Diaporit Roman Villa
Project sponsors: The Packard Humanities Institute, the Butrint Foundation, the Howard and Nancy Marks Fund, Atticus Capital LLC
Diaporit, in southern Albania, is the focus of a major programme of research directed by William Bowden (The University of Nottingham) and Luan Pérzhita (Albanian Institute of Archaeology) under the aegis of the Butrint Project. Diaporit remains the only rural Roman site to have been scientifically excavated in either Albania or Greece, and as such has an importance far beyond the Butrint area.
The site is situated on the south-west side of Lake Butrint, a large freshwater lake connected by a narrow channel to the Straits of Corfu. Archaeological remains at Diaporit were noted by an Italian mission in the 1920s but the first systematic archaeological work at Diaporit was carried out in 1994 as part of the Butrint Project's field survey of the hinterland of Butrint.
Preliminary surveys in 1994 and 1999 indicated that the visible structures on the site were the remains of a substantial Roman villa and an Early-Christian church. Subsequent to this a major programme of open area excavation was launched, which was intended to investigate the origins of the villa and its occupation history, and the relationship between the villa and the church.
The results of the project
The excavations revealed that occupation at Diaporit stretched back to the late 3rd century BC. Although difficult to reach (owing to the depth and complexity of the later remains that overlay them), Hellenistic levels were identified in three separate areas of the site, demonstrating the extent of this early occupation which covered an area of up to 2000 m2. Like the Roman buildings that succeeded them, the Hellenistic structures were laid out over terraces. The result was an extensive open site, quite different from the fortified farmsteads that were characteristic of the 4th and early 3rd centuries BC (such as the so-called Nekyomanteion of Ephyra), and thereby suggesting something of the changing nature of society in Epirus during the 3rd century.
It is unclear as to how long occupation continued on the Hellenistic site, although the absence of major deposits of this period or significant quantities of Hellenistic material in later levels suggests that it may have been quite short-lived. Coin finds, certainly, appear to be clustered around the late 3rd century BC, with no examples from the 2nd century.
The Roman villa
The next major phase of occupation of the site commenced in the early decades of the 1st century AD, during the latter part of the reign of the emperor Augustus or that of his successor, Tiberius. On the western side of the site fragmentary traces of buildings have been found that date to this period, although many of the remains had been destroyed by later building activity or lie beneath the waters of the lake, which have risen since the Roman period.
Around AD 40-80 these buildings were replaced by a larger and more grandiose villa laid out over a series of terraces and including an elegant east wing with rooms decorated with mosaic and painted wall plaster. The west wing of the villa included a monumental fountain, which was intended to be seen from inside the west wing of the building. The southern wing was dominated by a major bath complex that by the late 2nd century included an apsidal room with a cold plunge pool, a large hexagonal room and an elegant internal courtyard.
The villa was relatively short-lived, however, and in the first half of the 3rd century it was abandoned as a luxury residence. Its decorated rooms were turned over to more prosaic activities that included a large oven built in the apsidal hall of the bath complex. The villa was entirely abandoned around AD 250.
The late antique pilgrimage centre
The site was reoccupied at the end of the 5th century when a large Christian church was built on the site. The church was focused around three marble-lined tombs in the apse that probably contained the bones of people said to be saints or martyrs. Excavation of these tombs revealed a solitary leg bone, and it is likely that the rest of the contents of these tombs were removed in the Middle Ages. Further buildings including a tower, a bath-house and a series of store rooms that re-used the rooms of the Roman villa.
It is thought likely that the church functioned as a centre of pilgrimage, perhaps maintained by a small monastic community. The excavations of the villa also showed that the Early Christian activity spread across all areas of the site, with 5th- and 6th-century remains (including burials) noted in both the bath-house area and the area close to the lake. The occupation of this Christian centre probably lasted no more than 60-70 years, however, and the site was abandoned by AD 550.
The large-scale excavations at Diaporit have made it a site of international value, tracing the development of a rural site over more than a millennium. Diaporit remains the only rural Roman site to have been scientifically excavated in either Albania or Greece, and as such has an importance far beyond the Butrint area. The excavations have identified an archaeological sequence that charts the ebb and flow of prosperity and activity at the site, together with the complex ideological changes that marked the ways that aristocratic taste and power were expressed over the course of the site's long history.
W. Bowden, R. Hodges and K. Lako 2002. 'Roman and late antique Butrint: excavations and survey 2000-2001', Journal of Roman Archaeology 15, 151-80.
W. Bowden and L. Pérzhita 2004. 'Archaeology in the landscape of Roman Epirus: preliminary report on the Diaporit excavations', 2002-3, Journal of Roman Archaeology, 17, 413-33.
W. Bowden and L. Pérzhita (eds) in preparation. The Roman and Late Antique Villa at Diaporit, Oxford, Oxbow.
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