After 50 years of “oblivion,” Albanian and German archaeologists managed to unearth part of the ruins of the ancient city of Zgërtheshi, named Albanopolis in 1854, the city provided one of the names Albanians call themselves today.
For years on end, no one besides perhaps some stray sheep searching for a blade of grass has stopped here to remove some of the weeds that cover the Cyclopean watchtowers of one of Albania’s most important ancient sites. Nonetheless, during April, one could hear voices and the noises of trowels coming from inside the necropolis.
A month-long research cooperative project involving archaeologists from Albania’s Archaeological Institute, and German Goethe University in Frankfurt, which is expected to take place in the the next two years as well, returned archaeologists to the ancient city of Zgërtheshi.
The digging, that extended from mid-March to April 20, aims to provide a fuller knowledge of the ancient city. Four tombs, as well as a circular structure that, according to the project leaders, may be a monumental tomb, were unearthed near an ancient temple.
The ruins christened in 1854, according to one theory, “Albanopolis” by Austrian philologist Johann Georg von Hahn are located on top of Zgërtheshi hill, to the south-west of Kruja city, on the road to Halili village.
With the return of the archaeologists, hope has also rekindled among locals who expect this discovery to attract more visitors to the ancient ruins and more government infrastructure investment in the area.
The archaeological dig
The discoveries they have excited the archaeologists that work in groups on a 10 hectare area that constitutes the ancient city. They have conducted 4 archaeological surveys, and have unearthed four tombs as well as a yet unidentified circular structure.
According to the researchers, one of the tombs is particularly peculiar. They say it is the first time they have encountered such a well-preserved structure, whose stonework, consisting of the tomb and the surrounding walls built with bricks and then laid with tiles, dates back to the 3d-4th century CE.
“The structure of the tomb is very well built and, we believe, the body within was a woman, perhaps belonging to a privileged social stratum,” project co-leader Thomas Maurer told BIRN.
The tomb, discovered in a small ditch near the ancient city’s outer walls, in the necropolis area, contained a rich inventory of artifacts.
“We unearthed 3 glass artifacts, 2 of which are bottles (one spherical and the other bell-shaped) and the third is an oinochoe. We also unearthed a silver objects, two rings and 5 bronze circles, whose purpose is still unclear,” project co-leader Elvana Metalla told BIRN.
Outside the city’s outer walls, about 400 meters downhill from the castle, a circular structure built with large stone blocks was unearthed.
“Perhaps we are looking at a monumental tomb. This structure makes us think that there may be a temple nearby, seeing as this area contained a necropolis during the hellenistic-roman era, but this remains to be seen,” Mauer stated.
There is also digging in the castle’s highest part, the acropolis, inside a still undated church, that may belong to the late antiquity-early medieval era. The purpose of this dig is learning as much as possible about how this monument was organized.
Nearby, along an approximately 90 meters high stone wall, there used to be three towers. The north one still remains, well preserved for the most part, but covered in vines and other plants.
The ancient city was built on a hill that offered natural protection, and part of it was built on stone. Cleaning the flora covering the existing walls aims, according to the archaeologists, to identify the the stones laid during the construction and recreating the city’s plan, perhaps even the shapes of the city streets and buildings.
Hope for the locals
The current archaeological dig is not accidental. It was based on two previous archaeological campaigns in 1969 and 1972. The ancient ruins on top of one of the hills near Halili village are thought to be resting on the Illyrian city, Albanopolis, the central city of the Illyrian Albanoi tribe.
The first mention of the city of Albanopolis comes from Ptolemy’s Geography, in 150 CE.
The first to propose that Albanopolis may have been located in this area was Austrian Johann Georg von Hahn, following his visit to Zgërdheshi in 1854. The name of the city, thus, became related to Albania’s national name.
This year’s archaeological finds, along with previous ones, show that the city extended past the outer walls. Besides the stonework of the castle, discoveries of finely sculpted objects and statue fragments speak of a highly developed civilization.
“Digging in the area, in 1961, has unearthed the remains of a building’s walls, an amount of tiles, and the head of a lion,” according to “The ancient Illyrian city in Zgërdheshi” by archaeologist Selim Islami that first appeared in the archaeological journal Iliria (vol. 2, 1972).
In contrast to cities like Durrësi, in which archaeological finds are covered with new buildings, the inhabitants of Zgërdheshi have respected the “borders” of the castle, which constitutes a source of pride for them.
At the entrance of the Halili village, a small barbershop also serves as an “information point.” Arben Halili stops shaving his client, and eagerly speaks to us about the castle. However, he is not very satisfied with the road that leads there.
“I tell many tourists to turn back, because the road is very bad. There is a lot of interest, though. The problem is the infrastructure.” he says.
Lately, the government has announced that Halili village has been selected as one of the 100 villages that will receive strategic investments for the integrated development of the country’s rural spaces. The inhabitants, however, are not sure what this means. They don’t know if this initiative will at least mean they will now have running water, something that has been missing for years in the village.
In fact, the last time the village was mentioned in the media was 2017. The 17-years long absence of drinking water for the village’s 3000 inhabitants means the village’s women are forced to stand in line to gather water from a nearby source, as was done centuries ago.
This article was first published by BIRN, translated by Exit.