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Diary of an archaeology dig, Albania 2005

These are the observations by an alumna, Ann Santen, who assisted a UC's classics team to gather evidence of the age of a Greek temple near Apollonia. She also encountered generous Albanians, an AK-47 police raid, tipsy chickens, bridal photographers at work, a terrified actress on horseback and a visiting American ambassador.

By Ann Santen, CCM '79

When I said I was going to Albania last summer the first question was "Why Albania?" The second was "Where is it?"

I went with the University of Cincinnati Classics Department to excavate a sixth century BC Greek sanctuary. Albania lies along the Adriatic Sea just north of Greece and south of Croatia. Corinth and its colony Corcyra (now Corfu) founded a city there called Apollonia, which the Romans later took over. In fact, that's where the young Octavian (aka Augustus Caesar) was studying philosophy when he heard that his great uncle, Julius Caesar, had been assassinated and had named him his heir.

The city itself sits on a high ridge overlooking the coastal plain, and on a clear day one can see the Mediterranean 10 miles away. The French have been excavating Apollonia for several decades, even during the communist regime of Enver Hoxha. Our target was a temple down on the plain, built to mark the limit of the authority of the original city. Our hope was to find evidence that this temple was the oldest Greek temple in Albania.

The Classics Department at UC is one of the best in the country, thanks to a Taft daughter having married a Classics Professor some years ago. Under Carl Blegen UC excavated Pylos and more recently under Brian Rose it excavated Troy. So it is not surprising that under Blegen Professor Jack Davis and project co-director Sharon Stocker, the UC Classics Department would be involved in Albania where little archeological excavation has been done and where, because of the poverty of the country and the primitive farming techniques, the soil is relatively little disturbed.

Where we were digging, few tractors are used. Plowing is done now with animals but until recently it was done with backbreaking human labor. Remove just 8 to 10 inches of soil and what the Romans left is still there, undisturbed, and the Greek artifacts just a little lower.

We were fortunate to have a collaborative project, working and living with Albanian archaeologists and students who welcomed us and helped us understand the country. Iris Pojani, a Sorbonne-trained archaeologist who directs the International Archaeology Center in Tirana, was a co-director of our project along with Vangjel Dimo, an archaeologist who is also mayor of the nearby village of Pojan.

Our site was a barnyard down on the coastal plain about 5 miles from Apollonia, 10 minutes by an aged Land Rover. We were there by 7 a.m. each morning for the three weeks of the dig, working in four trenches. My trench, directed by Sarah Lima, a star graduate student, was where little statues and small clay vessels -- used as votive offerings in the sanctuary -- were thrown.

Using mortar trowels and small picks, we dug down through history, carefully removing pottery shards, bone, shell, charcoal and pieces of figurines, sifting each bucketful of dirt to make sure we had missed nothing. Any special finds, particularly large pieces of charcoal, were mapped as well. The charcoal was important, although we couldn't tell what had burned, because it could be used to carbon-date the level of the artifacts.

Nearly as reliable -- and quicker -- was the dating done by Kathleen Lynch, our UC pottery expert. With only a slender shard of pottery, she could quickly tell what kind of vessel it came from, where it was made and when.

Our workday was long and tiring. In the trenches by 7 a.m., we dug, screened and documented finds until 11 a.m. when we broke for half an hour, then back to work until 2:30 p.m. when we boarded the Land Rovers and returned to Apollonia to turn over our finds to the museum staff.

Lunch at 3 p.m., a much needed rest, and then we worked in the museum until 7 p.m. Time for a glass of raki, beer or poor wine at a bar-restaurant nearby, then dinner at 8 p.m.

The living situation was simple but good. The Albanian government had built a house for the archeologists at Apollonia 15 years ago, next to a former monastery. The house was built around a central atrium with double bedrooms for staff and dormitory rooms for students. Fortunately, I qualified age-wise for the former.

A loggia overlooking the valley, a dining room, a kitchen and communal male and female facilities complete the complex, with everything clean and comfortable -- hot water, good mattresses and reading lights. We had excellent food thanks to the local farm products and the culinary touches added by Iris, our Albanian colleague.

The monastery now houses a museum for artifacts found at Apollonia, plus workrooms and storage areas for the archeologists. We used the covered walkways of the cloister to wash our finds, aided by local ladies who spread the washed shards on screens to dry in the sunny courtyard.

On the second floor of the cloister we had rooms for the computers and for the sorting, counting and weighing of finds. The paperwork involved is huge as everything is double-labeled, documented and entered into the database.

A small 13th century Byzantine church, still used on Sundays, sits in the monastery courtyard. The monastery itself is the scene for wedding videos and photos. The brides and their photographers were an endless source of interest to us as we washed, sorted, etc. in the museum. The record for one day was nine photo opportunities.

There were other videos shot there, in addition to brides. One day a large TV studio van pulled up outside the monastery and unlimbered its own generator -- the electricity was somewhat wayward in its delivery pattern. A make-up artist set up shop in one corner of the courtyard, and after several hours of intense work and whispering, a ravishing young woman slouched forth to be greeted by a local farmer leading a not too clean white horse.

The woman was clearly expected to climb aboard the horse for the shoot, and she clearly didn't want to. Finally she was coaxed into climbing on and sat there terrified. When the horse quivered and flicked his tail to chase a fly, she shrieked and tumbled off. Meanwhile, a soulful violinist in a white suit was furnishing the soundtrack.

That was a busy day in the cloister, for in addition to several brides and their pendant photographers, the American ambassador, Marcie Berman Ries, arrived to pay us a visit. She and her entourage were as fascinated as we were with the video drama.

Drama was not lacking in the trenches, however. Our site was the farmyard of the Bonjacket family, a compound of three houses, various outbuildings, poultry yards, small vineyards, an orchard, garden and cow pastures. We were paying for the privilege of digging up their yard, but they watched us anxiously lest we destroy more than necessary or find something of real value -- last year they had snatched a marble head excavated by our team -- or, as it turned out, lest we stray somewhere they didn't want us to go.

One morning we smelled a very herbal smell and wondered what it was. Later, we learned they were harvesting their cash crop - marijuana. A few days later the police arrived, holding AK-47's, and searched the Bonjaket outbuildings where they found a lot of cannabis.

The family had been warned by a neighbor, and all the men had melted into the landscape except a simple one who was left to take the rap. He was hauled off to jail where we understood that a healthy bribe would get him be released soon.

In the meantime, the police built a fire 20 feet from our trench and burned the plants, bringing out armful after armful -- with the smoke billowing over our trench. That's probably as close as I'll get to smoking marijuana and that's close enough.

The next day the Bonjaket chickens were scratching in the burnt area and we imagined they were staggering a bit -- as maybe we had been.

Our goal for the excavation had been to reach a level in our trench that would indicate the age of the temple nearby. The three adjoining trenches had uncovered a corner of the temple foundation -- huge hewn limestone blocks laid end to end.

As we went deeper and deeper -- about 5 feet down from ground level or about 47 meters above sea level -- we found older and older artifacts until finally, a couple of days before we had to close, we found shards which could be dated definitely to 525 to 500 BCE. And then we hit ground water.

The final days of our dig were spent lining the trenches with green plastic and then filling them back up with the soil we had so carefully taken out. We wrapped up the cataloguing in the museum and stored our finds in the abandoned monks cells, ready for next year's dig.