Polish archaeologists have uncovered a long-lost city, in north-east Albania according to Science in Poland . The city was found unexpectedly, and it is believed to be the ancient Illyrian city of Bassania. This discovery is generating a great deal of excitement among archaeologists because it can provide insights into the once mighty Illyrian civilization that dominated much of the Balkans in Antiquity.

Who Were the Illyrians?

The Illyrians were a powerful group of tribes who were the preeminent power in the western Balkans for several centuries. They had many contacts with the Greeks and they were influenced to an extent by the culture of their southern neighbors.  The Illyrian region was usually divided into several kingdoms who struggled for supremacy with each other. In 168 BC, the Romans defeated and captured the powerful Illyrian king, Gendaius and they created a series of client republics in his kingdom. The area eventually became a province of the Roman Empire and the local Illyrian culture was over time Romanized. According to the Britannica Encyclopaedia , Illyria ‘became a principal military bulwark of Rome and its culture in the ancient world’.

Bassania was known to historians mainly through the work of the great Roman historian Livy. In the historian’s account, the city was a very important one in the last Illyrian kingdom and was an important fortress. The city was destroyed by the Romans in 168 BC and it was presumed that it was later abandoned, its exact location forgotten.

The ruins are thought to be the lost city of Bassania. (Image: M. Lemke/ Science in Poland)

The ruins are thought to be the lost city of Bassania. (Image: M. Lemke/ Science in Poland )

The Hidden City of Bassania

The city, which was located on some hills, had been lost for so many centuries because its ruins have been mistaken for natural rocks. After centuries of erosion, the stone remnants of the city’s surviving walls were so weathered that they looked like natural stones. There are no traveler or local accounts of the ruins and they were completely forgotten despite the scale of the site. This may have helped to preserve the ruins of Bassania, which was entirely forgotten – unlike nearby ancient Shkoder another Illyrian settlement.

In May, a Polish team of archaeologists from the Antiquity of South-eastern Europe Research Centre of the University of Warsaw, led by Professor Piotr Dyczek, re-discovered Bassania. In a routine dig, they discovered part of its walls and a gateway, made of well-made blocks of hewn stones. The gate was flanked by two bastions and the walls were 3 meters (10 feet) wide, whose spaces were packed with clay and stones.

Cut rock were used to construct substantial walls. (Image: M. Lemke/ Science in Poland)

Cut rock were used to construct substantial walls. (Image: M. Lemke/ Science in Poland )

After a survey of the site, it was established that Bassania was larger than ancient Shkoder and its walls encircled an area of approximately twenty acres. This indicates that the city had a large population and was an important urban center in Illyria.

During the investigation of the site, the Polish team discovered coins, pottery and ceramic vessels near the walls. The style of these would indicate that they are from the third to first century BC and shows that the city was part of the Illyrian kingdom that would later be annexed by Rome. An investigation of the site showed that it was constructed in a manner that was undoubtedly influenced by the Hellenistic kingdoms to the south. According to Science in Poland , the walls and gateway of Bassania are ‘typical for Hellenistic defensive structures’.

The remains indicate that the city would have been larger than the nearby Shkoder. (Image: M. Lemke/ Science in Poland)

The remains indicate that the city would have been larger than the nearby Shkoder. (Image: M. Lemke/ Science in Poland )

The Polish team began an intensive investigation of the site and they soon established that the city was abandoned much later than thought. Research in recent years has indicated that Bassania was only abandoned late in the reign of Emperor Augustus (1 st century AD). The initial archaeological investigation would support the view that the city was occupied much longer than previously believed.

Rediscovering Bassania

The rediscovery of Bassania is one that allows archaeologists and other experts to gain a better understanding of ancient Illyria. The city which had largely been forgotten will yield up its secrets and allow us to have a better understanding of the Illyrians and how they became Romanized. One of the most exciting aspects of the discovery of the lost city is that it raises the prospect that there are many more Illyrian ruins waiting to be rediscovered.

Top image: Discovery of an ancient city in Albania. Source: M. Lemke/ Science in Poland

By Ed Whelan





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