It took a hunch, hard work and a heck of a lot of diplomacy. But the payoff is spectacular: Archeologists from the University of Cincinnati have discovered a previously unknown Greek temple outside the ancient Greek city-state of Apollonia.
The monumental temple is "the third of its kind to be discovered at Apollonia and only the fifth in all of Albania," said Jack L. Davis, the Carl W. Blegen Professor of Greek Archaeology at the University of Cincinnati. Davis is co-director of the international team that has located the temple in a rural site in what is now modern-day Albania.
The hunch had its roots in work begun more than 40 years ago, when a farmer’s tractor uncovered terracotta figurines outside the walls of Apollonia. The site appeared to include remains of a sanctuary. An Albanian-Russian archeological team explored it, finding traces of brick walls and dating hundreds of the figurines to the 4th-2nd century BC. Their work went unnoticed, however: the rupture in Soviet-Albanian relations in 1960 kept the team from publishing much about their work
In 2002, Albanian archeologists, working collaboratively with Davis and other UC colleagues, conducted a surface survey. Measuring off a grid in the low-lying land between the ancient walls of Apollonia and the Adriatic Sea, team members walked, painstakingly searching for artifacts hidden in the dirt and vegetation.
They found more figurines, the foot of a statue, a late Greek inscription, a small stone altar – and pottery from a much earlier date. The combination of figurines, "which often point to ancient places of worship," and the older pottery led the team to believe the site was older than they first thought, Davis said.
Team co-director Jack L. Davis working at the site.
"It seemed to us that the sanctuary was already being used in the Archaic period," some 100-350 years earlier than the 1960 team had believed, he said.
Then came the kicker: a family who owns a section of the land told Albanian team leader Lorenc Bejko that they had uncovered a foundation made of large, regular blocks as they were building a new house back in 1997.
Now, the UC-Albanian team needed to dig. Evidence was mounting that a large temple, not just a sanctuary, had occupied the site. The archeologists wanted to "trace lines of (the) massive ashlar blocks" that had been disturbed during the building of the family’s house, Davis said.
Enter the need for negotiation. The Albanian family has lived on the site since 1928, building a compound of family homes and farm buildings known locally as Bonjakët, which is the family’s name.
"It is very difficult to gain their trust," Davis said. "And at the same time, they have all kinds of concerns about us being on their property. One of the gentlemen who lives in the complex was worried we might discover graves. That would make it difficult for him to live there any longer, if people were buried there.
"Another concern is that the resources that they have on their farm are potentially worth a lot of money to them," Davis said. "They’d like to have some control over them and are afraid they’ll be taken away by the state without any profit to them.’’
Indeed, the family has found, then sold or kept many artifacts since 1928. "Convincing them that they will be properly compensated, and we will be respectful of their lives, are the biggest challenges," Davis said.
Davis persuaded the family to let the team return in September 2004 and dig a total of 11 trenches within or near the family compound. In a large, continuously evacuated area in one couple’s garden, the team found parts of three layers (called "courses") of blocks consistent with those of a monumental temple.
The team also dug in a field 9/10ths of a mile away, where the 2002 surface survey had yielded many finds. "Immediately beneath the plow zone, we found part of a wall that had been constructed of spolia (plunder or materials) taken from one or more monumental stone buildings," Davis said. "Several blocks in the wall or found near it may come from the second course of the foundations of the temple."
One block with a Hellenistic type of molding had been "reused from an earlier building, flipped upside down with a door cut crudely through it. An identical block was found nearby at the edge of an irrigation wall…," he said. "It appears almost certain that the spolia, at least in part, derived from the demolition of the temple in the Bonjakët compound."
In other trenches, the team found artifacts that "document a rich history of ancient cult practice at this site," Davis said – including many terracotta figurines of two reclining figures, one male and one female, that team members had never seen before. They are "extraordinary, if not unique, in the Greek world," Davis said.
The team also found, and pieced together, a funeral plaque honoring a woman. In Greek, it "says that she was 60 years old and her son set this monument up in her honor. It also says, ‘Farewell,’ " Davis said. The team also evacuated "a head of a woman, probably from a grave relief of Late Classical-Hellenistic date," Davis said, which the Bonjakët family has kept.
The exact date of the Bonjakët temple is still unclear, and classics faculty members at UC are researching the origins of the unique figurines and other artifacts. Davis and the international team face continuing and urgent challenges, including plans by the Albanian Ministry of Transport to build a highway between the Bonjakët site and Apollonia’s original walls, an area that filled with people as the city-state grew. Davis says the highway would cause "irreparable harm" to "the antiquities of the urban center of Apollonia."
As chief negotiator for the team, Davis also must continue to work with the family. "The buck stops with me," he said. For the entire temple to be excavated, he believes it will be necessary to purchase their land and the buildings in their compound.
In addition to Davis, co-directors of the 2004 fieldwork were Sharon R. Stocker, a PhD candidate from UC; Vangjel Dimo of the Institute of Archaeology, Tirana; and Iris Pojani of the International Centre for Albanian Archaeology. They were assisted by University of Cincinnati team members Kori Duncan, Tammie Gerke, Evi Gorogianni, Kathleen Lynch and Shannan Stewart; Rexhep Halili and Genci Kotepano of the International Centre for Albanian Archaeology; and Elio Hobdari and Ols Lafe of the Institute of Archaeology. The original survey project team was represented by Skënder Muçaj.
They agree the site has "extraordinary and singular importance to Albanian archaeology and to the history of Greek colonization in the Adriatic Sea," Davis said. If the team is correct in its estimate that the temple was built in the Archaic or Classical period from the late 6th-early 5th century BC, Davis said, "the temple at Bonjakët may be one of the earliest monumental Greek temples on the shores of the eastern Adriatic, north of the borders of the modern Greek state."