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An Insider’s Tour of Butrint

30 June 2011

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We drove away from the first rest stop in Albania in the late afternoon, watching the family who owned it that we had just spent taking pictures of wave to us from the front of the café. We had driven the wrong way (we learned from the people at the rest stop) if we wanted to get to the Historical site of Butrint, so we retraced ten or 15 minutes of road.

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The sun was angling along the mountainous skyline, giving the landscape a warm evening shine. In one spot it shone through some heavy clouds and made a little rainbow.

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We stopped a few times along to way to admire beautiful birds, turtles, and other animals enjoying the afternoon as much as we were. In a few minutes we saw a tiny hand written sign taped to a post. It said “Butrint” and had an arrow pointing us down the dirt road just beyond. We turned off and bumped along it for a few kilometers.

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Then it turned smooth and straight and we passed through serene and enchanted countryside. There were farms and cows and puffy clouds, straight level plains with smug little hills that sat fat and green on top, and wide-open countryside that was stunning in the evening light.

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The ancient city of Butrint was built on a thumb of land almost entirely surrounded by water. From the direction we were traveling from, we had to take a little cable ferry to reach the UNESCO site.

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We drove up to the wooden raft-like ferry and the man collecting the 2 Euro fare signaled to his colleague on the other shore to start the engine that turned a large turbine, winding the cable around a giant spool, and as a result, pulling our little attached raft across the mote. We could see old stone walls along the outside of the land on the other side, which were blocking the city itself from view.

It had been a long day so we stopped at the one little hotel restaurant that was just on the other side. It was beautifully built of brick and stone with a courtyard where you could sit to eat and drink and a series of terraced balconies attached to rooms above. We were shocked to see a group of young people with obvious American accents sitting outside in the bar section laughing and drinking.

We sat down together in the restaurant section of the open terrace in front of the hotel and tried to eavesdrop on their conversation. The only thing that was obvious was that the Americans were from all over the US. Some had southern sounding accents while others were clearly New Yorkers. At some point Molly went inside to book a room for the night, both of us excited at the idea of a real bed and in such a lovely serene place. “We have no rooms.” The bright eyed man behind the counter in the hotel informed us. “We are full.”

We were both surprised. It was a Thursday night in early June before the start of any real tourist season. How was this little hotel in the middle of no where that looked like it must have at least 20 rooms, totally booked? We pondered that questions over dinner, which was thankfully cheaper than a glass of water would have been in Greece. Later the bright eyed guy came by our table and invited us to park in the hotel lot and sleep in the car, which seemed like the next best option. We asked him for some more information about Butrint—we knew it was a UNESCO historical site, but we knew very little about it’s history. He smiled, and said, “I have someone much better who can answer all your questions.” And then we met Michael.

Michael seemed in his early thirties, clearly one of the Americans in the large party, and he was by our side in a matter of moments. He came directly over to our table, our very own Captian Butrint, a sophisticated, clean cut, archeological super hero currently posing as his plainclothes alias. He pulled one of the empty chairs out from the table and took a seat with one easy, almost graceful movement. Then he opened his mouth and a wild maelstrom of facts and historical information rushed forth.

Butrint was originally a Hellenistic site in 300 BC and became a Greek city, where a major trade post and colony revolving around medicine cropped up because it housed a shrine to Asclepius, a Hellenistic god of healing. People came from all over to be healed in Butrint by Asclepius.

Then the Romans took Butrint, and Julius Caesar used the site to house his veterans after wars. Later, Augustus put a lot of money into the developing colony until it was a thriving little paradise. In the Ineid, Virgil called Butrint “Little Troy.”

After the decline of the Roman empire in the 5th century CE, Butrint became a Christian city and part of the Byzantine empire. Civil wars caused the fall of the Byzantines, and during the 15th century, the Ottoman empire conquered the area and build up fortifications, then the Venetians, then the French, then in the early 1930’s Mouselini and his band of archeologists looking to prove the superiority of the Italians by digging up remnants of the great Roman Empire.

Then came the Germans, trying to take the land from the Albanians, and finally, feeling understandable left out as the only group not yet having a hand in this little tiny one mile square thumb print of a peninsula and the surrounding plains, in marched the communists who swooped through and gathered all the territory their fat little hands could hold on to.

“As a result,” and here Michael could not keep the ecstatic tone from his voice, “Butrint is layer upon layer of history, from the Greeks to the communists. It’s too bad we have such a busy day tomorrow, or I would take you around the park myself.”

He told us where to go and what shouldn’t be missed, and then finally explained what all the Americans were doing there and why this little hotel was booked solid. He was assisting two professors from Utica College in New York state in a six credit, hands on Forensic Anthropology course, open to students from any University in the U.S. The students spent six weeks abroad in a select handful of far away Anthropological meccas including their longest stay in Butrint, where layers of bodies from many periods of history lay waiting to be analyzed. For the month’s time they spent in Butrint, this hotel was their home. Michael had been assisting on the course for 5 years.

He briefly introduced us to the two organizing professors on the trip, John and Tom who were interested to hear how we had made it so far in our VW. Tom was particularly impressed, being a VW lover himself. He invited us to join their team the next morning for breakfast and then to come to their headquarters in the park to see their work first hand, explaining that they had been working on a skeleton of a young man and would be continuing to analyze his bones as part of the course the next day. He could tell we were excited at the idea of seeing his work first hand, and of course we ventured to ask if we might be able to take a picture of him and other people working on the site with our anthropology-worthy black and white camera obscura.

The following morning after a night in the bus parked outside the hotel just a few meters from the city walls of Butrint, we had a complimentary breakfast with a motley group of American students and their three course leaders. We talked about the bus, we talked about the camera, we talked about the trip and we talked about bones. All exciting topics for all parties involved. They were completing the Albanian part of their trip in a few days and were on to Greece on Monday. Today would be the day they would gather for their group picture (so they could have the site to themselves before the weekend tourists came through). Again they invited us to come and see their work, and almost as exciting, they offered to allow us to take a shower in their hotel room in the afternoon. What a day we had ahead of us!

We set of for the park, which was a mile square little (almost) island, surrounded by beautiful stone walls. We visited many ancient structures, including the baptistery, a theater, and many residential buildings. It was clear from the structures that there were many layers of construction—the enormous wide stones of the Greeks, and the smaller more delicate stones of the Christians and other inhabitants were clearly visible.

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Then we hiked up the many steps toward the castle where we would find the forensic team. We found Tom inside a cool little room away from the sunshine, with bones laid out on every surface available and nestled inside boxes which were stacked in all corners of the room.

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Taking time away from his work, he carefully explained what we were looking at. On one desk next to his laptop, lay the bones of a young man who had died in his late teens.

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Tom showed us his jaw bone which revealed by its pock marked bone surface that the man had suffered from scurvy as well as anemia. We stood rapt by the notion that we were so close to someone who had lived so long ago. “Go ahead and touch anything you see,” Tom told us.

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And we did. We touched everything, running our fingers along the smooth surfaces of bones that had been preserved by the very soil they had been laid inside.

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How could these people know that an early death—a tragedy in the lives of their families and friends—hundreds of years later would reveal important details about the lives of their whole civilization? Someone who died as young as six years old (like the skeleton that Tom had worked on the day before of a young child who, judging from the green plume of color on the sides of her skull and jaw, was wearing copper earings, one of the first indications the people in Butrint were wearing jewelry) would be the messenger of such information as the ailments and traditions of their culture.

Tom showed us the skull of a man who lived between 900 and 1,200 years ago and then chose it for the object that he would hold in his black and white portrait.

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He sat for us outside the team’s offices, posing for multiple shots. He was humble and lovely, taking the time to give us every interesting detail about his work, which thrilled us totally and made it clear how much he loved every minute of it.

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After taking pictures of some local workers in the park, we headed down the hill, out of Butrint and back to the hotel, where we showered (!) and ate lunch, stopping to chat for awhile with the students who had come back for a mid day rest. We took a picture of Michael, and then headed on our way north.



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