Light and Shadow in Albania’s Shala Valley

This has been a good couple of years for regional archaeological projects in the Eastern Mediterranean. Andy Bevan and James Connolly published the results of their survey of Antikythera, Michael Given, Bernard Knapp, and company have published their work from TAESP, Y. Lolos published his long-gestating work from Sikyon, the Saronic Harbors Research Project (SHARP) have presented their work in the South East Corinthia, and now Michael Galaty, Ols Laffe, Wayne E. Lee, and Zamir Tafilica have published their work on the Shala Valley in Northern Albania: Light and Shadow: Isolation and Integration in the Shala Calley of Northern Albania. Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press 2013.

These regional projects have all taken different approaches to how they document the history of regions or microregions. Projects like Yannis Lolos’s at Sikyon and Bevan and Connolly’s on Antikythera reflect the long shadow of first and second wave intensive survey projects on Greece. Lolos’s work, for example, continued to focus on the site as the primary unit of analysis; Bevan and Connolly’s, in contrast, represent the natural extension of the artifact-level analysis favored by the second-wave “siteless” intensive survey projects. Our work on the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project follows second-wave methods and methodologies as well. 

The work of Given and Knapp as well as Galaty et al. in Albania perhaps are the first group of genuinely 3rd wave survey projects. They continued to include some aspect of artifact-level intensive survey, but they have embedded this work in a range of complementary historical, ethnohistorical, architecture, and environmental studies. If the second wave focused on the artifact as the most basic archaeological component of the region, then third-wave survey returns to considering the region as a holistic entity, defined by the interplay between historical, ethnographic, and environmental narratives, while at the same time acknowledging the autonomy of artifact distribution patterns.  

In the Shala Valley, Galaty et al. considered the history of interaction and isolation in this region over five years of “ethnohistoric archaeology.” The final publication is an impressive body of integrated studies that see the region as a negotiated periphery of a series of extra-regional cores ranging from the Ottomans to the various versions of the modern Albanian state. The residents of Shala negotiated their interaction with these larger political entities through varying degrees of resistance and accommodation manifest in the history, architecture, demography, and economy of the area. In no way was the periphery passive.

The intensive survey of 1000 units across the valley produced remarkably little pottery, but it did reveal that the valley saw occupation in both early prehistoric times (including by Neanderthal hunting parties!) and later prehistoric times and likely in the Late Roman and Medieval periods as well as the better known Ottoman and modern occupations. It was interesting to note that the authors spent almost no time reciting the standard methodologies related to intensive pedestrian survey. There was little discussion of sample size, visibility adjusted densities, or “off site scatters.” It would have been interesting, for example, to know a bit more about whether manuring associated with local farming practices contributed to the scatter of artifacts near houses. The obsession with artifact-level distributional analysis so characteristic of second wave survey is not evident in this volume and this does not detract from its larger arguments. 

The study of the houses in Shala revealed strategies adopted by its residents to protect their occupants from the tradition of blood feuds in the area, to maintain meaningful economic units, and eventually to subvert communist era efforts to collectivize farming in the valley. The introduction of new world crops like maize and potatoes made it possible for the valley to support larger populations. All these trends reveal that the residents of the valley recognized their isolation as a strategic asset that played a key part in how they negotiated their engagement with the wider world. 

Intensive survey in the valley revealed the large settlement at strategically-located and heavily-terraced site of Grunas which the Shala valley team subjected to excavation and intensive documentation. They excavated the site carefully and subjected an impressive sample of the finds to scientific analysis. This work demonstrated that the settlement at Grunas was nucleated and defensible, but perhaps associated with transhuments who brought their flocks to the valley in the summer months. The construction of such an impressive site for seasonal occupation is difficult to understand, but perhaps suggests that the control of summer pastures plays a part in ideologies of regional control and authority. 

I was particularly curious to hear that the residents of the valley were traditionally Catholic. The detailed typological study of inscribed signs on houses demonstrated that religious observation operated both on the domestic and communal level. It was strange, however, that the authors did not query communal religious expression more carefully. The book lacked any treatment of the churches in the valley and aside from a few brief comments about their location within settlements, it was not clear whether churches played a role in structuring the inhabited space of the valley. I was also interested in whether the Catholic faith of the valley’s residents, which by all accounts was idiosyncratic, contributed to the status of the valley as negotiated periphery.  

The continued flourishing of intensive, regional level, projects in the Eastern Mediterranean has pushed the practice forward in key ways. The emergence of “third wave” survey projects has moved regional level studies away from the New Archaeology inspired fixation on distribution patterns and methodologies, and toward a thoughtfully considered transdisciplinary approaches that see artifact scatters as only part of the larger study of the landscape. To be fair, first and second wave surveys have shared this interest in historical, environmental, and ethnographic studies of the landscape, but “third wave” survey projects integrate these studies with artifact level survey in a much more complex and thorough way. The arguments advanced in Light and Shadow: Isolation and Interaction in the Shala Valley of Northern Albania establish a compelling new direction in the archaeological understanding of regions. 

One Comment

  1. Hi, Bill! Many thanks for the excellent review of Light and Shadow. To answer your very perceptive questions about the role of Catholicism, our ability to address this issue was seriously affected by the break associated with Communism, during which time it was illegal to practice any kind of religion in Albania, punishable by death. All churches were destroyed; the one in Theth, Shala was converted into a health clinic. Shala’s residents practiced a form of crypto-Christianity, hiding Bibles (alongside copies of the Kanun). A former student of mine, Ellen Beilmann (now an anthropology graduate student at Michigan State), wrote an undergraduate thesis on this topic. Because of the Communist disruption, local residents had little to say about Catholicism historically, including the religious symbols carved into houses and churches. As a result, we relied almost entirely on historical sources relating to Catholicism, described in Chapter Four. This work was done by Matthew Lubin in the “Secret Archives” of the Vatican. The priests stationed in Shala describe a form of Christianity that was “syncretic” and frustrating to them. The letters they sent back to the Vatican describe the “strange” non-Catholic practices of the Catholic northern Albanians in great detail, including polygyny (which we confirmed through careful analysis of Carleton Coon’s social data). I think that such syncretic forms or religious practice were likely the norm for Albanians, who seem to have also hid their Christianity in various creative ways following the Ottoman conquest. One thing we might have done, as you alluded, was a more detailed architectural study of the ruined churches, and perhaps excavation, which would have been very interesting indeed! Maybe in a future campaign. Thanks, again! Mike
    PS we found out recently that the book has won the 2014 SAA Book Award. Chalk one up for third-wave Mediterranean survey!


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