July 13, 2009
As all my fellow students of the mid 1980s in Albania the decision regarding the university studies and the professional future needed to fit with the rigorously planned new jobs by the central government. At the end of the high school we could express our three choices in the order of preference, but it was a state commission that took the last decision. All education was free and a job was also offered to everyone at the end of the university studies. I was born in Berat (its historical center is now a World Heritage Site) in south/center Albania and it was natural to grow up there with a sense of cultural heritage as part of everyday life. Archaeology however, was special to me as a child. It offered a curious dimension of the past and it was well regarded by the central government. The academic archaeologists were among the few people in the country that had a real possibility to communicate with the wider world at such difficult and isolated days. Archaeology had a high reputation among the people and in society because of its importance in defining the cultural and national identity. All of these together, I think had an impact on my choice of the preferred subject of study. Fortunately, the selection commission supported it.
You are one of the founders of the Albanian Rescue Archaeology Unit (ARAU). How did you get involved with ARAU?
The Albanian Rescue Archaeology Unit as part of the International Center for Albanian Archaeology was set up in 1999 with the generous support of Dr. David Packard and the Packard Humanities Institute. Following my graduate studies at Boston University, Department of Archaeology and an experience as research assistant at the Institute of Archaeology, Tirana, I felt very honored to be asked to direct the new Unit. It has been a unique experience, as was and still is unique the ARAU itself within the cultural heritage system of the country. I got involved with this special initiative thanks to the strong encouragement and support of the Albanian archaeological community. It has been for me a particular joy to have worked within the ARAU with some very highly motivated and particularly skilled people to whom are dedicated all successes of its activities.
What are some of the ways ARAU has been able to help preserve the cultural heritage of Albania?
The first objective of ARAU has been the promotion of contemporary standards of archaeological fieldwork and of the record and documentation. ARAU had however, another very important objective. On the basis of the analyses of the Albanian archaeological system, we were the first to alert the archaeological community that social and economic transformations in the country required a deep and serious commitment towards the configuration of the development-led archaeology. In the context of a traditionally centralized society, ARAU invested much of its energies at the beginning of the new century, in associating the priorities of the archaeological community with the protection of the archaeological heritage from the profound transformation of the Albanian landscape. This process required necessarily structural transformations within the discipline, adaptation of new methodologies of fieldwork, increased accountability and engagement in a serious dialog with the contemporary Albanian society. ARAU decided to become an active stimulator of these transformations both in theoretical argumentation and practical implementation. It selected five important field projects that illustrated the strong impact of infrastructure development, intensive agriculture, looting, and urban development on the archaeological heritage and the future of the country. ARAU has saved many sites and information from looting and destruction in the last 10 years, but has also managed to induce new standards of fieldwork and documentation. It has integrated rescue archaeology with the research agenda in the country and has offered training opportunities to many students and young professionals. ARAU has tried to promote new awareness for archaeological conservation as well as engage in new forms of cultural heritage management. The goal was to create some models that would encourage discussion and reflection within the Albanian archaeological community, as well as build the necessary confidence for the future.
One of the projects that ARAU worked on is the Tumulus of Kamenica, which was being looted. How heavily damaged was the tumulus when ARAU came in and began excavating the site?
ARAU decided to engage with the project of the Tumulus of Kamenica for many reasons, but the fact that it was being looted was of primary importance. Through this project we wanted to raise awareness of the looting phenomenon, to show that we could face it successfully, and to illustrate the importance of this action for a country that considered its future as closely linked to its cultural identity. The Tumulus was heavily looted during the period of social instability in the country, in 1997 and many of the looted objects were feeding the illegal trafficking of antiquities within Albania and in the neighboring countries. The excavations began with the goal of saving the site and getting it back to the public.
Did the damage greatly affect the information that could be gathered during the official excavations?
During the excavations we evaluated that looting damaged almost 15% of the burial mound. This had certainly damaged the integrity of the monument and had irreversibly damaged some important information. We were stimulated, however, to ask research questions and devise alternative ways of evaluating the lost information, collect systematically the remains of the looted material and explain its meaning in the wider context of the fresh excavations and the new information.
Once the excavations at Kamenica began how were you able to protect the site from further looting?
We soon found out that the best and the most effective way of fighting looting was to inform the public on it, on the importance of the site and on the major public losses caused by looting. Looters’ allies were ignorance and obscurity. Our project showed the presence of the state, of the professionals, and through us of the wider public. By spelling out the reality we found ways of communicating with the local community, local administrators, local schools and the police. Apparently, this new light on the site and the public interest eroded all the basis of looters’ operations and consequently kept them away.
How were you able to get the community involved with your project at Kamenica?
Many of the local community experienced with us the joys and difficulties of exploring the site. Many others were proud to see the site’s name in the national media. Several others were impressed by the interest of the scientists on their culture. The musealisation of the site made some members of the community think about future economic developments. At some later point, the central government invested on a new road to the site and this brought jobs, income and new perspectives to the community. Many more people and visitors come now to the village because of the site and some major cultural activities have changed many aspects of the life of the community. Almost all emigrated members of the community express a strong sense of pride because of the site. Everything seems so normal now! It’s their site and their heritage!
You have had quite a few interesting finds from tumuli, and some that were unusual for the region. Can you talk about some of your favorites?
Can you speculate why the tumulus of Kamenica is so different from other tumuli in the region?
Answer to the two above questions:
The Tumulus of Kamenica had many special surprises for us. It revealed one of the largest in the region, containing almost 800 burials. It had unprecedented dimensions and a surprising ‘monumental’ aspect of some of its funerary architecture. The excavations provided a considerable sample of the prehistoric population of southeastern Albania, that make an invaluable resource for the understanding of life and death of the late Bronze and early Iron Ages in the area. Over 3,000 archaeological objects of practical and ceremonial functions were recovered, documented and conserved carefully. Important information on biological profile of the prehistoric community, social organization, conditions of life, philosophy of death, rituals, family relationships, technological advances, medical knowledge, and many more are now strong basis for the understanding of the earlier history of the region. Finally, many of these features made it obvious to us that the site needed good conservation presentation to the public and careful and sustainable management. This is much more than we could hoped for, at the beginning of our rescue project!
How do you feel about being the Kress lecturer? How do you think the AIA can play a role in world archaeology?
Being the Kress lecturer is for me not only a great honor, but also a great opportunity to share with many colleagues information, concerns, new developments in Albanian archaeology and cultural heritage. I think this is only one of such opportunities that the AIA offers and is unique to it among other similar archaeological organizations. AIA is an important point of reference for many archaeologists around the world. Its activities and publications are already transformed in real forums of world archaeology and are considered by most professionals out of USA as important sources of professional growth and information. It is the very nature and structure of American archaeology, I think, that is reflected in the philosophy of the AIA. From a non-American perspective, I hope that this role of the AIA in the world archaeology will be strengthened in the future, since it provides a real instrument for reflecting today’s problems and future’s directions of the discipline of world archaeology.