Tuesday, June 20, 2017


John K. Papadopoulos, Sarah P. Morris, Lorenc Bejko, Lynne A. Schepartz, The Excavation of the Prehistoric Burial Tumulus at Lofkënd, Albania (2 vols.). Monumenta archaeologica, 34. Los Angeles: Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press, 2014. Pp. xxxvii, 1,118. ISBN 9781938770005. $169.00.

Reviewed by Michael L. Galaty, Mississippi State University (mgalaty@anthro.msstate.edu)

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

The Excavation of the Prehistoric Burial Tumulus at Lofkënd, Albania, hereafter Lofkënd, describes the results of six years of archaeological fieldwork (2003–2008) focused on a prehistoric burial mound located in south- central Albania in the valley of the Gjanicë River, a tributary of the much larger Vjosa. Composed of twenty-two chapters in four parts, Volume 1 presents the text and tables (667 pages), while Volume 2 presents the figures (450 pages), many of which are produced in full color. The project directors thought it would take a year to excavate the roughly 15x20 m mound; it took four. One hundred tombs were removed, fifteen of which were Modern (and two of these were animal burials); altogether they contained 154 individuals (described in great detail, along with the mound's stratigraphy, in Parts I and II). Many, but not all, graves included grave goods of pottery, metal, stone, faience, glass, and bone (Part III). The Lofkënd volumes thereby represent a tremendous amount of work, and set the gold standard for the modern excavation of a burial monument, whether in Albania, elsewhere in Europe, or anywhere in the world. It is to be hoped that archaeologists who work outside of Albania will buy and read this fantastic, handsome report.

To date, over 150 tumuli have been excavated in Albania, so it is perhaps appropriate to ask why the excavations at Lofkënd are so meaningful. Lofkënd records in great detail the various technologies and methods used, but also addresses multiple, important theoretical-archaeological questions. These pertain to Albanian late prehistory and ancient Illyria's place in the wider Mediterranean region, the practice of landscape archaeology, and cultural resources management, among others (mostly addressed in Part IV).

Lofkënd is located in the Mallakastër Hills, directly east of the large Greek colonial city of Apollonia. Apollonia and its hinterland, including the Illyrian hill fort at Margelliç, were surveyed by an Albanian-American team, the Mallakastra Regional Archaeological Project (MRAP), from 1998–2003. MRAP's main goal was to investigate the nature of Greek-Illyrian interactions by looking at regional changes in settlement patterns before, during, and after the founding of the colony, sometime around 600 BC. When the Lofkënd project began (as recounted in Chapter 1), Papadopoulos et al. hoped that the use of the tumulus would span the era of Greek colonization, and that its excavation might contribute to this larger research program. To their surprise, the tumulus was constructed quite early—sometime after 1400 BC—and used for approximately 600 years. The last prehistoric burial occurred about 800 BC, at least two centuries before the arrival of the Greeks. The Lofkënd team was forced to switch gears.

A major problem in Albanian archaeology has been and continues to be the general absence of an absolute prehistoric chronology for the country. This situation is partly a result of Albania's closure during the Communist era, when radiometric dates were unavailable, but is also due to a lingering cultural-historical/materialist theoretical approach that depends upon and generates elaborate, but inaccurate, relative chronologies, based largely on parallels with Aegean and Balkan artifacts, which themselves are not well dated. As a result, the processes whereby Illyrian settlements in southern Albania were transformed into urban centers remain poorly understood. The single most important contribution made by the Lofkënd project, therefore, is an anchored, local absolute chronology for southern Albania, based on a sequence of 37 AMS radiocarbon dates on bone and wood charcoal (as described in Chapter 4). These dates bracket the use-life of the tumulus, but also connect the Lofkënd chronology to other emerging, regional chronologies, such as those produced for Korça by Lera et al. (2011) and for northern Albania by Galaty et al. (2013). With the Lofkënd chronology in hand, Papadopoulos et al. were able to address several of the more important issues relating to the late prehistoric occupation of Albania.

For example, most Albanian archaeologists (and foreign archaeologists working in and around Albania) continue to assume that Bronze Age "proto-Illyrians" were strongly influenced by the Mycenaeans and their Middle-Late Bronze Age predecessors. Some (mostly early) Mycenaean artifacts, primarily weapons, have in fact been recovered from Albanian tumuli, but the bulk of connections between southern Albania and Greece appear to have been forged after the Late Helladic IIIB, i.e., after the fall of the palaces. Lofkënd is no different. The first thirteen tombs date to Lofkënd Phase I (14th–13th centuries BC) and, but for a number of bone dress pins, are almost devoid of grave goods. The remaining 72 prehistoric tombs (Phases II–V) account for the majority of grave goods, none of which betray overtly "Mycenaean" connections. In fact, Lofkënd's material culture was as strongly influenced by northern Greece (and Italy and Central Europe) as it was by southern Greece. The upshot is that changes to Albanian social complexity, signaled by the construction of mounds and hill forts, were indigenous developments, set in motion well before any possible contacts with Mycenaeans. This conclusion bears, of course, on larger debates in Mediterranean/European archaeology about connectedness, the movement of peoples, and the rise of protourban sociopolitical formations (cf. Kristiansen and Larsson 2005).

Another major problem in Albanian archaeology, which the Lofkënd project could at least peripherally address, concerns the organization of proto-Illyrian settlement and economy. Whereas Albanian archaeologists focused much of their energy on tumuli, very few southern Albanian, proto-Illyrian settlement sites (i.e., hill forts) were excavated. Those that were suffered from shallow deposits and mixed stratigraphic sequences, and generated little evidence for full-time occupation prior to the Classical period. Such was the case, for example, at Margelliç (Ceka 1986, 1987), the closest hill fort to Lofkënd.1 It thus remains unclear who built the Lofkënd tumulus, and the other tumuli in the area, at Mashkjezë, Pazhok, and Apollonia, and where they lived. What is particularly interesting about the Lofkënd tumulus is that much of its fill incorporated numerous artifacts from earlier and contemporary periods, including chipped stone tools (some of which are Paleolithic and Mesolithic), pottery, animal bone, and 40 kg of daub. Papadopoulos et al. concluded that this fill must have been mined from a nearby settlement site and used to construct and repair the mound. As a consequence, one of the objectives of the project was to situate the tumulus in its regional, natural and settlement context. This objective was met by reconstructing the local paleo-environment (Chapter 16), including soils, and by conducting intensive and extensive archaeological surveys (Chapter 18). The results of this work indicated that the environment and landscape had not changed significantly since the Bronze Age. Importantly, survey did not identify any settlements in the vicinity of Lofkënd from which the tumulus fill might have been mined. These results mimic those of the MRAP survey, which likewise identified no new Bronze -Iron Age sites. Thus, where Lofkënd's builders lived and where the mound's fill was acquired remain a mystery.

In several of Lofkënd's more speculative chapters (e.g., in Chapter 8, on burial customs, and Chapter 20, on Lofkënd as a "cultivated" place), as well as in the Epilogue, the authors argue, based on negative evidence, that the so- called Lofkëndis must have been settled agriculturalists who practiced some form of mixed-village farming (following Halstead 1990). On the contrary, I have argued, based on the same sorts of negative evidence, that those who built the Albanian tumuli might well have been transhumant pastoralists and that tumuli marked routes of migration (Galaty 2002). The truth, of course, must lie somewhere in between. New data from northern Albania indicate that (at least some, probably not all) Late Bronze-Early Iron Age peoples moved from coast to interior, over relatively short, vertical distances, in order to monitor routes of travel, and that (at least some of) their animals went with them. In Shala, we gathered evidence from the Grunas hill fort (contemporary with the Lofkënd tumulus), from faunal, botanical, and residue analyses, to support this model (Galaty et al. 2013: 220–227), which may also apply to southern Albania.2 Southern Illyrian tribal units may have been based out of near-coastal sites, like Apollonia, and maintained seasonally and/or lightly occupied hill forts, like Margelliç, each of which exploited and monitored a particular river corridor. In this scenario, tumuli, like that at Lofkënd, were used occasionally and opportunistically, and the Lofkëndis were not peripheral players; rather they were key participants in a complex regional system.

Finally, the Lofkënd project is a model of reflexive, community-based archaeology and engaged heritage management. Lofkënd includes a 34-page Albanian summary. No fewer than 18 men and women from surrounding communities worked on the project. Numerous Albanian archaeology students were trained, some of whom have since earned advanced degrees. And the unusual decision was made to rebuild the mound, using locally made mudbricks (as described in Chapter 22). As noted by Morris and Papadopoulos, the tumulus "provided the Late Bronze and Early Iron Age inhabitants of the Gjanicë valley not only an image of, but an anchor to, their past" (p. 579). In reconstructing the mound, and returning it to the landscape, Lofkënd's modern occupants, working in consultation with project archaeologists, have charted a future course, one tied to heritage tourism and regional economic development. For this reason, the Lofkënd volumes serve an audience that is much larger than the relatively small number of archaeologists who will read them. They are a fitting testament to the departed dead, once buried in the Lofkënd tumulus, and an inspiring springboard for future investigations of Albanian prehistory, archaeological education, and local pride of place.

Works Cited

Ceka, Neritan (1986), Amfora Antike nga Margëlliçit. Iliria 16(2): 71–98.
Ceka, Neritan (1987), Arkitektura e qytezës së Margëlliçi. Monumentet 33: 5–25.
Galaty, Michael L. (2002), "Modeling the Formation and Evolution of an Illyrian Tribal System: Ethnographic and Archaeological Analogs," in The Archaeology of Tribal Societies, edited by William A. Parkinson, pp. 109–122. Ann Arbor: Monographs in World Prehistory.
Galaty, Michael L., Ols Lafe, Wayne E. Lee, and Zamir Tafilica, eds. (2013), Light and Shadow: Isolation and Interaction in the Shala Valley of Northern Albania. Monumenta Archaeologica 28. Los Angeles: Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press, UCLA.
Halstead, Paul (1990), "Present to Past in the Pindhos: Diversification and Specialization in Mountain Economies." Revista di Studi Liguri 1: 61-80.
Kristiansen, Kristian, and Erik Larsson (2005), The Rise of Bronze Age Society: Travels, Transmissions and Transformations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lera, Petrika, Cécile Oberweiler, and Gils Touchais (2011), "Le passage du Bronze Récent au Fer Ancien sur le site de Sovjan (Basin de Korçë, Albanie): nouvelles données chronologiques," in Proceedings of the Cinquième Colloque International sur l'Illyrie Mériodionale at l'Épire dans l'Antiquité, Grenoble, France, October 8–12, 2008, edited by Jean-Luc Lamboley and Maria Paola Castiglioni, pp. 41–52. Paris: De Boccard.
Stocker, Sharon R. (2009), Illyrian Apollonia: Toward a Ktisis and Developmental History of the Colony. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Cincinnati.


1.   Only one other settlement is known from the vicinity of Lofkënd, a small, Bronze Age-Iron Age non-fortified site, called Kraps, test excavated by MRAP in 2002 (see Stocker 2009).
2.   In Lofkënd, Chapter 16 (p. 484), Marston erroneously asserts that the Lofkënd tumulus generated "the only record of animal use during the Early Iron Age in Albania."

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