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Letter From Albania

A Road Trip Through Time

As a new pipeline cuts its way through the Balkans, archaeologists in Albania are grabbing every opportunity to expose the country’s history—from the Neolithic to the present


Monday, December 11, 2017

Albania Ancient Settlement


In modern Albania, the mélange of historical cultures is packed so densely they often seem to collide. The national E852 highway follows the same bank of the Shkumbin River as an ancient highway, the Via Egnatia, which was first traveled by Roman soldiers around 200 B.C. The road was modernized and maintained for centuries thereafter, and it became the main thoroughfare between Constantinople and the Adriatic, facilitating communication and trade between Rome and the eastern lands of the empire. Today, luxury Mercedes swerve between transcontinental bicyclists taking in the lush Mediterranean landscape and donkey carts hauling towering piles of forage. The route winds gently past medieval Ottoman Turkish bridges and white obelisks from the Communist era immortalizing partisan battles fought during World War II. Scrappy tobacco fields and mounds of hay and cornstalks line the route, planted and stacked by hand, much as they have been for centuries.


This primary ancient east-west artery of the Balkan Peninsula parallels, just to the south, another major European infrastructure project, one being built today: the Trans Adriatic Pipeline. The project, known as TAP, is laying 545 miles of pipe through northern Greece and Albania and under the Adriatic Sea, connecting existing Italian and Turkish pipelines to deliver Caspian gas to Europe by 2020. Perhaps counterintuitively, the massive construction project looks set to give an enormous boost to the study and preservation of Albania’s cultural heritage. During the Cold War, the hard-line Stalinist regime kept the country one of the world’s most isolated, and now this Maryland-sized country of three million is one of Europe’s poorest.


TAP’s resources are enormous by local standards—and could turn out to be the single greatest injection of money and know-how for archaeological exploration ever seen in Albania. The overall budget for TAP is $5.3 billion and about a quarter of the pipeline’s total length will sit in Albania. Lorenc Bejko, a prehistorian by trade who is the head of the archaeology department at Tirana University and a senior cultural heritage adviser for TAP in Albania, estimates that ordinarily the annual spending by all Albanian institutions combined on archaeological fieldwork doesn’t surpass $100,000. According to the project agreement, all management of the impact on Albania’s cultural heritage—including construction monitoring, excavation, preservation, development of management plans, scientific analysis, and even scientific publications—is controlled by Albanian government institutions and paid for by TAP. These activities are worth millions of dollars.


The odd geographical focus of the intensive TAP-funded archaeological work—a lateral route across the country 133 miles long, 124 feet wide, and typically a foot deep—coincides with the so-called right-of-way zone where the pipe will be buried. A rich variety of unrelated and unexpected ancient sites is being uncovered there: Neolithic settlements from Europe’s earliest farmers, along with Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman sites. Turan, a site used for almost 2,000 years, yielded one of the oldest known cemeteries in Albania, dating back to 700 B.C. Ottoman cemeteries have also been found. And a picturesque hilltop settlement near the village of Peshtan, inhabited from the early Byzantine to the late Ottoman periods, has a cobbled street connecting a Turkish bath, a sixth-century Christian church, and several substantial houses with views of the valley below.