacocks flanking vases; the other, medallions, interlocking octagons with stylised black trees, and an inscription apparently recording the name of a bishop. This was presumably the bishop who commissioned the pavement and perhaps the construction of the room.
The effect of the mosaic floor in the 6th century must have been similar to how it strikes a modern visitor to Butrint: as a composition of great complexity and as one of the most impressive interior spaces in the region.
Eight, the number of eternity
Eight is the final age of Christian history, and on the eighth great day after the Final Judgement the everlasting life will dawn for Christian faithfuls. Hence the number symbolises salvation and eternity. Since baptism is seen as the gateway to salvation, baptisteries have long been linked to the number eight. In the Baptistery two rings of eight columns frame the baptismal font, which itself is the culminating eighth element of the seven decorative bands that encircle it. Interlocking octagons decorate the floor in the adjoining room, and the roof of the Baptistery may have been octagonal in shape. In the 4th century AD St Ambrose wrote of the octagonal baptistery in Milan: ‘It was fitting that the baptismal hall should stand to the number eight, by which true salvation returned to mankind’.
03-04-2012, 11:11 PM
The ritual and use of the Baptistery
The Baptistery would have been one of most prominent buildings erected in 6th-century AD Butrint, an imposing solitary structure, apparently 100 metres distant from the nearest large church. In its heyday this was one of the grandest baptisteries of the late antique world, vying in its architecture and ornamentation with the most magnificent examples in Ravenna, Nocera Inferiore and Rome in Italy. The baptistery was constructed within one of the rooms of an earlier Roman bath-complex. Indeed, the presence of a praefurnium, a simple water-heating apparatus, constructed within one of the four little triangular corner rooms, may have conveyed water via an underground pipe directly to the font. Butrint may have functioned as something of a spa town in the period, and it would appear that the Church thought to cater for the comfort of a leisured congregation that might be put off at the prospect of christening in cold water.
Reconstructed column and capital in the Baptistery
Two rings each of eight columns form inner and outer aisles circling a cruciform font at the centre. The principal axis of the building ran from the entrance with its large mosaic panels to the baptismal font and, beyond, to a small fountain bubbling within an arched aedicule. The fountain must have had a purely symbolic function, as an image of the Fountain of Life, the fountain in Paradise, referred to in the first book of Genesis, identified with Christ, and central to the iconography of baptism.
The fountain aedicule
The floor was clearly the principal scheme of imagery in the building, designed to provide an appropriate setting for the ritual and to articulate the liturgical functions of the space. The other cardinal axis, running transversely through the building, is also emphasised. To the southeast, to the right of the font, a medallion with a magnificent water-plant with three red blossoms may have marked the spot where the bishop stood – or sat on his throne – during the ritual. To the northwest, or left of the font, a door led into an adjoining room. The design of the mosaic floor in this room suggests that it was designed to be entered principally from the Baptistery and to function as a secondary subordinate space to this. The function of the room is hard to determine. It may have been designed as the consignatorium, the room in which neophytes were anointed and confirmed by the bishop immediately after their baptism, or the catechumeneum, the hall in which the bishop instructed candidates before baptism. Perhaps the most likely explanation is that it served as an adjunct room, in which the candidates for baptism could divest themselves of their wordly garments, before putting on the pure white robes marking their spiritual.
Detail of mosaic panel with flowers
The Baptistery was designed and decorated with great care. One of its chief purposes was to define and subtly articulate its interior space as a theatre in which considerable numbers of participants – the bishop, the clergy, the baptisands and their relatives and sponsors – all had parts to play in an elaborate ceremony.
The Baptistery at Butrint
03-04-2012, 11:14 PM
- X -
Gateway to Butrint
The area on the southeast of Butrint marked one of the main entrances into the city between the 3rd century BC and the 14th century AD.
In the later 3rd century BC an imposing entrance, the Tower Gate, was constructed. It was flanked by a round tower on one side and a rectangular tower on the other, both with arrow slits. Wooden gates sealed each end of the long passageway between the two towers, which was wide enough for a cart to pass.
In the Middle Ages a new gate, The Water Gate, was constructed on the edge of the lake with a tower on the seaward side to protect from attack.
Drawing of Butrint coin with portrait of Augustus and aqueduct
Head of a statue of Dionysus
Reconstruction of the Tower Gate
03-04-2012, 11:18 PM
The Tower Gate
The impressive remains of the Tower Gate lie at the head of a paved roadway that brought visitors into the ancient city from the bridge and landing stage crossing the Vivari Channel.
Originally this was probably a fairly open thoroughfare, to provide a clear approach and to permit the traveller entering the city to absorb the full effect of this two-storied stone-built gate. As the city grew the road became choked with buildings: a nymphaeum, baths, the aqueduct and later the Great Basilica. Despite being partly buried amongst these later buildings the gate was left in position, even after the old city walls had become disused, and must have continued to act as a monumental and formal entrance into the legal and sacred area of the city.
Reconstruction of the Tower Gate
The gate was substantial, with twin portals separated by a central square tower. To the side of the eastern portal stood a projecting round-ended tower. Both of these were constructed with finely cut rectangular blocks with the typical rusticated surfaces to be seen on the circuit walls elsewhere in Butrint.
The large eastern rounded-ended tower contained two rooms with a doorway in the northern wall of the tower permitting access to the interior. Corbelled arches over the doorways, and upright monolithic stone piers in each room, point to the existence of a corbelled vault sustaining an upper floor. The tower was probably only two stories high, and perhaps capped by a parapet or a pitched roof.
The Tower Gate
The projection of the tower beyond the line of the wall is in origin a defensive measure, permitting defenders to enfilade any attackers approaching the gate. A series of squint windows in the walls look out to the east and west, along the wall line and into the gateway. There are no records of Butrint ever having been attacked in this fashion, but the walls and gates would equally have served as a status symbol for the city.
The dating of the gate is uncertain as it relies completely on the style of the masonry. Normally this would place it within the 4th to 3rd centuries BC. The line of the wall to the west, however, might be dated to the 1st century BC or later from the reused inscriptions found in the (now demolished) Tower of Inscriptions. Certainly the style and masonry technique used on the gate can be paralleled from other city dates and walls all over the Hellenistic world.
Reconstruction of the Tower Gate
The brick-built nymphaeum sits by the side of the principal road into Butrint. As it stands it consists of a semi-circular basin with three niches at the back, and with a large vaulted cistern to the rear. On top of the cistern there remains the plaster lining for a substantial water tank, the sides of which are now missing. The brick structure was obviously once lined with stone and stucco, most of which is now missing, though the fine moulded base still remains. The construction date is uncertain but is likely to have been in the 1st or 2nd centuries AD. During the excavations of the 1920s and 30s statues of Dionysus and Apollo were discovered lying within the basin, these may originally have stood within the niches at the back as part of the decoration.
While overtly a public fountain, the nymphaeum actually served a number of functions. It was at a fountain for travellers passing into and out of the city and as such a typical piece of civic munificence erected for public use. Originally it may have been part of a pair, the twin buildings facing each other across the roadway. This certainly is the arrangement of the larger and grander fountains that flank the road leading into the great Augustan city of Nicopolis to the south of Butrint. If this was the case here then the second structure now lies beneath the Great Basilica. This arrangement would have been a spectacular and imposing part of the approach to the tower gate at the end of the road.
Another function seems to have been as part of the aqueduct system of Butrint, perhaps as a settling tank or small castellum aquae, from where water could be channelled into different pipes and conduits. The foundations of the aqueduct piers can be seen on the southern side of the cistern, continuing along the road into the city. This was apparently how the cistern was filled. However, it is also clear that the northern branch of the aqueduct is a later addition, the north wall and the aperture there have been modified to take the channel, and the piers of the aqueduct are built on top of the road paving. Originally water must have been distributed in a different fashion, possibly from the upper tank.
The aqueduct piers leading into the nymphaeum
Statue of Dionysus
03-04-2012, 11:20 PM
The Water Gate
The extension of the walled area of Butrint in late antiquity and the Middle Ages altered the appearance of the city radically. However, the access to the south bank of the Vivari Channel, or at least to a landing stage for a ferry, in the area near the Great Basilica remained vital. As a consequence a new gateway was constructed in the later enceinte, at the southern end of the limestone-paved road that for centuries had been the principal entrance to Butrint.
The city walls here form an extensive, square re-entrant, with the new gate on the northern side. This space may have constituted a port or inlet for beaching boats. The structure of the gate that exists at present is almost entirely medieval and was probably erected between the 13th and 15th centuries. It is likely that an earlier late-antique gate also existed here, though no traces of this now remain.
Reconstruction of the area around the Water Gate
There are two principal phases of construction visible. Firstly, the sections of curtain wall with merlons on either side of the gate portal were constructed in limestone with square putlog holes. Sometime later the central section, with the gate portal, was rebuilt in a different type of masonry using tile packing. The fairly narrow gate itself has an arch of tiles and an upper relieving arch of tiles and stones, a typical feature to be seen on other gates of this date such as the Angevin castle at Cassiope on Corfu, or on the gates of the Acropolis walls in Butrint.
As part of this rebuild, or perhaps as part of a later programme of restoration, a wall walk was added to the rear of the gate. This is a series of arcades supporting a fighting platform above, accessed by stairways from the rear. There were clearly problems with this structure as a number of buttresses were added over the centuries to sustain the arcades, one of which party blocked the gateway.
The Water Gate
Small amphora and jug (Butrint Museum)
03-04-2012, 11:24 PM
- XI -
The Churches of Butrint
Butrint, from the 5th century, had a bishop and the Great Basilica was the bishop's church. It was constructed in the early 6th century AD, at the same time as the Baptistery. The original basilica would have had three aisles separated by colonnades of columns and capitals reused from earlier buildings, some of these can still be seen inside. The floor was paved with a mosaic, which was created by the same craftsmen who made the Baptistery mosaic, and there was a polygonal apse.
In the medieval period the Basilica was substantially rebuilt with stone piers and a new semi-circular apse. A flagstone floor was placed over the mosaic pavement. Elsewhere in the town another eight churches have been found so far. The most significant of these is located on the plain on the opposite side of the Vivari Channel.
Aerial view of the Great Basilica
The Great Basilica
As elsewhere in the Mediterranean, from about the fifth century AD public patronage was redirected primarily towards the Church. The principal late-antique church at Butrint was the Great Basilica next to the Tower Gate. This was effectively Butrint’s cathedral. Indeed, it is likely that a bishop was always present here between the 7th and 10th centuries.
The edifice comprised a three ailed basilica with a tripartite transept. In front of the façade, in the narrow space close to the Hellenistic city wall, was a small atrium. The great piers separating the aisles visible today are part of a later reconstruction, as is the paving of stone slabs; the original pavement appear to have been a figurative mosaic similar in style to that of the Baptistery.
View of the Great Basilica
Incised decoration on the exterior wall
A section of the mosaic pavement can still be seen in the central aisle near the altar. It depicts lively polychrome bands of trailing ivy and scrolling guilloche motifs – both are characteristic of Nicopolis mosaicists, and the Great Basilica, like the Baptistery, can be dated to the second quarter of the 6th century AD.
The sanctuary, the area around the altar, was slightly raised above the nave floor and contained within a large apse. On the interior the apse was shaped as a smooth semi-circle but on the exterior it formed a pentagon decorated with the incised circles and interlocking triangles characteristic of the period. The outline of a huge five-lobed window extending the entire width of the apse can still be seen.
Until the 16th century when the bishop moved to Glyky (near Arta, now in northern Greece), the bishop would have been a focal point for the Christian community at Butrint and the Great Basilica was the physical manifestation of his authority. Hence, as the urban layout of Butrint changed and was remodelled during the Middle Ages, so too modifications were made to the basilica.
Plan and axonometric view of the Great Basilica
Part of the façade was rebuilt, the colonnades were replaced by square masonry piers and the mosaic pavement covered by large rectangular limestone slabs. At a subsequent date the great window of the apse was replaced by a smaller trilobal window topped by a single central opening – giving it the aspect seen today.
Given the present somewhat austere appearance of the Great Basilica, it is important to remember that the interior would have been richly decorated. Comparison with other churches on Corfu and in Epirus indicates that it would have been adorned with figurative murals, hanging lamps and most probably also an iconostasis screen separating the altar from the congregation, splendidly carved with icons, painted and covered in gold leaf. This iconographic richness would have been addressed directly to the congregation and to visitors to Butrint in a splendid affirmation of the authority of the bishop and the status of the city in which he was located.
Lamp with Christian cross (Butrint Museum)
03-04-2012, 11:27 PM
Other Churches at Butrint
Church building flourished in Butrint, not just with the 6th-century constructions of the Great Basilica and the Baptistery, but also in the 13th century as the city’s fortunes were renewed. Other than the Great Basilica and the Acropolis Basilica, seven small churches have so far been identified within Butrint, and more exist in the landscape beyond – along the Vivari Channel, on the Vrina Plain, at Shën Dëlli and at Çiflik. Common to all is the importance of their location: situated at visually striking points or at major gateways of the city. The latter indicates that the walls and gates were still functioning, and suggests a thriving and sizeable population, though it is dangerous to equate the number of churches with the number of inhabitants to use them.
The painted decoration in the Stoa church
Next to the theatre, suspended high against the hillside, are the remains of a small, decorated church (the Stoa church). This was probably demolished during the excavations of the theatre by the Italian Archaeological Mission. The decoration, dated to the 14th century, is a vibrantly painted row of over life-size figures, three of which remain. The first is a bearded male figure with yellow halo; his right hand is raised in speech, in the left he holds a white scroll or tablet. His fur-lined cloak suggests that he is an eremitic prophet like Elijah. The central figure is the Archangel Michael. He has great blue/red feathered wings reaching to the ground, and in his right hand he holds up a sword. The third, female, figure holds a slender double cross against her breast; unlike the men, she is surrounded by a red-brown halo. Her identity is uncertain, but she could be Saint Paraskeve, the personification of Good Friday.
The northwest church
The best preserved of the small churches is the Northeast church. It is a single-celled structure (6.95x4.6 m) with a central apse pierced by a narrow window. Its west wall was formed of the city wall, and hence the church was entered through doorways in the lateral walls. Its presence might have signalled a path at this location leading from the lower city to the acropolis.
Mosaic decoration in the Gymnasium church
A church was inserted into the Roman nymphaeum (the ‘Gymnasium’) close to the Forum. In late antiquity the fountain niches were decorated with mosaics of a kantheros and birds, and in the later Middle Ages a bell tower was added. Similarly, the church next to the Baptistery is a late medieval rebuilding of an earlier church with the addition of a bell tower. Associated cemeteries were found at both sites. A cluster of 13th- to 14th-century burials in the Triconch Palace – including a solitary skull set in a packing of stone – would suggest that another chapel was located.
Excavating the skull in the Triconch Palace
By the West Gate to the Acropolis, a chapel or church was in the 15th-century adorned with figurative paintings including the Virgin of the Annunciation. Though little survives today, it is a testament to how this dense landscape of ecclesiastical buildings continued to be a feature of Butrint through the Early Modern period.
03-04-2012, 11:30 PM
The monastery at Diaporit
After almost 200 years of abandonment, the sprawling Roman villa at Diaporit on Lake Butrint was reoccupied in the late 5th century as a pilgrimage centre. The old buildings were gutted for materials and a large three-aisled Christian church was constructed on a terrace set well back from the shore.
Aerial view of the basilica at Diaporit
The basilica church was focused around three marble-lined tombs in the apse that probably contained the bones of people said to be saints or martyrs. The possible identity of these saints is unknown. Excavation of the apse tombs revealed only a single solitary leg bone, and it is likely that the rest of the contents of these tombs were removed in the Middle Ages.
Lamp with Chi-Rho symbol (Butrint Museum)
The church and the cult may have been maintained by a small monastic community, and around the basilica a series of structures were built. This hypothesis may be supported by the distinct preferential entryways to the basilica itself, which would have ensured a separation between members of the monastic community and lay visitors to the site.
Glass pane from Diaporit
Large kilns provided materials for the roofing of the church, while a variety of storerooms, re-using the rooms of the former Roman villa, held the provisions of the community. The main dwelling was a two-storey house with an associated tower, bathhouse and chapel. A glass pane, simply made of poured rather than blown glass, found in the small chapel may have functioned as a shelf for ritual implements and objects.
Early Christian activity spread across all areas of the site. Around the Roman bathhouse and in the area close to the lake, 5th- and 6th-century remains were found. The bath-house was also partially used as a cemetery.
The occupation of this Christian centre probably lasted no more than 60-70 years. The church complex and pilgrimage centre at Diaporit was abandoned by AD 550 as Butrint experienced a short economic downturn and – unlike the basilica on the Vrina Plain – not reoccupied or transformed for other uses.
Photomontage of altar screen fragments
03-12-2012, 11:37 PM
The basilica on the Vrina Plain
The vigorous late 5th- to mid 6th-century ecclesiastic building programme at Butrint is evident also on the Vrina Plain where a large basilica – possibly the focus of a monastic community – was constructed reusing older structures. A Roman three-aisled apsidal building located close to the water’s edge, was remodelled to become the entrance for the new Christian church. On one side a triple doorway was cut through the wall to form a façade, on the other was added the church proper. The new basilica church could in this way boast an imposing façade and entryway consisting of a double porch (exonarthex and narthex) facing directly toward Butrint and the Vivari Channel.
Aerial view of the basilica on the Vrina Plain
Whereas the church was paved with elaborate mosaics, the new narthex was covered in stone slabs. Here, in front of the main doorway a large tomb was inserted – presumably to hold the remains of one of the benefactors of the church, whose donation is alluded to in the mosaic floor. Rooms on either side of the basilica appear to have been memorial chapels. From the eastern aisle a narrow door led into a small square room with a bench along one wall. A niche in the back wall of the room appears to have been either the location of devotional object set on a glass shelf, or have formed the sill of a window to light the room.
In sharp contrast to this, the late 6th to 9th centuries were characterised by heavy taxation, civil unrest and diminished trading. This spelt a period of sharp recession for Butrint, as for other maritime economies, and by the early Middle Ages the use of the basilica had changed radically. Reduced to its central aisle and sanctuary it was now the private chapel of an important local aristocrat. An upper storey for private habitation had been constructed over the basilica, in the side aisles a variety of workshop activities were located, and structural repairs required the insertion of posts through the mosaic floor.
Silvered horse-bit, Vrina Plain
Byzantine lead seals, Vrina Plain
Despite the utilitarian aspect of the ground floor, the inhabitant was clearly a person of regional and international standing. No less than four lead seals, designed to authenticate official documents, were found. One is illegible, but two were issued by respectively the strategos of Nicopolis and the strategos of Dyrrhachium. The third – depicting a peacock – was issued by Constantine, Eunuch of the Imperial Bedchamber in Byzantium. Further, more than 50 late 9th-/early 10th-century Byzantine coins, were found in excavation, as was a splendid iron horse bit inlaid with silver.
Byzantine coins (folles), Vrina Plain
Linked to this aristocratic household a small cemetery was established, possibly for the community or retainers under the jurisdiction of the official. A young female was interred adorned with bronze earrings in her ears and two silver earrings tied by a cord around her neck, whereas a young man was buried wearing a broad belt with an ornate bronze belt buckle and strap end. This grave was cut through the mosaic floor and marked by a foot-stone; the care and location suggesting that he may have belonged to the aristocratic family. The building appears to have been abandoned in the mid- 10th century due to a rise in water levels, and the site was reduced to a cemetery.
Buckle and strap end from male grave
03-12-2012, 11:42 PM
The mosaic pavement of the Vrina Basilica
The mosaic pavement of the Vrina Plain basilica appear to pre-date that of the Baptistery by almost a generation, dating to the last quarter of the 5th or the first years of the 6th century AD.
Detail of panel with pear tree
In the nave the design is a single composition stretching from the entrance to the sanctuary screen. This long rectangular central scheme is framed by three borders of geometric and plant motifs. The central field consists of irregular octagons, each filled with a variety of motifs including sea-creatures, birds, terrestrial beasts, fruits, flowers, trees and abstract motifs – designed to depict a terrestrial paradise of God’s creation. Superimposed on this scheme are two large tablets, tabulae ansatae, carrying inscriptions.
A variety of fish, a crab, a lobster, shrimps, mushrooms, flowers, a stag and two cruciform designs surround the smaller of the two inscriptions, which reads: In fulfilment of the vow (prayer) of those whose names God knows. This anonymous dedicatory inscription is a public demonstration of the benefactors’ humility and an acknowledgement of God’s omniscience, which obviates any need of spelling out the names (although not apparently the need to record one’s generosity in epigraphic form).
Detail of panel with dedicatory inscription
The second large tabula ansata, now largely destroyed, read: […] and rest […] your bodily/material matter […]. This dedication is surrounded by a symmetrically ordered group of animals of sheep and birds facing the inscription. The size of this tablet and the ordered disposition of animals suggest that this was the more important of the two inscriptions on the floor. Close to the sanctuary are depicted birds and trees bearing fruit, while on the threshold itself is a chalice and a vine with two prominent bunches of grapes.
Detail of panels with quadruped animal and birds pecking at a fig
The central feature directly in front of the altar is an arched aedicule, surrounded by two small birds and two cypress trees. Within the arch a single red-flowered plant grew and a lamp was left burning. The richly ornamented octagon panels around this motif are in turn framed by magnificent curling plants with brightly-coloured fruit issuing from fluted trumpets.
The apse was raised up above the level of the mosaic and was entered via a step. Unlike the nave and the bema, the apse had a flagstoned floor. A large robber-cut in the centre of the apse indicated that originally something of importance had been placed here – possibly a confessio or relic-deposit.
Overall it would appear that the disposition of motifs over the floor is not random. Rather, there is a somewhat informal progression from sea-creatures at the entrance, past feral and domestic animals, and the ordered group around the main inscription, to a large assembly of fruit-bearing trees, flowers, birds and animals. This culminates in a large chalice with curling S-shaped handles, and a grape-bearing vine on the threshold to the sanctuary – announcing the eucharistic space around the altar and leading to the plain devotional space holding the relics.
Detail of the mosaic floor around the altar
All God’s creation
The abundant variety of natural life depicted in the Butrint mosaics celebrates the richness of God’s creation; some elements also have specific connotations. The Kantharos vase and vine refer to the eucharist, the symbol of the sacrifice of Christ leading to salvation. Peacocks are symbols of paradise and resurrection; shown eating or drinking from the vase they indicate the route to eternal life. Deer or stags were commonly used as images of the faithful aspiring to Christ: ‘like a hart desires the water brook, so my souls longs for thee, O God.’ Water-birds and fish and other sea-creatures can indicate baptism as well as the members of the Church who are christened. Flowers, ivy, laurel and the wealth of interlocking patterns carry connotations of Paradise: the abundance and peace of eternal bliss.
03-12-2012, 11:48 PM
- XII -
The spectacular circuit wall of Butrint dates back to the 4th century BC and is a fine example of the engineering skills of this period. The wall was constructed, without mortar, using large blocks that fit closely together. The gate was discovered by the Italian Archaeological Mission in the 1930s. They associated the gate with the Scaean Gate mentioned in Virgil's epic poem The Aeneid (Book III). Virgil recounts Aeneas's journey from Troy to Italy, and his meeting with the Trojan exiles, Helenus and Andromache who, according to legend, founded Butrint.
I saw before me Troy in miniature
A slender copy of our massive tower,
A dry brooklet named Xanthus…and I pressed
My body against a Scaean Gate. Those with me
Feasted their eyes on this, our kinsmen's town.
In spacious colonnades the king received them,
And offering mid-court their cups of wine
They made libation, while on plates of gold
A feast was brought before them.
The plumb-line cut into the corner of the wall may been to ensure the straight arrangement of the blocks or else served for a drain-pipe. Whatever its function, it is proof of the masterful precision of the 4th century BC builders.
Detail of plumb line in walls at Butrint
Luigi Maria Ugolini at the Lake Gate
03-12-2012, 11:51 PM
The Archaic walls
The earliest walls at Butrint are found on the acropolis and consist of four sections of ‘cyclopean’ polygonal walling each composed of massive blocks impressively jointed together. Some archaeologists have interpreted these as part of a fortification belonging to the archaic period. This would have enclosed an area of 4 hectares at most.
Excavations on the Acropolis
However, it is more probable that the four sections of walling formed a prominent elevated terrace on the conspicuous south side of the summit. The walled area almost certainly enclosed a sanctuary of some kind situated on the eastern summit of the hill. Excavations beside the archaic wall by the Albanian-Greek team in 1989-94 produced a substantial amount of pottery, including proto-Corinthian and Corinthian wares dating from the 7th century BC and Attic pottery of the 6th century BC.
Section of Cyclopean wall
Whether this huge wall was a terrace or early fortification, the potsherds suggest that it was constructed as an outlier of the flourishing Corinthian colony at Corfu. One tract of this huge wall was buttressed in the Roman period to ensure it remained a prominent feature on the upper part of the Acropolis.
The so-called cyclopean masonry is a construction technique using enormous blocks of stone fitted together without the use of mortar. The stones may be unworked or roughly worked, and are most often irregular in shape (polygonal). The aspect of the wall hence resembles a complex puzzle.
The style is particularly associated with Bronze Age Mycenaean fortifications. However, the strength and impressive aspect of the walls meant that it remained in use much longer.
The term comes from ancient Greek writers who attributed the style to the Cyclopes, the mythological one-eyed giants, arguing that only giants could have fitted the huge blocks together.
03-12-2012, 11:54 PM
The Hellenistic walls
A Hellenistic circuit of fortifications with six vaulted gates was erected at Butrint to enclose an area running around the lower flank of the hill. The circuit of walls may well consist of two periods of construction, although there is no excavated evidence to prove this. The new walls were made of blocks skilfully fitted together without mortar. In places plumb-lines the width of a fist were incised by the engineers. Luigi Ugolini admiringly concludes that these were to ensure the correct, straight arrangement of the blocks; N.G.L. Hammond disputes this and suggests they were for drain-pipes. Whichever, the precision of the builders is unswervingly astounding.
The Lake Gate
Of the surviving gates the so-called Lake Gate is an architectural gem. Simply made, the high lintel conceals stone architraves supported by consol cornices (Could this be the gate that Virgil might have seen and tells us about? asked Ugolini elegiacally). The same technique was employed at the Lion Gate, where it can be seen encased in a later construction. Gates on the north and west side, as well as leading to the western end of the acropolis are less well preserved. Undoubtedly, though, the main entrance – the Tower Gate - lay on the south side, providing access to the sanctuary of Asclepius from the Vivari Channel. This was an imposing entrance made of smaller blocks flanked by a round tower on one side and a rectangular tower on the other. Arrow slits in the forward positions offered guards the opportunity to control access. Wooden gates sealed the front and back of the 7 m long passageway between the two towers.
The Hellenistic walls enclosed as much as 10 hectares and constituted a formidable symbol of the authority invested here, probably the Prasaebes tribe. The walls were erected either in the early 3rd century BC during the reign of King Pyrrhus or after 167 BC when Butrint prospered under Roman control. In either case, though, the elegantly made fortifications affirm the importance of the sanctuary dedicated to Asclepius, the god of medicine, occupying the south-facing terraces.
The Tower Gate
03-13-2012, 12:00 AM
The lion gate
The so-called Lion Gate takes its name from the relief depicting a lion devouring the head of a bull positioned above the entrance. The lion relief was not part of the original wall, but was placed here in the 5th century AD, in order to reduce the size of the gate and make it easier to defend. The relief is from a temple building and may date from as early as the 6th century BC.
Drawing of the lion relief
The spring inside the gate was, during Roman times, associated with the cult of nymphs. An inscription in front of the well records that a citizen of Butrint, Junia Rufina, paid for its refurbishment in the 2nd century AD: “Junia Rufina friend of nymphs”
When it was first excavated, Christian motifs were discovered on the back wall of the well, suggesting that the pagan spring had been Christianised in the 5th or 6th centuries AD.
The marble balustrade of the well
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