Maritime archaeologists have explored many parts of the Mediterranean shoreline, however the coastal waters off Albania and Montenegro have remained a mystery for until recent periods. Inaccessible for archaeologists throughout the modern era it is only recently that systematic archaeological investigation began for this important stretch of the eastern Adriatic coastline. Merchant ships carrying cargos of wine, oil, tableware, roof tiles, and other goods plied the seas for centuries en route to the port cities along the Adriatic shores. Exploration of this unknown submerged landscape was initiated in 2007 through the Illyrian Coastal Exploration Program (ICEP). Investigation has resulted in the discovery of shipwreck sites dating from the 6th century BCE through the modern era, and has brought to light the prolific and historically important finds of submerged cultural heritage.
The ICEP is an overarching research paradigm that is comprised of separate research projects in the eastern Adriatic; most of which are coordinated through cooperative research programs between host governments and scientific institutes of Albania, Montenegro, and Croatia and RPM Nautical Foundation (RPMNF).
The Albanian coastal survey is a joint research project between the Albanian Institute of Archaeology, the Albanian Ministry of Tourism, Culture, Youth and Sport, the Ministry of Defense, and RPMNF.
In Montenegro, the project is a cooperative research project between the Ministry of Culture, the Center for Conservation and Archaeology at Cetinje-Montenegro, the Regional Center for Underwater Demining and Diving Training at Bijela, and RPMNF.
In Croatia the International Centre for Underwater Archaeology in Zadar, along with the Croatian Ministry of Culture, partners with RPMNF to conduct field research there. Additionally, members conducting associated research and field school projects hail from institutions that include the Maritime Studies Program at East Carolina University, the University of Southampton, the University of Washington, the Exploration Foundation, and Transylvania University.
Background: Ancient Illyria
“For more than a thousand years before the arrival of the Slavs in the sixth century AD, the lands east of the Adriatic were the home of the peoples known to the ancient world as Illyrians. Their territory comprised much of what is now occupied by the Yugoslavs [now Montenegro, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, as well as Croatia to the north], along with northern and central Albania. They spoke a language of which almost no trace has survived. That it belonged to the ‘family’ of Indo-European languages has been deduced from the many names of Illyrian peoples and places preserved in Greek and Latin records, both literary and epigraphic. We cannot be sure that any of them actually called themselves Illyrians: in the case of the most of them it is near certain that they did not. In general the Illyrians have tended to be recognized from a negative standpoint, in that they were manifestly not Celts, Dacians, or Thracians, or Greeks or Macedonians, their neighbours on the north, east, and south respectively.” (The Illyrians, J. Wilkes 1992, p. 3)
The earliest evidence for human occupation dates back to the Lower Palaeolithic period and continues through the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods. The early farming communities of the Neolithic eventually took advantage of the copper and tin deposits of Bosnia and Slovenia to usher in the Bronze Age around 1600 B.C.E. At this time, sea links between the Illyrian coast, the Adriatic, and the wider Mediterranean world brought a wide variety of new finished goods, weapons, and resources through exchange. It is also during this time that archaeological evidence suggests that ‘Illyrianization’ in the region began.
The Illyrian period began in earnest during the Iron Age, c. 1000 B.C.E. Although not a homogeneous Illyrian nation, there are common linguistic and burial practice characteristics that link the region. Trade contacts were strengthened from the 6th through 3rd century BCE within the Adriatic, and particularly with the Corinth and its colonies to the south. Recent shipwreck finds during the ICEP survey have demonstrated the importance of overseas trade with the Corinthian economic sphere. Greek and Illyrian cities overlap in their founding along southern Illyria. Earlier economic interest by wealthy Romans was in full effect by the 2nd century B.C.E., which resulted in the proliferation of villas, trading centers, ports, and intensification in viticulture, mineral extraction, and production of finished goods. Roman colonization quickly follows. With its incorporation into the Roman Empire, Illyria became a province; albeit the name “Illyria” shifted in the region to encompass different specific areas during the course of Imperial administration.
Ancient Illyria: A Research Paradigm
The Illyrian Coastal Exploration Program (ICEP) has undertaken an investigation of the maritime archaeological record along the eastern Adriatic coast, the results of which include direct evidence for the shipment of consumables in amphoras from the Eastern Mediterranean into the eastern Adriatic during the Roman era. The coastal waters of Albania and Montenegro have received almost no archaeological investigation compared to other areas of the Mediterranean. Not only has no systematic survey in deeper water taken place here, but scuba diving was either illegal or simply not prevalent until recently. An exception to some degree is Montenegro where diving by the former Yugoslavian military resulted in the looting of the shallow waters near bases such as at Boka Kotorska. The majority of maritime archaeology in Croatia has been conducted through diver investigation; consequently the vast expanse of the littoral zone, as with nearly all coasts in the Mediterranean, remains largely unexplored. Over the past seven years, the cooperative efforts between RPM Nautical Foundation (RPMNF) and cultural ministries and institutions within Albania, Montenegro, and Croatia have initiated large-scale survey to identify, study, and protect submerged cultural material.
The investigation under the ICEP strives to address this deficit in archaeological data for the eastern Adriatic coastline. This effort also serves to illustrate the crucial interaction of terrestrial- and maritime-derived archaeological datasets for the understanding of economies, exchange, and amphora chronology. One underlying premise for the combination of research from these three modern countries is the historically more unified eastern Adriatic coast linked by a common sea route and maritime culture in antiquity through the medieval period. Hence, a primary goal of the ICEP is to bring together numerous research institutes and disciplines in an effort to investigate the eastern Adriatic coast as a unit.
One of the most compelling aspects of working in the eastern Adriatic-northern Ionian Seas is two-fold. Besides the relatively little underwater archaeological work preformed south of Croatia, the length of this coast was home to the ancient Illyrians. This amalgamation of tribes were the ancestors to today’s inhabitants of Albania, Montenegro, and Croatia. The confederation of chiefdoms that became what is regarded as the Illyrians began to coalesce around the 13th century BCE and became a prominent political force by the end of the 5th century BCE. Their rise brought them into contact with Greek settlements, brought the attention of invading armies, and eventually their incorporation into the Roman state.
Skodra, a seat of many Illyrian kings, and Byllis in Albania, as well as Risan in Montenegro, were among many cities either founded or overtaken during the Illyrian era of pre-eminence. As Illyrian power rose, Greek cities under the coast came under their sway; however, Alexander briefly checked Illyrian independence until his death. Reformed entering the 3rd century BCE, attacks on Greek coastal cities and shipping in the Adriatic assisted their reemergence as a regional power. The legendary Queen Teuta had moved her capital to Risan and become enough of a threat at sea to force a Roman reprisal; some 20 km inland, Risan and Kotor Bays (Boka Katorska) offered a safe port for preying Liburnia. after a reign of only three years, Teuta abdicated as part of the settlement with Rome in 227 BCE. Eventually, the growing power of the kingdom of Epirus and further forays into Illyria by the Romans at the end of the 3rd century and into the 2nd century BCE helped weaken the Illyrian confederation so that it eventually fractured. Illyricum was formed by 125 BCE, and by 77 BCE Dalmatia was incorporated into the Roman province, with most of Illyria flowing in 59 BCE. A last rebellion by Illyrian tribes in 6 CE was eventually crushed by Tiberius three years later. In early 2nd century CE, this provincial area was segmented into the provinces of Dalmatia, Macedonia, and the southern portion of Pannonia.
Through the 2008 field season in Albania, the discovery of numerous shipwreck and artifact finds carrying Corinthian goods establishes their being a substantial component of the Greek settlement efforts along the shores of Illyria; while north of Apollonia little is known. Roman trade in the southern area of Albania is less well represented relative to the Greek. However, the cities that rose to prominence during the Roman period are further north and currently in the 2009 field season a 4th-century CE shipwreck carrying N African amphoras has been discovered. The opportunity to initiate a survey of the Montenegrin coast in 2009 was especially gratifying in that it expanded the exploration of this ancient and historically rich coast. Although ongoing, the inaugural field season of the Montenegrin Coastal Survey Project has already produced interesting results as the survey progresses from Boka Katorska to the coastline at their entrance at the border with Croatia. This project is in conjunction with Regional De-Mining Center headed by Mr. Veselin Mijajlovic and the Center for the Protection of Cultural Heritage, under the Ministry of Culture and Tourism.
Indications of Corinthian as well as early Italic and Roman trade are noted in finds from Boka Katorska displayed in the local Kotor Maritime Museum. These Corinthian wares date to the 4th century BCE, the final period of forceful Greek presence in this quarter. Two shipwrecks on the outer coast discovered in the project’s current operations include a late-Republican wine carrier and a large tile carrier probably of Imperial date. The Roman merchantman carrying wine came to rest over 2 km from shore. All of the observable amphoras, representing at least two stacked layers, are consistently Lamboglia 2 type amphoras produced along the eastern Italian coast between the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE. Although some of the amphoras appear displaced from dragnets, most remain in relative position to one another that suggests they settled based on their stacking pattern. The other, nearby wrecksite did not have amphoras observed on its uppermost remaining layers. Rather, both pan and cover tiles comprise a large shipment on what must have been a vessel of significant length. These tiles are in several stacks many of which are now positioned vertically. The pan tile’s c. 65 x 45-cm dimensions and flanges at an angle of 90o are characteristic of manufacture in the Imperial era. Remains of Roman occupation in Kotor and Risan are evident; in particular the recently preserved mosaics in Risan, occupied by the Romans in 165 BCE, that are within the remains of a 2nd-century CE villa.
An Illyrian heritage is not lost on the coastal inhabitants of Albania and Montenegro, and in at least a broad sense provides a degree of common history. This shared story is one of the few links that bind the peoples of the eastern Adriatic. As with every RPMNF project, a primary goal is to assist host countries with the location, identification, and archaeological study of their submerged cultural resources along their coasts. Current efforts along coasts once associated with Illyrian piracy and plunder aims to prevent the modern plunder of their submerged cultural resources. An additional goal particular to the Albanian and Montenegrin projects is forging a modern link between the people based on archaeological exploration of their mutual history. With connections now forming with scholars and government representatives in Croatia, it is hoped that the exploration of the ancient Illyrian coast will expand to its full potential.