Fifteen years ago, the name “Trans Adriatic Pipeline” was coined by the Swiss energy group, EGL Group, now known as Axpo. Fast forward to 2018 and the pipeline is in the final stages of completion and by 2020, the first deliveries of Azerbaijani gas should reach Western Europe.
But it has not been an easy process as the project has been mired in accusations of land grabbing, bribery, heavy-handed tactics, inadequate compensation, and even the forceful eviction of landowners that did not want to uproot their livelihoods. But, as the controversial pipeline cut its way through the Albanian countryside, archaeologists were rewarded with a multitude of sites that have provided them with valuable insight into the countries past, from as far back as 5000BC.
Starting on the border of Turkey and Greece at “Kipo,” it links with the Trans Anatolian Pipeline and continues onshore throughout the entirety of Northern Greece. It then enters Albania and travels for 215km through Korça, Berat, and Lushnja, before transitioning into the offshore section once it reaches the city of Fier. From there it continues onwards through the Adriatic, before connecting to Italy’s gas transportation network in Southern Italy.
The TAP Controversy
Throughout the lifetime of the project, there has been no shortage of controversy. In Italy, the pipeline’s construction was met with resistance from environmentalists due to the fact that it would require the explanting of centuries-old olive groves, and the troubling proximity of the pipeline to the beach of San Foca, a popular tourist destination. The new Minister for the Environment, Sergio Costa even went so far as to call the project “pointless,” as thousands of local people took to the streets to protest against the construction.
In Greece, landowners were up in arms due to the necessity for the pipeline to cross highly fertile agricultural land in the northeast of the country. With many Greek farmers facing the implementation of plans that they received no consultation on, their responses were fuelled with passion and desperation. One such resident, Themis Kalpakidis, a farmer from Kavala in Greece said:
If the company wants the pipeline to pass through our region, it will first have to pass over our bodies.
The situation in Albania was not much better. Albanian families were reported to have been told to give up their land and property without adequate reimbursement, and some were even threatened with government expropriation if they did not comply. A number of Albanian families submitted complaints to the European Investment Bank over the amount of compensation they had been offered for uprooting their lives to make way for the pipeline.
Despite the TAP PR machine going into overdrive, the 80 communities affected by the project remained nonplussed. Not only was the amount of money being offered to these people not even nearly enough, but the sums were failing to take into account loss of future earnings for those who relied on the land for their income. Now, as the project nears completion, not much has been heard from these families whose lives have been so drastically altered, but there is at least a bit of good news that has come out of TAP.
Despite laying waste to hundreds of kilometres of countryside, it seems as if the TAP project has given an unexpected boost to Albanian archaeological exploration. Over the last couple of years, a number of rich and unrelated ancient sites have been uncovered during the course of TAP excavations. These include Neolithic settlements from some of Europe’s earliest farmers, as well as Byzantine, Roman, and Ottoman sites of interest.
The Settlement at Turan
One such site found in Turan, on the outskirts of Korça, was found to contain one of the countries oldest known cemeteries with tombs dating back to the 7th Century BC. Within the graves, artefacts such as rings, earrings, bracelets, gold coins, pottery, and beads made from amber and glass were discovered, as well as wooden caskets and clothing worked with fine silver thread. This discovery has made Turan the most important out of the 30 or so sites that have been found since the project started.
Iris Pojani, the lead archaeologist on the Turan dig described the find as “the cherry on the cake” and TAP Cultural Heritage Monitor, Arber Kadia stated that the project “will leave something that is not just a momentary passage of gas, but cultural heritage that people will pass on.”
As well as treasures and finery found in the 1000 plus tombs in Turan, Lorenc Bejko, the senior cultural heritage advisor for TAP was pleased to note the discovery of a 23ft x 10ft Middle Neolithic structure – an unusually large size by the standards of the time.
“Usually Neolithic huts are very small and the entire family lived in a very restricted space,” he says. “We don’t know why this one is so much bigger. It was probably some kind of central building.”
Further excitement was sparked by the discovery of a surprisingly well preserved Neolithic skeleton, one of only four to ever be found in Albania. A further 120 skeletons were found at the site, packed just inches apart but whilst they are yet to be dated, it is suspected that they are from the 1600s or 1700s.
As excavations of the site come to an end, it is hoped that the discoveries will help to provide archaeologists and historians with a more in-depth insight into the history of the area, and why people decided to settle there. With so many historical artefacts and records destroyed during the Ottoman rule and the subsequent Communist dictatorship, any such discoveries cause a great deal of excitement within Albania.
“The main challenge we are now facing is keeping a balance between economic development and science,” says Pojani as she talks about the need to progress, but not at the expense of history and culture.
The Settlement at Peshtan
Another important discovery made during TAP excavations include a hilltop settlement near Peshtan that was inhabited between the Byzantine and late Ottoman periods, comprising of a stone street connecting villas, a Turkish bath, and a 6th Century Christian Church. The apse of a chapel was discovered first at the bottom of a hill, but as the team moved up the slope, they unearthed a vast array of structures that spanned over 1500 years, telling a complex story of many different inhabitants.
Whilst it may never be known how many people’s lives were negatively impacted by the TAP project, and it remains to be seen what, if any, benefit the pipeline will bring inhabitants of the lands it passes through, it certainly has been a good time for archaeology. In a country with around 100 archaeologists where spending on excavations is in the low thousands, publicity and investments brought about by the TAP discoveries can only be a positive thing. Whilst the discovery of such historical sites and artefacts cannot heal the damage inflicted on communities along TAPs path, perhaps such discoveries could help to instil a sense of pride in the higher echelons of power, and society as a whole.
In a country that builds incessantly over Roman ruins and wants to bulldoze one of its capital’s oldest cultural sites, perhaps these discoveries that have garnered such international attention could help to reiterate the importance of preserving and conserving the past.