A Roman athlete from Apollonia, Albania

As you know, I’ve just returned from a few days in Albania, so I was intrigued to see new discoveries announced from the important site of Apollonia. My sister and I noticed a new sondage as we walked up to the acropolis, but is seems that the discoveries were not made there, but in the residential area in the west part of the town.

The excavations, which are being undertaken by joint French and Albanian teams, have unearthed an intact bust of an athlete dating from the 2nd C AD. The French have been involved with the site of Apollonia since 1924 when Leon Rey started his campaigns. He excavated there until the Italian conquest of Albania in 1939. On the fall of communism in 1991, the French returned and are now working under Jean-Luc Lamboley from Grenoble University. Lamboley hails the discovery as the most important in the last 50 years in Albania because of the quality and condition of the bust.

The bust is large, being 84cm high and 53cm wide, and was discovered upright in a drain in the west part of the town which was a residential area in the Hellenistic and Roman eras. The archaeologists also discovered the foot of a bronze statue wearing a roman sandal in the same sewer.

Apollonia was a Greek colony, founded by settlers from Corinth and Corcrya (Corfu) in the 7th C BC. At that time it had a navigable river and large harbour and as well as trade it also exploited the bitumen which occurred naturally in the area. However, the river silted up and, once the harbour was lost and the plain unhealthy, the city gradually fell into disuse, gaining prominence again only for a short time as a bishopric.

For archaeologists, this is an advantage, the fact that no modern town was built on its ruins makes for excellent excavating conditions. If you visit the site you can see several sculptures and stele of very good quality on show in the nearby monastery. Other finds can be seen in Tirana, which is where the newly discovered bust will reside at present until there is a properly secure museum at the site.

I rather like the fact that the bust depicts an athlete. We know games took place at Apollonia, and the famous bouleterion was commissioned by an organiser of games. It's a pleasing fit, even if he is not exactly a handsome brute!

The team of French and Albanian archaeologists are trying to study how Apollonia evolved from a Greek colony to a Roman settlement. "This site spans a thousand years of history and we can study here how the classic Greek civilisation was transmitted and evolved into a Roman city” said Lamboley.