Classics Grad Student Makes Remarkable Find
David Hernandez’s story reminds you of an extra thick adventure novel you wish would never end.
David Hernandez’s story reminds you of an extra thick adventure novel you wish would never end. Beginning about 2000 years ago in Albania, it jumps briefly to the fourth or fifth century, moves on to the 1850s, then World War II, and ends in 2004 with an “exhilarated” Hernandez realizing that he made an extraordinary discovery.
His adventure is populated with artisans and aristocrats from the ancient city of Buthrotum (now Butrint), as well as a group of mysterious Christians from Late Antiquity. There’s a nineteenth century traveler/sketch-artist, an unidentifiable Italian soldier, and a Communist government whose bureaucratic red tape eclipsed Albanian cultural heritage for over three decades.
Hernandez’s role began in 2004, when he supervised an archeological survey in the ancient necropolis or cemetery of Butrint, the city described in Virgil’s Aeneid as a “miniature Troy.” His University of East Anglia (UEA) team is one of three collaborating archaeological groups currently operating in the area. They are not, however, the first to recognize the potential of the site. The most notable early expedition began in 1928, when the fascist Italian Archaeological Mission under Mussolini uncovered a wealth of Roman artifacts.
Members of the Albanian Institute of Archaeology and other archeologists at the site knew that a large region west of the fortified city had served as a cemetery in ancient times, but for most, the knowledge was lost once the Communists gained control of the country. Paranoid about a possible invasion by Greece, the government constructed military installations across Albania. These included a huge segment of the northern bank of the Vivari Channel, which was cordoned off with barbed wire. Average citizens could not venture into this military zone that was a subset of the old necropolis. As two or more generations passed, dense vegetation covered the region, and most forgot that there were monumental tombs in the area.
Then came the fall of Communism. Citizens were suddenly free not only to own cars and boats, but also to explore their heritage. Enter the Albanian Institute of Archaeology, an Albanian and Greek expedition team, and the Butrint Foundation that fields Hernandez’s UEA team.
The Butrint Foundation acquired a series of lithographs from a private collection that contained a sketch of a Roman vaulted monumental tomb made in the 1850s by an Englishman named Henry Cook. His drawings included a Venetian Castle still visible today, but Richard Hodges, director of the UEA group, had nothing other than his sketches to suggest that the tomb might be real rather than a figment stemming from Cook’s Romantic imagination.
A hunch told him to send Hernandez to the necropolis. In “100 degree heat with no clouds in sight,” the 30-year-old graduate student ventured down a rocky, unstable hill slope in search of the remains of Cook’s tomb. What he encountered was “dense, antagonistic vegetation--prickly, thorny trees, bushes, and vines and literally thousands of red, white, black, yellow, you-name-it spiders.”
He used an axe, machete, and other de-vegetation tools to cut trails into the forest hillside. At first, he made little progress because “the spiders hanging all around were terrifying.” Nevertheless, on his first day, to his amazement, he found several small and large tombs, one of which was a “beautifully preserved white monument from the Roman period.” After spending weeks exploring the ancient cemetery, Hernandez’s team grew “familiar with the spiders, the hard work became endurable, and the discoveries increasingly spectacular.”
With two colleagues, he expanded the search after the first day and ultimately found a total of twenty above-ground, open, and exposed tombs surrounded by vegetation so dense a person could stand next to one and not realize it. Hernandez has an acute memory of this irony. Just hours before he stumbled on the white tomb, he had stood, totally unaware, on top of it. Erosion of the hillside had buried all but its southern wall, and a large tree, hundreds of years old, protected it from sun and rain as the tree grew out of its center. When he saw a sparkle of white amidst a canvas of green and brown vegetation, Hernandez cut through the branches of this tree he had just stood under and found the very well preserved southern face of the white tomb.
Extraordinary as these discoveries were, none matched Cook’s drawing. But is wasn’t long before the team did find not only the tomb Cook had sketched, but something even more remarkable inside. Archaeologists at the site would later dub it the “Painted Tomb” because on the interior are three chronologically distinct frescos that have turned out to be the earliest known paintings in Albania.
Hernandez’s team has been able to date the first to 150-250 A.D., and enough of the tomb survived to demonstrate that the original internal appearance featured a repetitive geometric design and two marble sarcophagi that once housed deceased members of an aristocratic family. As the Roman Empire slowly disintegrated, tombs were re-used and plundered, and the second phase of frescos appears in only disjointed fragments depicting leaves and plants.
Later the tomb was enlarged, repainted, and converted into a Christian tomb/chapel. Hernandez describes the three panels of paintings in this phase as “visually impressive” and notes that the style and iconography point to the fourth or fifth century A.D. One panel of wall painting may even feature the baptism of Jesus. A young bare-chested male with a halo stands in water, extending his right arm so that the observer views his right palm.
A curious addition to the interior was an Italian munition with the inscription “BREDA.” Archaeologists conjecture that since BREDA was a World War II Italian munitions company, an Italian soldier must have visited the tomb during the war.
Hernandez, who is of Cuban descent, has a BA in physics and is currently completing his PhD dissertation under the direction of professors C. Brian Rose and Jack Davis. He has worked on the post-bronze age excavation at Troy and two excavations in Butrint. Next season, he will return to Butrint as site director to excavate the administrative and commercial heart of the ancient city, the Roman Forum. He says of last summer’s experience in Albania, “What is truly astonishing is the continuity between past and present. It was, after all, the sketch by Henry Cook that led me to the Painted Tomb.”
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