The AC Interviews Ols Lafe, Albanian Cultural Heritage Specialist
February 8, 2022
On August 23, 2021, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs Matthew Lussenhop and Albanian’s Minister of Culture Elva Margariti signed a bilateral cultural property agreement, committing both countries to combating the illicit trade.
This agreement closes U.S. borders to illegally acquired or exported Albanian antiquities. Moreover, it will open new opportunities for responsible cultural exchange between the two nations, such as traveling exhibitions and museum loans.
For more insight into the benefits of this agreement, we spoke to Dr. Ols Lafe, Director of the Center for the Development of Ancient and Medieval Albanian Heritage (CDAMAH), a scientific research center based at the state university “Aleksandër Moisiu” in Durrës, Albania.
Can you give an overview of the recent Cultural Property Agreement between the United States and Albania, and explain why it is important?
The recently signed CPA between Albania and USA is of utmost importance regarding the ever increasing issue of illegal circulation of cultural objects from their original context. Albania, has already a negative record regarding the loss of objects and such agreements add value to the government objectives of protecting the heritage of the country. This agreement above all, enables US authorities to send back to Albania any items that may originate from Albania and ensure smooth coordination regarding such issues in the future.
Albania has a rich cultural heritage. Can you give us some examples and explain why Albanian cultural heritage should be protected?
Albania’s rich heritage is well-known to researchers but not so much to visitors. From the UNESCO sites of Butrint, Gjirokastra, Berat and Ohrid Lake to the Illyrian, ancient Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Venetian and Ottoman sites dotting the country’s landscape, Albania has a lot to offer to both academic research and cultural tourism. Nevertheless, the period which followed soon after the collapse of the communist regime, also brought irreparable damages to this heritage, with countless lost objects stolen from museums, as well as the beginning of the illegal excavations and subsequent loss of objects coming from these excavations.
The phenomenon persists, and it’s even getting more intense in rural areas, with metal detectors widely used and in cases heavy digging machinery is involved. The Ministry of Culture is not able to cope with the phenomena, and the Albanian Police despite their willingness are able to trace only a few cases of wrongdoing and address them to the Prosecution Office. Many other cases go unnoticed due to the lack of territorial control, lack of equipment and training to tackle the phenomena. It is hoped that through such agreement the situation may improve given the fact that staff has to be trained to interact with requests originating from a partner country such as USA and be able to provide in a timely manner the respective needed information.
CPAs help facilitate legal cultural exchange. Can you share some examples of US/Albania joint projects, excavations?
There are many common projects and excavations between Albania and US based research institutions.
The first American research project in Albania was an investigation of Konispol Cave, co-directed by Karl Petruso (University of Texas, Arlington) and Muzafer Korkuti (Institute of Archaeology, Tirana). The first large-scale American project was the Mallakastër Regional Archaeological Project (MRAP) at the Greek colony of Apollonia, co-directed by Jack Davis (University of Cincinnati), Sharon Stocker (University of Cincinnati), Michael Galaty (University of Michigan), Muzafer Korkuti and Skender Muçaj (Institute of Archaeology, Tirana).
Investigations at Dyrrachium-Epidamnus (an ancient Greek city in Illyria founded in the 7th century BC by colonists from Corinth and Corcyra) were co-directed by Davis and Stocker together with Iris Pojani and Afrim Hoti (Institute of Archaeology, Tirana). The Bonjaket Temple excavations, which emerged from MRAP, were codirected by Davis, Stocker, Pojani, and Vangjel Dimo. Michael Galaty also co-directed the Shala Valley project together with Ols Lafe (Institute of Archaeology, Tirana) and Zamir Trafilica (Historic Museum Shkoder). The Projekti Arkeologik i Shkodres, codirected by Michael Galaty (University of Michigan) and Lorenc Bejko (University of Tirana), aimed to curtail destruction and looting of burial mounds. Sarah Morris (UCLA), John Papadopoulos (UCLA), and Albanian colleagues have directed an excavation of the Lofkënd tumulus (an early Iron Age burial mound).
How can people in the US learn more about Albania and Albanian cultural heritage?
It would be good to support on an annual basis the travel of Albanian experts to the US, especially to attend annual meetings of the Archaeological Institute of America, the Society of American Archaeology as well as supporting them to lecture in American universities with an interest in the Mediterranean and a focus in Albania. By making available the information for funding applications to Albanian experts, we as well are supporting them to come in touch with respective institutions may be one of the possible solutions to directly disseminating the reality of Albanian cultural heritage research at the heart of America’s leading researchers and programs.
Certainly there are instruments in place for longer periods of study and residence such as the Fulbright, but quicker methods such as described above may function better. Also, inviting US scholars to visit Albania, and decide if they want to engage in research here may be another way of getting to know the country and presenting it better abroad.