Director of Albania's
Institute of Archaeology
An interview by Richard
Muzafer Korkuti, Director of the Institute of Archaeology in Albania since 1998, is a thoughtful scholar
who modestly conceals a fascinating education of the kind none of us are likely to have again. Interviewed over lunch, he
was at first shy to describe how he became an archaeologist and how his career unfolded, and only after an hour, did he become
more strident and confident as, I think, he began to appreciate the patterns emerging in the story he was telling. On the
other hand, I was not in the least surprised by him because he is the rarest of archaeologists - a product of Stalinism and
a student in Leningrad, who spent ten months in China during the cultural revolution, studying and on excavations, and has
more recently co-directed two major projects with senior American archaeologists.
We talked over lunch in one of Tirana's fashionable Italian restaurants following a book launch in the Academy of Sciences.
MK, as he is often known, was ebullient. Fourteen books on Albanian archaeology were published in 2004, mostly by members
of his Institute. The launch in the Academy of Sciences had been an occasion for this normally reserved man to effusively
blow his trumpet. The following day, what is more, the government would designate nine new archaeological parks. Archaeology
is thriving in Albania, he ventures. His sense of pride and amazement is palpable.
Muzafer Korkuti was born in southern Albania sixty-nine years ago. The republic was little more than twenty years old, and
gravely impoverished in the aftermath of the end of Ottoman dominion. He had a desire, he said, to work with 'things' that
he could touch, and yet he confessed to a pleasure in cerebral disciplines such as mathematics and physics. So, it was
no accident that in 1955, as befitted the communist planning he was first an elementary schoolteacher in a village called
Here in the Adriatic coastal district of Vlora, On graduation he was selected for specialization and then selected again,
soon after Nikita Khruschchev's groundbreaking visit to Albania in 1959, to go to Moscow. After two months studying in
the Institute of Archaeology in Moscow, he proceeded to Leningrad University. Clearly he loved this period of his life. More
than two thousand young Albanians - mostly naval cadets - were in the city at the time. In the Leningrad seminar he received
a rich grounding in understanding how to use material culture to write history. Issues like how bone tools were made and classified
fascinated him, whereas dealing with the intricacies of Slavic history baffled him. His sojoum in the Soviet Union, however,
was abruptly cut short when Enver Hoxha, after visiting Beijing, denounced Khruschchev for deviating from the true path of
stalinism. First, the navy cadets were summoned home, and then students likeMK. and then the school's director. On New Year's
Eve in 1956, his life changed forever. Summoned with his brightest students to the Palace of Brigades in Vlora, they made
a presentation to Enver Hoxha, Albania's quixotic communist dictator. As MK put it, filled with the spirit of socialism, they
presented themselves 'with emotion and affection'. A year and a half later, MK was summoned to Tirana to study whatever he
wanted at university. At first he thought of being a physicist, then he appreciated the presence of the Soviet archaeologists
in Albania, and attracted by the prospect of fieldwork, spent three happy years training as an archaeologist. At Apollonia,
working alongside the Soviets, he found a marble bust of Demosthenes.
Back in Tirana, MK completed his studies, defending his thesis in the social sciences department of Tirana University on an
early Hellenistic tumulus at Apollonia. In these years he assisted Frano Prendi excavating the remarkable waterlogged Neolithic
village at Maliq in south-east Albania. These rescue excavations, with their rich stratigraphic deposits, transformed Neolithic
archaeology in the country. Quite as remarkable is a clip of film made about Maliq. Doubtless arranged for the cameras, the
young MK drives up in a jeep to the trench and then, accompanied by his colleague, Alexandra Mano, strides purposefully to
survey the exposed waterlogged remains. In the grainy black and white film, the lean MK resembles Gary Cooper, while his companion
with a bright billowing skirt belted tightly at the waist brings to mind Marilyn Monroe in John Huston's film, The Misfits
from exactly this time. The skilfully contrived scene conveys the energy and elegance of individuals, who were enjoying
an Albania that felt, possibly for the first time, that it had direction. MK worked with Prendi for fourteen years on this
site, work that led to many essays and his monograph, Neolithikum und Chalkolithikllnl im Albanien (Mainz 1995).
In 1965 MK had the chance of a lifetime. Following an agreement between the Albanian and Chinese Academies of Sciences, exchanges
of academics began. MK was very thoughtful about the reasoning behind this because there were huge gaps between the political
circumstances in the world's biggest state and, then, one of the world's smallest. Of course, the citations of Mao Zedong's
and Enver Hoxha's works in every scientific activity were something common to both. Yet, the Palaeolithic was a common language.
MK was to be away for 10 months. He flew from Tirana to Prague, to Moscow, to Omsk, then Siberia, to Irkutsk and then Beijing.
For 6 months he attended lectures with rei Ven Cun, after which he spent one month on a Palaeolithic excavation and then three
months visiting Neolithic and Bronze Age sites. Mostly he communicated in Russian. 'They were advanced theoretically (he mused),
the basic definitions haven't changed much since then.' The Palaeolithic, he thinks aloud, is a common language across the
They were both practical and pragmatic yet, he concluded, the experience gave him a world
vision. Pei Ven Cun was a student of Henri Breuil and claimed to have learnt three things from the French prehistorian: the
Palaeolithic, how to drink wine and something he would not admit. Pei Ven Cun had been a member of the Chinese-American team
in the 'thirties that discovered (and lost) the remains of Peking Man.
Back from China, he soon had the opportunity to dig in Romania. Naturally it was a Neolithic settlement site in the Danube
where a hydro-electric plant was being built. The Romanian school of archaeology, he mused, was 'very competitive' with
West European practice, as he later discovered when he toured Italy. In these years he focused upon a general history of prehistoric
society, concentrating upon the environmental and technological dimensions. Gordon Childe's work was a great int1uence. Childe's
historical approach to the making of Neolithic societies in the Balkans was very much the framework for his research. At which
point he smiled and recalled a man from Skhodra, in northern Albania, who was aware of Childe's Man Makes Himself, and,
unemployed, solicitously wrote to the government, saying 'I need a job or else I will become a monkey'.
Almost inevitably, in 1967, MK became Director of the archaeological centre, at that time a section of the Institute
of History and Linguistics. Over the next nine years he transformed the centre, launching the journal Illyria and in
1972 daringly holding a major international conference on IIIyrian archaeolo!,'Y to which westerners like N.G.L. Hammond and
the young Anthony Harding were invited. In this period, too, he invited a French mission to return to Albania, and so Pierre
Cabanes, from Clermont Ferrand university, began his long association with Apollonia, continuing the work of Leon Rey in the
But Albania in the 1970s began to feel the first effects of isolation, once relations with the Chinese were broken off. The
next quarter-century was to be far from easy. In 1976, in keeping with party policy, MK was replaced as Director by his long-standing
friend, Alexandra Mana and sent to a regional office at Fier (near Apollonia). For many the policy of sending Tirana's intellectuals
to the provinces was a rude shock. For MK it proved to be a peaceful, absorbing period of his life. As a young student he
had enjoyed excavating at nearby Apollonia with the Soviet mission led by Vladimir Demitriovich Blavatski. Now, he focused
upon making a museum in Fier that illustrated the rich archaeology of the region, setting the scene for his collaboration
with]ack Davis of Cincinatti University in the late 1990s Mallakaster field survey. By the end of the decade, though, he was
once more back in Tirana, and head of the archaeological institute. As Albania manifestly declined in its isolation in the
1980s, MK found reserves of energy, excavating a Neolithic site each year, and notably instigating a major summer school at
Butrint in 1982 to train a new generation of archaeologists. Most years as many as 20 field projects were sponsored by his
institute. Well-thought of by the government, money was not an issue, only the limitations of staffing the projects. In 1984
he was once again excavating abroad, this time on a Palaeo lithic site near Paris.
At the end of the 1980s he stood down as Director: Albania was embarking upon a confused, hellish period with the struggle
towards democracy leading to elections in 1991. Looking back to this bleak time when the Institute of Archaeology (as it was
now named) went from being a premier academic flagship of communist Albania to an impoverished bi-stander in the mad dash
towards capitalism, MK became very thoughtful. '1990-95 was hel]" he said, 'areal mess and intellectually confused'. This
was equally true for Albania's archaeology. The serious scholars, he mused, resisted as best they could, while the 'lightweights'
quit the field. Many did, indeed, leave. Yet in the extraordinary Ruritanian era of the early 1990s MK cleverly reinvented
himself, forging an important collaboration with Karl Petruso of the University of Texas at Arlington. As MK put it: Petruso
had worked at the legendary Frankthi Cave excavations in Greece, while he was then embarking on the Konispoli Cave excavations
(near Butrint). They came to the project in a period of great turmoil with different methodologies, different backgrounds
and had a 'wonderful collaboration for four years'. Encouraged by this experience, MK fostered a new collaboration with Jack
Davis of Cincinatti University, introducing the most modern field survey methodologies to Albania, and, unexpectedly,
discovering remarkable Upper and Middle Palaeolithic scatters in the Mallakaster region around ancient Apollonia.
Re-elected Director in 1998, he feels certain that Albanian archaeology has survived the chaos and is now beginning to flourish.
MK sees the new era as a stabilizing phase with growing prospects. He points to the increasing presence of foreign missions
collaborating with Albanian teams. The foreigners are introducing different experiences that enrich Albanian archaeology.
Then, too, he is proud of the fact that 45% of Albania's archaeologists are young, having completed their post-graduate degrees
(mostly abroad) over the past 5 years or so. Looking forward, therefore, there is an eager energy much as there was when he
first joined the profession.
After speaking for more than an hour, this normal quiet, even reserved man, was cheerfully animated. He plainly enjoyed
reviewing his personal history. I asked him for a final thought, and he concluded that it was 'absolutely necessary to love
what you do in order to achieve something. That is the key to success.' His passion for archaeology is palpable. His academic
life, punctuated with episodes in Khrushchev's Soviet Union and in China during the Cultural Revolution, has been played out
on an international stage, now magnified, paradoxically, by his experiences co-directing projects in his homeland with American
teams. Throughout, though, he has found an inner discipline as Albania itself experienced profound changes of direction by
investing in investigating and publishing Albania's remarkable prehistoric record. In many ways, he is a disciple of Gordon
Childe, bringing to his science the rigour and intellectual endeavour that we associate with one of archaeology's greatest
thinkers. Above all, he has quietly and skilfully ensured that his science has not only weathered the storms of ideological
turmoil but prospered as well.
is the Director of the Institute of World Archaeology in the
Universit)l of East Anglia and Scientific Director of tile Butrint Foundation.