Has the lost Illyrian city of Bassania finally been discovered in Albania?

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Archaeologists believe they have discovered the lost city of Bassania, an ancient Illyrian settlement mentioned by Livy as located between two important ancient centers – the Illyrian capital of Shkodër and the Greek city of Lissos. The archaeological site is on a hill near the modern village of Bushat in present-day Albania.

The latest excavations were carried out by a team of archaeologists from the Center for Southeast European Research at the University of Warsaw and the Institute of Archeology in Tirana, reports the Polish news portal. Science in Poland . The first traces of the city were found in 2018 in the form of defensive walls and two stone structures.

Hidden in the landscape

The stone structures had always been thought to be natural rock outcrops, but it was discovered to be a gatehouse and two bastions. The solid wall, 3 meters (9.8 ft) thick, is a cyclopean construction with massive stone blocks tightly packed together, and earth and pebbles filling in the gaps. Archaeologists have explained that it was a typical Hellenistic defensive structure.

Ancient coins and fragments of ceramic vessels found near the walls have been dated to between the fourth and first centuries BC, further confirming that the city was part of the Illyrian kingdom.

Hewn rock was used to build substantial walls. (M. Lemke/ Science in Poland )

The lost city of Bassania

Bassania was an Illyrian city that came under Roman control during the Illyrian Wars. However, it is not known exactly when this happened. Bassania was described by the Roman historian Livy (59 BC-17 AD) in the context of the battles between the last king of Illyria, Gentius, and the troops Romans. The city seems to have existed until the beginning of the first century AD, which coincided with the end of the reign of Roman Emperor Octavian Augustus.

The newly discovered site of Bassania competes with an older identification of the ancient city with the village of Pedhanë on the Mat River in Lezhë County.

The excavation site on a hill next to the village of Bushat during archaeological research.  (M. Lemke / Science in Poland)

The excavation site on a hill next to the village of Bushat during archaeological research. (M. Lemke / Science in Poland )

New discoveries at Bushat

For recent excavations, the team conducted geophysical surveys of the hill which revealed a massive settlement spread over 20 hectares (49 acres). It is three times the size of ancient Shkodër. The survey drew attention to structures that looked like solid walls.

Professor Piotr Dyczek, director of the Center for South East European Research, said this year the highest part of the city, just below the top of the hill, had been excavated. “During our excavations in May this year, we discovered the foundations of two large buildings here,” he added, according to the Science in Poland report . Each of the buildings covered an area of ​​nearly 20 meters (65 ft) by 12 meters (39 ft). At a small distance, a smaller structure 10 meters (32 ft) by 7 meters (23 ft) was also discovered.

Until now, archaeologists have not established the destination of the buildings. However, they say they were different from others in the area and probably had an important function. The structures have solid foundations 90 centimeters (36 inches) wide. Local conglomerate stone was used in their construction and no mortar was used. Their roofs were covered with Greek tiles.

The city shows no signs of a violent end by destruction or fire but appears to have been abandoned and left to the elements. Natural erosion, with the city walls slowly sliding down the hillside for years, combined with centuries of looting of stone blocks as building material by local villagers, has left the city in ruins.

Archaeologists were, however, fortunate to find ancient pottery fragments at the site that escaped erosion and human foraging. Analysis of the fragments helped them establish that the hill was inhabited as early as the second millennium BCE and was not abandoned as a settlement site until around the turn of the millennium or slightly later.

Fragments of Italian amphoras dating from the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC. AD and skyphos, Greek wine vessels with horizontal handles, were found in the structures of the primary occupation level. “A lot of them are very small. In ancient times, these miniature dishes were either toys or votive offerings. It is difficult to say what functions they are currently fulfilling in our position,” Professor Dyczek said.

Further research will be directed to establish the purpose of the recently discovered structures and tiny ceramic artifacts. It is to be hoped that it will also conclusively identify whether the site is indeed the ancient lost city of Bassania.

Top image: Excavation site of the settlement believed to be Bassania, on a hill near the village of Bushat, Albania. Source: M. Lemke / Science in Poland

By Sahir Pandey

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