Cultural Monuments, Archaeology and Nationalism – The Case of Apollonia

I feel like I becoming a bit reactionary – I do have planned content, I swear.

But every time I seem to get back on track, something happens, and I feel a need to address it. So, this too is one of those posts. But finally, I am talking about archaeology.

A dear friend of mine, and one of Albania’s finest archaeologists, if I do say so myself, sent me a post titled “ALBANIANS VANDALIZE ANCIENT GREEK TEMPLE TO TERRORIZE THE GREEK MINORITY.” For lack of a better word – I was triggered. I knew what it would be about before I even started reading.

Other articles, from small news websites, make similar arguments. Granted they are less aggressive..sort of.

The Greek ReporterArchaeology News Network, & Greek Herald.

I want to start by stating the obvious. As an archaeologist, I condemn any acts of vandalism of cultural heritage. But as an academic, nothing is more abhorrent than the manipulation of the archaeological record, and the use of history (or perceived history) to demonize, vilify, or justify the inhumane treatment of another group of people. I know a lot of archaeologists struggle with what they think their role should be as creators of knowledge. And given the political and social climate today… the ethics of archaeology and the role of the archaeologists is something that we all should be thinking about.. very critically.

My opinion may not be popular but it is the one I have, so I will stick to it. I think as archaeologists we owe it to the public to make our research accessible and to actively try to interact with the public. Archaeology for the sake of archaeology and research for the sake of research does not cut it. Second, archaeology, whether you like it or not is political. This is something that we have to understand as we make our way through our careers. This means thinking critically about where we work, who we work with, and why we ask the questions that we ask. More importantly, what we intend to do with this information after we have it, and what our role will be in public discourse when this information is absorbed and processed. Note, it may not always be in the way we intended it to – and this is something we have to think about as well.

Archaeology has often been used as propaganda for nationalist regimes. The same way that history or perceived history has been in instrumental ideas of “the nation.” This is not news. But the fact that it is happening today is problematic, to say the least. But lest I get too carried into discussing the ethics of good archaeology, a topic that deserves its anthology, let alone its own post, let me lay out what I intend to do with this post.

On archaeology and nationalism: Hamilakis 2007, Galaty 2018, Pitts and Versluys 2015.

I will provide a brief overview of some of the problematics statements made in the article mentioned above. As always, I encourage you to do your own research, read the article yourself if you feel so inclined, don’t feel like you need to take my word blindly. After outlining the aforementioned problematic points, I will address them, systematically, with reference to the archaeological record. I’ll try to be brief because I am well aware of the fact that my posts tend to be a little long.

FYI.. if you’re wondering, I did reach out to the writer of the blog. I very nicely pointed out that what they were saying was complete bullshit and offered to send them useful resources to inform them. I even offered to talk to them directly about colonization in the Balkans, not that I am the world’s expert on the topic, but I do have some background in it having written my master thesis on the influence of the colonial presence in Illyria, specifically what is today modern-day Albania. I have yet to hear back… Well, can’t say I didn’t try.

The points that the author makes are as follows:

  1. The bad Albanians willfully destroyed a Greek monument to terrorize the Greek minority living in Albania. No sorry, “Northern Epirus.”
  2. The Greeks brought civilization to the Mediterranean through their colonization. Before them there was nothing. And everything afterward the cities, the urban growth, etc., was due to them. Anything that states otherwise is an attempt by corrupt Albanian revisionist scholars.
  3. The Albanian claim to the ancient Illyrians, who lived in the area in prehistory has no foundation.

So let’s begin to unpack the first statement. Yes, vandalism is bad, it is illegal. I think the real culprits here are not the lone idiots who carried out the act, but the Ministry of Culture which has neglected the site for so long #sorrynotsorry. I was there myself last year and it was in rough shape. Second, and I know this is expected of an Albanian reply, but I cannot find any source that provides concrete evidence that it was people that caused the damage in the first place. With the site being in rough shape, I can come up with a list of things that could have caused the damage. The massive earthquakes that have rocked the country in the past few months for example? And we are just finding out about this now because the country has been in quarantine? But I won’t hang my argument on this. Let’s just assume that it was an act of human vandalism. Was is to terrorize the Greek minority? I highly doubt it. Apollonia is located in modern-day Fier. In the center of Albania. Where there is no Greek minority. The small population of Greeks who still live in Albania are concentrated in the south, along the border with Greece.

So why make this statement. The proof is in the pudding – or in this case. The language. The use of the term “Northern Epirus” to denote a geographical area that has an actual name: ALBANIA, suggests an ulterior motive, or at the very least, a subconscious belief that southern Albania should not exist. History shows that this mentality is dangerous, as it lead to the massive expulsion of ethnic Albanians, known as Chams, who found themselves on the wrong side of the border after the creation of modern Albania in 1912. In this period of forced migration, hundred of ethnic Albanians were massacred at the hands of the Greek militia. I encourage you to look this up (Vickers 2002). Talk about revisionist – trying to erase an entire country off the map by calling it an ancient term that hasn’t been relevant since 1914. And even then it was problematic. So, I ask you, who has terrorized who? I won’t even begin on the xenophobic policies that are in place in Greece itself which prohibit Albanians from speaking their own language or preserving their culture.

Regarding the second point, I can write an entire essay. In fact, I have, more than one. But I will keep it as brief as I can. The idea that colonization brought with it culture and civilization is not only outdated. But, well, colonial. Archaeologists are moving away from these simplistic, reductionist and uncritical interpretations. Moreover, the archaeological record, as always, presents a more nuanced picture of the process and how it unfolded. Surprise surprise, the Ancient Greeks did not bring cities, culture, and civilization to the lands they colonized. The record shows that urbanization was a phenomenon that was present in many of the “barbarian” cultures that the Greeks and the Romans conquered. And in fact, may have been a prerequisite for their successful colonization. But why are we just talking about this now? Well, lots of reasons. First, we have to acknowledge the prevalence of colonial attitudes in our discipline and the desire to produce simplistic and “clean” explanations (a la Occam’s razor). But mainly, the greater interaction with a post-colonial theory which argues for an emphasis on local responses to colonization and the acknowledgment that indigenous groups had something called the agency and were not just empty vessels waiting to be filled with culture. Quelle surprise. I’m being sarcastic, btw.

On Post-Colonialism: Dietler 2010, Hodos 2006, Keay 1988, King 1990, Pitts and Vesluys 2015, Vranic 2014, van Dommelen 2017.

Albanian scholars have been arguing the same for decades. Specifically arguing that urbanization was a process that was preexisting among the Illyrian tribes in the area that is today Albania, arguing for the presence of Illyrian cities during the late Iron Age. Broadly, such arguments have been traditionally rejected on a technicality, because the way that we have traditionally defined the term city, referring to a trait listed which more often than not was a description of some ideal site. Making the definition tautological. Of course, urban centers in other parts of Europe won’t be classified as cities or even centers if the definition of such is a description of Athens. In regards to the Albanian record, such claims have been rejected because they have been deemed by foreign scholars that they represent an extension of the nationalistic agenda set forth by the Hoxha regime. The record, in my opinion, says otherwise.

The arguments that the author makes are steeping in the outdated and colonial discourse of Hellenization, which many scholars today are critical of. Again, a massive topic worthy of an anthology. Luckily these resources already exist so all one has to do is google Hellenization, or Romanization. Have fun.

So having said this, please tell me where the revisionism of the Albanian scholars is? I am not naïve to deny that archaeology under the communist regime had a very overt political agenda, no one will deny this. But the argument that all Albanian scholars today are revisionist, is not true and oversimplifying. I am not saying there may not be an outlier, but to reduce every Albanian scholar to this is really in poor taste.

On cities and the Albanian record: Ceka 1998, Fernández-Götz and Krausse (2013), Fernández-Götz (2018), Marcus and Sabloff (2008), Herman-Hansen in Marcus and Sabloff (2008), Korkuti et al. 1998.

And last but not least, the Illyrian argument. This is a tricky topic and I will try to be selective with my words so that my points are not automatically written off due to author bias. So let me address it right now. I am Albanian. I study the Illyrians. Do I argue unequivocally that the Albanians are related to the Illyrians – No, I do not think such a concrete answer is possible. Not only in the sense of the Albanians, but of any group in the Balkans. Do I think there is a possibility – sure why not? There is no direct evidence that says otherwise. Is there archaeological evidence that supports this claim? Yes. Is it enough to lay the argument to rest – no. We would need more data.

So, what is the evidence? It is twofold, linguistic, and archaeological. I am not a linguist, so I won’t get into the weeds of this hypothesis. But in a nutshell, Albanian is a unique Indo-European language that has its branch on the linguistic tree so to say. There is linguistic-archaeological evidence of ancient Illyrians with names from the roots of Albanian words. Like Bardhyll for example, which has the word bardh (white) and yll (star). Of course, there are problems with this linguistic argument, most of which have to due with the national awakening and the movement of an independent Albanian in the late 20th century as well as the ideology of the communist regime in the mid 21st C. Regardless, there is some food for thought there, at least in my humble opinion. Archaeologically, there is continuity between the Koman culture of Northern and the medieval Arbers (Albanians). This is shown in the continuity of the material culture itself, which as an archaeologist, I find more convincing.

On the Illyrian arguement: Anamali 2011, Stipcevic, Vezenkov 2013.

My biggest issue with the argument that the Albanian claim to an Illyrian connection is illegitimate is because that critical gaze is never turned inwards. No one denies the connection between the ancient Greeks and the modern Greeks. This might sound bitter coming from me, but I think there is a lot to say for the creation and maintenance of this uninterrupted Greek identity, which is founded in the romanticizing of the Greek civilization by classicists as early as the Renaissance and well into the 19th century when Europe began to take the face that it has today. The ancient Greeks gave us democracy, philosophy, the great poets, artists, and theater. The formation of Greece in 1821 helped solidify this idea. And gave the European powers a nice toehold to beat back the “terrible” and very Muslim, Ottomans. Convenient. While the idea that the Albanians are autochthonous is deemed ridiculous, no one seems to remember the massive population exchanged between Greece and Turkey in the 1920s. I’ll stop there. And try to wrap it up.

On the creation of the Greek state and nationalism: Gingeras 1990, Hamilakis 2007, Herzefeld 1982, Stewart et al. 1994.

When it comes to Apollonia, there is not a single Albanian scholar that argues that it was not a colony, this is a fact that is supported by the archaeological and historical record. Apollonia was a colony founded by the Corinth in the 6th C BC. But the Greeks did not colonize an empty landscape. While pastoral, the Illyrians were there. It was their land. Many scholars argue that the colonists may have been invited to the existing tribes to found colonies. The archaeological record shows that the Illyrians and the Greeks lived together and intermarried over time. We see the interesting interplay between the two cultures in the mortuary sphere, as indicated in the presence of mixed “hybrid” mortuary practices that blend aspects of both cultures (think Greek marble sarcophagi in Illyrian tumuli).

On Apollonia: Amore et al., 2010, Galaty 2002, Lafe 2003 McIlvaine 2012, McIlvaine et al. 2014, Stallo 2007, Stallo 2010, Stoker 2009, Wilkes 1992, Wright 2016.

The Albanians have nothing to gain by destroying a national monument that in many ways was just as much Illyrian as it was Greek. The fact that such misguided, misinformed, and aggressive opinions are voiced unchallenged is very problematic – and needs to be addressed.

I started this article talking about the ethics of good archaeology, and while I said I would leave that topic for another time, I feel I have come full circle to that point. Part of being an ethical practitioner of archaeology is acknowledging that archaeology is political, whether we like it or not. So there is a lot of responsibility for the archaeologist to think critically about the implications of their work. The problem of the vandalism of Apollonia touches on this and many other important threads in archaeology, like who owns the past, who has a right to it, what is our role as archaeologists, and what do we do when the past is manipulated to serve political agendas? In the case of Apollonia, we have to ask ourelves the questions, what is there to gain by claims that it was an act of terrorism? When taken into consideration with the history of the Balkans, the formation of the Albanian state and the political undercurrents in Albania today (most recently, the new proposed laws regarding the creation of a multicultural Albanian state) suddenly the problem of a smashed column and the motivation behind it becomes even more convoluted. What narrative does this support? I will leave you to ponder that.

Peace, love, and positivity.

Works cited:

Amore, M. G. The Complex of Tumuli 9, 10 and 11 in the Necropolis of Apollonia (Albania). A Time Span from the Early Bronze Age to the Early Hellenistic Period (Plates 18–26). In the Complex of Tumuli 9, 10 and 11 in the Necropolis of Apollonia (Albania)., Vol 1, 2010, pp. 57–74.

Anamali Skënder. Varreza e hershme mesjetare pranë Kalasë së Dalmacës, Koman (kërkime, probleme, rezultate) / The Early Medieval Cemetery near the Castle of Dalmaca, Koman (Investigations, Problems, Results). In: Iliria, vol. 35, 2011. pp. 39-54;

Ceka Neritan. Pesëdhjet vjet studime për qytetet ilire / Fifty Years of Studies on Illyrian Cities. In: Iliria, vol. 28, 1998.

Dietler, Michael. Archaeologies of Colonialism : Consumption, Entanglement, and Violence in Ancient Mediterranean France. University of California Press, 2010.

Fernández-Götz, Manuel, and Krausse, Dirk. “Rethinking Early Iron Age Urbanisation in Central Europe: The Heuneburg Site and Its Archaeological Environment.” Antiquity, vol. 87, no. 336, Cambridge University Press, 1/6/2013, pp. 473–87.

Fernández-Götz, Manuel, and Fernández-Götz, Manuel. “Urbanization in Iron Age Europe: Trajectories, Patterns, and Social Dynamics.” Journal of Archaeological Research, vol. 26, no. 2, Springer US, 6/2018, pp. 117–62, doi:10.1007/s10814-017-9107-1.

Galaty, Michael L. Modelling the Formation and Evolution of an Illyrian Tribal System: Ethnographic and Archaeological Analogs in The Archaeology of Tribal Societies, edited by William A. Parkinson. International Monographs in Prehistory, Michigan. 2002, pp. 109-122.

Gingeras, Ryan. Sorrowful Shores : Violence, Ethnicity, and the End of the Ottoman Empire, 1912-1923. Oxford University Press, 2009.

Hamilakis, Yannis,. The Nation and Its Ruins Antiquity, Archaeology, and National Imagination in Greece. Oxford University Press, 2007.

Herman-Hansen, Mogens. Analzying Cities In The Ancient City : New Perspectives on Urbanism in the Old and New World, Joyce Marcus and Jeremy Sabloff (eds.), School for Advanced Research Press, 2008 pp. 67-76.

Herzfeld, Michael,. Ours Once More : Folklore, Ideology, and the Making of Modern Greece. Revised edition., Berghahn, 1982.

Hodos, Tamar. Local Responses to Colonization in the Iron Age Mediterranean. Routledge, 2006.

Keay, S. J. Roman Spain. British Museum, 1988.

King, Anthony. Roman Gaul and Germany. University of California Press, 1990.

Korkuti Muzafer. 50 vjet arkeologji shqiptare / Half Century Albanian Archaeology. In: Iliria, vol. 28, 1998.

Lafe, Ols. The Earliest Urbanized Settlements in in the Hinterland of Apollonia (Albania): 7th-Mid 5th Century B.C. University of Cincinnati, 2003.

Marcus, Joyce., and Sabloff, Jeremy A. The Ancient City : New Perspectives on Urbanism in the Old and New World. 1st ed., School for Advanced Research Press, 2008.

McIlvaine, B. K. Greek Colonization of the Balkans: Bioarchaeological Reconstruction of Behavior and Lifestyle during Corinthian Colonial Expansion into Ancient Apollonia, Albania. Dissertation: Ohio State University, 2012.

McIlvaine, B.k, L.A. Schepartz, C.S Larsen and P.W. Sciulli. Evidence for Long-Term Migration on the Balkan Peninsula Using Dental and Cranial Nonmetric Data: Early Interaction between Corinth (Greece) and Its Colony at Apollonia (Albania). American Journal of Physical Anthropology vol. 153, no. 2, 2014, pp. 236–48.

Pitts, Martin, and Versluys, M. J., editors. Globalisation and the Roman World : World History, Connectivity and Material Culture. Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Stallo, J. Isotopic Study of Migration: Differentiating Locals and Non-Locals in Tumulus Burials from Apollonia, Albania. Master’s thesis: University of Cincinnati, 2007.

Stallo, J.R., L.A. Schepartz, V. Grimes and M. P. Richards. Strontium Isotope Ratios and Mobility Reconstruction. In The Complex of Tumuli 9, 10 and 11 in the Necropolis of Apollonia (Albania), International Centre for Albanian Archaeology Monograph Series No. 2, 2010, pp. 78–84.

Stewart, Charles, and Shaw, Rosalind. Syncretism/Anti-Syncretism : The Politics of Religious Synthesis. Routledge, 1994.

Stipcevic, Aleksander. “The Question of Illyrian-Albanian Continuity.”

Stocker, S. Illyrian Apollonia: Towards a New Ktisis and Developmental History of the Colony. University of Cincinnati, 2009.

Vezenkov, Alexander. “The Albanian Language Question: Contexts and Priorities”. Entangled Histories of the Balkans. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2013.

van Domellen, Peter. Matters: Material Culture and Postcolonial Theory in Colonial

Situations in Handbook of Material Culture, edited by Susanne Kuechler et al.  Sage Publications Ltd, 2006, pp. 104-124.

Van Dommelen. Classical connections and Mediterranean practices

Exploring connectivity and local interactions in T. Hodos (ed.), Routledge Handbook of Archaeology and Globalization. London: Routledge 2017, pp. 618-633.

Vickers, Miranda. “The Cham Issue – Albanian National and Property Claims in Greece.” Südosteuropa. Zeitschrift Für Politik Und Gesellschaft, no. 4–06, De Gruyter Oldenbourg, 2002, pp. 228–49.

Vranic, Ivan. The ʻHellenizationʼ process and the Balkan Iron Age archaeology, in The Edges of the Roman World, Marko A. Jankovi, Vladimir D. Mihajlovi and Staša Babi (eds.) Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014 pp. 33-47.

Wilkes, J. The Illyrians. Blackwell, Guildford, 1992.

Wright, J. R. 2016 Greek Colonial Expansion: Impacts on Illyrian Physical Activities. Master’s Thesis: Colorado State University, 2016.

Yannis Hamilakis. The Nation and Its Ruins : Antiquity, Archaeology, and National Imagination in Greece. OUP Oxford, 2007. 


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