May 21, 2015

Unearthing Treasure

David Hernandez wearing a blue shirt
David Hernandez

Progress takes many forms. Most often it’s associated with a new action, new initiative, or novel approach. It’s a child learning to ride a bike. It’s a cap and gown at commencement. It’s a breakthrough discovery.

Sometimes, progress is right below your feet.

That’s the experience of David Hernandez, assistant professor of classics, who seeks to draw connections from archaeological discoveries in the ancient city of Butrint, Albania, to our modern context. It’s work that began more than a decade ago, and over the next several years, Hernandez will publish his findings on the vast amount of material unearthed in the ancient city in the southern part of the country.

“We’ve encountered the first archaeological material, in the ancient urban center, from the seventh century B.C. all the way up to the Roman and Medieval periods. It’s a rich source of material,” Hernandez says. Butrint is listed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a World Heritage Site. The artifacts found there are inherently interesting by virtue of their sheer age and period origin, but the intrigue of Butrint, specifically, lies in its geopolitical location.


Butrint is situated between Greece and Italy, and bears the markings of those ancient superpowers’ commercial and political interaction, and their rise and fall. Roman colonists arrived there in the time of Julius Caesar, making Butrint one of the first outposts of a burgeoning empire. Augustus later poured resources into the city, building aqueducts and forums. The evidence of Roman culture is abundant—even manifesting itself in tiny figurines of gladiators. The Roman forum at Butrint that was discovered by Hernandez’s team in 2005 is the best-preserved forum anywhere in the Mediterranean region, according to Hernandez. Moreover, the importance of Butrint is shown by the artifacts found that do not have Roman origin. “There are periods of time when we start seeing large amounts of material from Northern Africa, and it’s because that’s when a new shipping route was opened up,” Hernandez says, as one example.

It’s discoveries like these that make Butrint’s history read like a chronology of Western civilization at large. Hernandez seeks to add nuance to a narrative that many mistake for being static. Not only is there more to learn about the past, Hernandez argues, but the lessons from Butrint can also help inform the present. Take, for example, the issue of military intervention and nation-building: Today’s superpowers wrestle with finding a balance between maintaining influence and exhausting resources or political capital, but the Romans were the first to do it and sustain it over a large geographical area and over an extensive period of time.

“That process, by which Romans began to annex territory from outside Italy to the east, began first with the conquest of Corfu, the island located within eyesight of Butrint,” says Hernandez. “How did the Romans manage nation-building? To what degree were the people subjugated? To what degree were they integrated? These are questions we grapple with. It’s a microcosm of large history. It’s a nexus of a lot of historical events that we think of as transformative.”

The work at Butrint has other implications as well. Hernandez says that when he began working at the site in 2003, approximately 20,000 people came to visit, mostly Albanians. Now, more than 100,000 visit from all over Europe and the US, to learn about the origins of the city and its place in the Albanian national culture and history. Hernandez calls the influx transformative, and it points to the impact tourism can have on a country of Albania‚Äôs size. Neighboring Greece, for example, sees an estimated 18% of its GDP stemming from tourism. Albania doesn’t have the Parthenon, but it doesn’t need it to see a noticeable tourism-related economic boost.

As Hernandez’s research enters a publishing phase, the vast amount of material uncovered will be discussed and explained via various articles, reports, and papers. It’s work that will continue to fill in the gaps of a significant, if unheralded piece of history. “Because we know more about Butrint, we know more about our culture, society, and those who worked to create it before us,” Hernandez says. “I could see writing about this for a very long time.”

David Hernandez
Video courtesy of University of Notre Dame College of Arts and Letters. Produced by Todd Boruff.

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