Since my last blog post (https://msuamec.wordpress.com/2014/05/14/shkoder-northern-albania/), we’ve wrapped up the excavation of Mound 88 and have started excavating Mound 99. Here’s a brief recap of Mound 88: No burials were discovered, however, a perplexing amount of tile and pottery – from many different time periods – was recovered, which perhaps speaks to notions of memory and the reuse of important spaces. Several tile fragments have very interesting patterns etched into them and, what is really interesting is that these kinds of artifacts have never before been seen in the region!
These tile fragments will soon be studied by a ceramic specialist and will hopefully be able to tell us more information about them such as when and where they were made.
What is of importance, I think, is that while many mounds cover the landscape, some contain burials and others do not. My working hypothesis regarding the role and function of these prehistoric mounds, therefore, is that they worked to structure the relationships between people from different communities from the Early Bronze Age, through the Roman conquest, and into today. While social dynamics, which are tied to migration, shifts in climate, and changes in landscape settlement and use have varied through time, currently, however, people continue to react to their landscape in very interesting ways. For example, at the start of the Early Bronze Age, people moved into an empty landscape and seemingly built a mortuary system from scratch. These inhabitants brought with them ideas about how to structure the landscape, which included mound burial. A similar situation obtains today, since there has been considerable recent migration into the traditionally Muslim region by large numbers of Catholic Christians from the mountains.
Since the fall of Communism in Albania in 1991, people have been able to freely move throughout the country and continuous waves of Catholic migrants from nearby mountainous regions have settled in the area, thus bringing with them a suite of cultural practices which have infused old sites with new forms of meaning. Much like the Iron Age reuse of Bronze Age mounds, these recent migrants have given sacred significance to old, ruined spaces, thus reacting to and constructing their own systems of meaning. For example, this ruined Medieval church, the Church of St. John, which predates the Ottoman conquest and was neglected under communism, has recently been embraced by the local Catholic community – despite the fact that Orthodox Christians have claimed this space as well.
The church, which has recently been repaired (even though it is a registered monument of culture), sits in the midst of dispersed Catholic homesteads and nucleated Muslim villages. The church thus symbolizes difference and perhaps conflict. Likewise, Catholic communities have constructed new cemeteries in vacant areas, which stand in stark contrast to the much older, differently organized Muslim cemeteries found close to and within compact Muslim villages. Churches and cemeteries compose a recent sacred landscape that mimics the mortuary landscape of prehistoric Shkoder, but whereas the former divides communities, it is unclear whether the tumuli bridged or separated prehistoric communities.
Returning to the notion of prehistoric reuse of space, we have uncovered the central grave at our new excavation site, Mound 99.
The pottery associated with this central grave suggests that this individual was buried sometime during the Late Bronze Age and we are anticipating older burials beneath and peripheral burials around the edge of the mound. Stay tuned for updates!
PhD Candidate, Michigan State University
Cobb Institute of Archaeology, Archaeologist