Returning home – My summer excavting in Albania

By: Erina Baci

The date today is August 2nd. I am currently somewhere over the Atlantic, 10,000 meters above the ground, flying back to Canada. For the past two months, I have been living in Albania. I have been fortunate enough to study in the country that I was born, after living outside for nearly 17 years. Flying into Tirana International Airport on July 2nd felt like I was coming home. As part of the internship requirement for the Master’s program at Mississippi State, I worked as an archaeological intern with the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP). My internship with TAP this summer was two-fold, consisting of 6 weeks of fieldwork and 2 weeks of archival research. Before I dive into my experience this summer, I want to thank several people for making this opportunity possible for me;   Dr. Lorenc Bejko and Dr. Michael Galaty for organizing the internship. Gjergj Vinjajhu, Arber Kadia and Nevilla Molla for acting as my guides and point people in the field, and to the numerous TAP staff, from archaeologists to administrators, to drivers to engineers, for making my experience in Albania truly a memorable one.

My summer in Albania has been a whirlwind experience. I rarely found myself staying in one place too long and now understand the phrase “to live out of a duffle bag.” After parking my clunky luggage at a cousin’s house in Tirana, I was on my to Korce where an archeological site had been discovered during the trenching process for the pipeline. Upon arriving in Korce, I found myself a member of the camp based in Floq. The camp housed about 500 TAP personnel from all over the world, ranging from archaeologists to welders, to chemists and everything in between. The camp was like a city of its own, enclosed within its guarded gate were two canteens, coffee rooms, a café/bar, a gym, a volleyball court, a health center, offices and of course, living quarters.

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The Camp in Floq.

The site where I worked at consisted of multiple components and spanned three periods: Neolithic, Iron, and Medieval.  I found myself falling into a routine rather quickly upon my arrival. My day began at 6 am when I woke up and donned by steeled toes boots, hard hat and safety vest and headed to the canteen for breakfast. Because we were excavating in an active construction site, these parameters were a necessity. In fact, we were also required to wear gloves, safety goggles, and long sleeves at all times when on site. The work day on site began at 8 am and lasted until 5 pm. Lunch was at 12 pm. The best part about lunch was the coffee which we had brought to site each day – you cannot believe how much a necessity that dose of caffeine becomes. Although to be honest, I still can’t comprehend how fast the hours would slip by, and before I knew it, my car was on site to pick me up and the work day was done.  After returning to my cabin and washing away the dirt that had accumulated throughout the day, it would be 7 o’clock; dinner time.  Dinner was always an interesting experience. The canteen was always full and you could hear a mixture of at least five different leagues at any one moment. The cuisine ranged from traditional Albanian meals to Asian stir-fries to Indian curries.

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Returning home covered in dirt.Fridays were by far my favorite days as on Friday evenings the archeologists would get together and go into the city and explore. Korce is truly beautiful, little cobble-paved alleyways run throughout the city. The buildings are all level, rarely going more than 3 or 4 stories. In the center of the ci, y there is a great plaza with a beautiful cathedral in the middle. A stone-throw away from the cathedral is the “Pazar I

Fridays were by far my favorite days as on Friday evenings the archeologists would get together and go into the city and explore. Korce is truly beautiful, little cobble-paved alleyways run throughout the city. The buildings are all level, rarely going more than 3 or 4 stories. In the center of the city there is a great plaza with a beautiful cathedral in the middle. A stone-throw away from the cathedral is the “Pazar I vjeter” or old shopping district of Korce. This little nook is like a time capsule back in time, again, paved in cobble stones, the Pazar features an open plaza like lay out, encircled with beautiful little cafes and bars.

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The Cathedral.

 

Coffee at the Pazar with some friends from Starkville! It’s a small world.

Not to sound entirely romantic, but there was something magical about excavating in Korce this summer. Maybe it was the fact that I was digging in my home country, and that this had been my dream since I was a little girl. But every now and then I would look up and see the green fields that ran in every direction encircled by the mountains in the distance and I would be in disbelief that I was there.

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The view from the “office”

Over my internship this summer, we removed 170 graves that fell within the pipeline trench. This was my first experience excavating graves, and I found myself a little timid at first. But under the guidance of my supervisors and collogues, I learned quickly and found myself quite at home. Now maybe only other archeologists will relate to this – but there is something so gratifying about excavating a grave from start to finish. From the moment that you find the sarcophagus or grave cut to the moment that you close the wooden create that wall house the bones. I think for myself it’s the fact that each skeleton we discover comes with a biography that we can later piece together. They are not just skeletons, they were people, the lived and hey laughed and they loved and they died – and now, centuries later, here we are literally unearthing their story. We can learn so much from the bones of an individual for example, when they died, maybe how they died, what type of life they may have had. Were they local serfs tied to the land, or maybe a foreigner raised elsewhere who by some fate found themselves in a strange new place.

 

Making friends on site.

And just like that 6 weeks in Korce flew by and I found myself back in Tirana at the Academy of Sciences rummaging through countless academic articles, conducting research for my thesis. Here too, I quickly settled into a routine. Luckily in Tirana could sleep in and only had to wake up at 7 am each day. Upon waking up I would head down to a local “burektore” or pie shop near the bus stop and buy two bureks for my lunch later in the day, as well as a large water bottle, which I would carry around in my backpack. If my accent didn’t tip people off to my foreign-ness, the water bottle surely did. I would then board the bus or “urban” as the Albanians call it and pay the 40 cents fare to the faturino who came around to collect the fare. The academy was about 10 minutes by bus, and of course, it was encircled by a gate and guarded. My first day at the academy I had to explain to the guard why I was trying to get in. The following days, he would laugh and ask me “you’re still not done with your reading?”

Upon arriving I would get settled into my desk in one of the many reading rooms at the academy and begin digging, this time figuratively, through journals. Out of habit, at noon I would take my lunch break outside on a bench by the fountain that was in front of the building. Of course, after lunch followed coffee, which I would have by myself at a cafe across the academy. The act of having coffee alone is a bit of an enigma in Albania. Coffee is more of a social act than a beverage, one does not have coffee alone. If my accent and backpack with a massive water bottle on the side did not tip off people to my foreign-ness, then the act of drinking coffee by myself at 12:15 every day surely did. After my noon coffee, I would return to the academy and work until closing – much to the dismay of the librarians who likely hoped to close early some days, but had to stay because of me – sorry.

 

The Academy.

 

Yesterday I returned to the Coin Towner – where the TAP head offices in Tirana are, to return by personal protection equipment; my hardhat my steel toed boots, and my safety vest. Again, I found myself in disbelief at how fast two months had flown by. It seemed like it was only yesterday that I was nervously looking at my google maps app on my phone trying to find the Coin Tower so I could pick up my PPE and figure out the logistics of my assistantship. Here I was two months later walking through a city that was now so familiar, with earphones in my ear, barely even thinking about where I was going – my feet knew the way themselves. In two months, I excavated in Korce, went mountain hiking in Floq, went row boating in Pogradec, saw the amphitheater of Durres, attended a traditional Albanian wedding, conducted research for my thesis, and even got to explore Macedonia for a day. This summer really was a wonderful experience, professionally as an archaeologist, I have learned so much and gained some much-valued experience in the field.  Personally, it was so wonderful to emerge myself entirely in my culture again. To speak my language, to see family I hadn’t seen in years. Now more than ever I am convinced that I have chosen the right field for myself and I hope that one day I can make a positive contribution the archeology of my home country.

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Lunch breaks, waiting for the coffee to arrive.

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Hiking in Floq.

 

Days off in Pogradec.

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The amphitheater of Durres.

 

Tirana.

 

Traditional Albanian wedding featuring traditional Albanian folk dancing, throwing copious amounts of cash at the bride and groom, burning of the “bachelorhood” and a surprise birthday serenade to yours truly at midnight.

 

Lake Ohrid, Macedonia.

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Last, but not least, a group pic, taken on our last day.

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