Significance of “German-Albanian Palaeolithic” (GAP) programme in study of The Early Prehistory of Albania

Palaeolithic research in Albania is still in its initial stages. Palaeolithic artefacts have been found but sporadically and incidentally. Need for more systematic research lead to establishment of a joint Albanian-German research project. The joint Albanian-German research project is just a continuation of previous archaeological work on the Palaeolithic in different areas of Albania. Nevertheless, most of the earlier investigations were sporadic in nature.

Pre-World War II

In the first half of the 20th century, archaeological research in the field of early prehistory is associated with two archaeologists: Luigi Cardini and Bolko von Richthofen. Cardini (1940) took note of open air sites and did some test excavations in some caves in southwest Albania. Von Richthofen (1939) mentions a Palaeolithic site of purportedly Upper Palaeolithic age near Tirana.

Communist Period

Study into the Palaeolithic of Albania continued during the 1970s and 80s with a relocation of the site of  Xarra and a publication of freshly detected surface finds. In the north of Albania, pre-Neolithic layers were unearthed at Blazi Cave. At another cave site, Gajtan Cave, excavations lead to the unearthing of purported Lower Palaeolithic material. In the same area, Palaeolithic artefacts were discovered at the open-air site clusters of Baran and Bleran.

Post-Communist Period

Palaeolithic research after the Communist period was mainly fixated on southern Albania with the unearthing of a large number of open-air sites in Mallakastra region. Excavations in Konispol Cave evidenced the presence of Mesolithic hunter-gatherers. Apart from these orderly studies, the quantity of Palaeolithic stone artefacts collected on the surface in various parts of Albania rose significantly. The Middle and Upper Palaeolithic surface collections from the hill of Xarra deserves a mention in this respect. Though some of the artefact collections are large, their scientific potential is weakened by the fact that they generally contain a mixture of various periods and lack any stratigraphic context.

Current archaeological research under the GAP programme

Current archaeological research under the GAP programme focuses on three key areas: the lagoon of  Butrint in the south, the karst region of  Mati in the north and the large bay of Vlora on the southwestern coast. Surveys and test excavations in all these regions led to the unearthing of Middle and Upper Palaeolithic material and they clearly demonstrate that Albania holds a huge promise for Palaeolithic research as it was a continuous crossroad for Pleistocene human populations.

The Butrint region: excavations at the open-air site of  Shën Mitri

The site was unearthed in 2001 during surveys in the Butrint region. Dense lithic scatters show up on the surface, including small bladelet cores of Aurignacian type. To search for Palaeolithic layers in stratigraphic context, three parallel test trenches were opened in the mid part of the Shën Mitri hill. In the test trenches and succeeding surface excavation, traces of  Holocene settlements showed up throughout.

Kanalit Rock-Shelter, southwest of Vlora

Southwest of Vlora, many rock-shelters and some small caves have been located at the Rrëza e Kanalit (a limestone ridge delimiting a large floodplain to the south). The caves and shelters are leftovers of former carstic systems that are now hardly visible due to major collapses. The rock-shelter of Kanalit (Kanalit I) is the remnant of one such cave. It faces northeast and its walls extend 60 m in length and about 20 m in height.

Holocene occupations at Kanalit Rock-Shelter

In 1939, L. Cardini found pottery fragments (that he dated to the Chalcolithic) and non-diagnostic lithic artefacts within the shelter, in the course of a small test excavation. Fresh excavations in the same area furnished Late Mesolithic artefacts. Nonetheless, the Mesolithic assemblage is mixed with Bronze Age and medieval material because of an intensive disturbance of the deposits resulting out of the repeated herding of cattle within the rock-shelter.

Pleistocene occupations at Kanalit II

Just meters downslope from the mentioned rock-shelter, cave deposits were unearthed in a small test trench now called the Kanalit II site. Under the topsoil were found sediments which were apparently deposited inside of a former cave now collapsed. The tool-kit of Kanalit II compares well to assemblages elsewhere attributed to the Epigravettian period thus signifying an age between the Last Glacial interstadial and the end of the Younger Dryas.

Recent excavations at Blazi Cave

Blazi Cave is part and parcel of an active karst system in the Cretacious limestone zone of northern Albania. The opening of Blazi Cave faces southwest to a dry valley at 300 m.a.s.l. Visitors go into the cave by a 60 m long gallery. Further interior, the “Gallery of the Bats” branches off leading another 200 m northward. A slender passage bridges both galleries. Another gallery is completely filled up with rock-fall. Dry stone walls which were lately built for animal herding in the cave partly seal the entrance. Archaeological work at Blazi Cave began in 1979 to search for early Holocene remains. Since the 1979 excavations so much sediment volume was taken out that the bedrock was exposed in many areas. In 2012, in search for long sequences decision was taken to open three small test trenches (I, III and IV) in areas with remaining deposits.

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