Source: USA Today
By Dan Vergano
Looking to get it away from it all? Consider Albania. An archaeology team reports that the mountains of northern Albania, perhaps the most remote place left in Europe, have been a hide-out for a surprisingly long time.
A leader of the expedition, archaeologist Michael Galaty of Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss., reports on this summer's expedition now that he's back from to the Shala Valley in northern Northern Albania's mountains, the tail end of the Alps.
"Some five hundred years ago, people came here fleeing the Ottoman empire. We expected to find what they left behind," Galaty says. Perched on a promontory near the village of Grunas (Groo-NAS) are the remains of walls, which the team initially assumed were from a hideout left over from the 1500's, a time when exiles repopulated the region, on the lam from the new empire.
However, a little digging on a 2006 expedition revealed something wrong with the walls. They were too old and some were made of "cyclopean" stone, boulders roughly fitted together without any mortar, a style associated with the Bronze-Age Greek Kingdom of Mycenae. Instead of a medieval hidey-hole, the team had unearthed the remains of a fortress from the Bronze Age, some time around 800 B.C., as indicated by a radiocarbon date and the pottery and stone tools left behind there.
"For whatever reason, it turns out people have been fleeing to this valley for about 3,000 years," Galaty says. The find is particularly interesting for a few reasons, he adds. Around 800 B.C., the shift from Bronze Age to Iron Age had started in the region of Europe north of Greece. The ancient Greeks were emerging from a long Dark Age that had lasted for several centuries and were tangling with Illyrian kingdoms on the Adriatic coast, just downhill from mountainous northern Albania.
The Illyrians were one of the classic pains-in-the-necks of in the classical world. Their pirates were denounced by the Romans, who routed them on the way to conquering the Mediterranean around, in a long-running fight that concluded around 160 B.C. Was the fortress of Grunas some sort of redoubt against these ruffians of the high seas in the ancient world, or part of their kingdom, Galaty and his colleagues wondered.
This summer, with help from the National Science Foundation and others, Galaty's team went back to uncover the story of who owned the fortress of Grunas. To their surprise, they uncovered at least five buildings (two of them stone), mud-plastered houses for a more than a dozen people, the foundations of a pair of look-out towers, a gate and huge terraces. Galaty believes a few hundred people likely lived in the fortress, whose age was confirmed by chemical analysis of the pottery shards found in the foundations. "Somebody put in a lot of time and effort to build walls up there," he says, noting the terrace walls were several feet thick and reached more than 15 feet high in places.
Drilling about 2,000 auger holes in the terraces atop the hilltop, the team determined that people have been leaving behind waste at the site since at least about 1,000 BC. And they found the terraces were carefully engineered in place, a common practice in the classic Greek world, but unknown in northern Albanian sites.
Although the team members, who included Ols Lafe of the Albanian Institute of Archaeology and Zamir Tafilica of Albania's Shkodër Historical Museum, are still deciphening who lived in Grunas, much of the pottery they have uncovered appears to originate from farther further south of Albania in the early Iron Age, towards the Illyrian coast. The Shala Valley may have held folks trading with the Illyrians, if not hiding from them, Galaty suggests. "History repeats itself, after all."
The next invasion might not be pirates or empire-builders, he adds, but skiers, attracted by snows that regularly leave people snowed in during the height of winter and a slowing of hostilities in Kosovo. "If they put in a paved road to the valley, it will be all over," says Galaty. "It's just too beautiful a place to be hidden forever."