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Albania: Agriculture Goes Beyond Its Roots

Anthropology professor earns NSF grant to dig in Albanian wetlands.

Date: 10/11/2010
By: Ryan Varney
Phone: (513) 556-0142
Photos By: Susan Allen
Susan Allen, field service assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology, researches paleoenvironmental issues in Southeastern Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean among other areas.

This summer, she received a National Science Foundation grant of $191,806 to visit Albania and study the widespread dispersal and adoption of agriculture beyond its roots.

Professor Susan Allen and UC anthropology senior Kathleen Forste (left) visited the Vashtëmi dig site in southern Albania.
Professor Susan Allen and UC anthropology senior Kathleen Forste (left) visited the Vashtëmi dig site in southern Albania.

Your project is titled “Wetlands and the Transition to Agriculture in Europe: The Southern Albania Neolithic Archaeological Project.” Can you provide a little background on the purpose of this project?

I noticed in the literature that scholars commonly cited wetland environments in explanations for why agriculture developed in key centers around the world, such as Mesoamerica, East Asia and the Eastern Woodlands of North America. But they had largely ignored their role in shaping the adoption of farming in other areas.

So what I am really interested in is addressing this question by looking at the transition to farming in Europe, which is not one of the centers of “pristine” origins. The site we are excavating, Vashtëmi, is at the leading edge of the shift to agriculture in Europe, in an area of the southern Balkans that was once part of a series of vast wetlands that stretch into present-day Greece and Macedonia.

Now that you’re back from Albania and have had some time to reflect, what stands out most clearly about your experience?

What stands out most clearly is the urgent need for projects like this one, due to the rapid pace of development and the ineffectiveness and lack of enforcement of the recently implemented Albanian heritage laws in the current political climate. I was devastated to see that someone had started to build a house right on the site itself. Thankfully, the owner agreed to delay construction and allowed us to excavate in a small area within the house.

The research team studied the Vashtëmi site for clues about agricultural migration.
The research team studied the Vashtëmi site for clues about agricultural migration.

So, were you able to draw any conclusions regarding the shift to agriculture in Europe?

I have to say that what I have now are more questions than conclusions! One of the very interesting discoveries is the diversity of meat-eating represented on the site. In the trash deposits we excavated, we found a surprisingly high diversity of wild animals—turtle, red deer, roe deer, boar, hare and fish—recovered only because of the specific methodology that we are using, as well as a possible lion bone. The domesticated animals we identified include sheep, goat, pig, cow and dog.

One issue that really intrigues me is the role of cattle in the southern Balkans and the question of the beginning of dairying, which has recently been placed slightly later (around 5500 B.C.) in the Central Balkans according to DNA evidence. At present, what is clear is that the earliest farmers in the area were not wholly reliant on domesticated plants and animals, but also made use of wild resources from a diversity of habitats. So the transition, whether local or by colonization, was neither abrupt nor immediate.

Is there a similar habitat here in the U.S. that might help us better visualize your dig site?

Well, people hear about the project and they expect something totally different on the ground than the reality. One of the tragic environmental legacies of the Communist period throughout the Balkans is the widespread drainage of wetlands. The Maliq wetland, where we are working, suffered the same fate. So today, you’d need to picture a Midwestern cornfield, but place it in a broad agricultural valley surrounded by beautiful mountains on all sides. When it was first occupied around 8,500 years ago, the site would have been located in an area with a mosaic of streams and marshes, a short distance from a broad open lake filled with a great abundance of eels, other fish and waterfowl.

One of the goals of the project was to offer environmental archaeological training for young Albanians. How was your experience working with Albanian students?

It was fantastic! I got to know some of these students as participants in an Environmental Archaeology course that I taught in Albania in 2006-07 while there on a Fulbright Fellowship. The students who worked with us have a remarkable passion for archaeology, despite limited prospects for career advancement or economic gain. They worked very hard and were thrilled to learn a lot of new skills and approaches that they can take with them to any excavation—in Albania or elsewhere. I should also add that the American students—including three from UC—also did really well in the field.

Were any of these items a part of your dig apparel:  fedora, bullwhip, revolver, leather satchel?

Only when absolutely necessary of course, but only my wardrobe specialist knows for sure!

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