Butrint, Albania, a conservator’s reflections on people, place and archeology, with Rene Rice
UNESCO conservator, Rene Rice on his work in Butrint in Albania, one of the world's most extraordinary collections of architectural remains: Hellenic, Imperial Roman, Late Antique periods to the Byzantine and Venetian times
Here, in a small corner of Albania, just opposite Corfu, a sequence of historic eras are revealed: from polygonal archaic masonry, through the Hellenic, Imperial Roman, Late Antique periods to the Byzantine and Venetian times. Butrint has been continuously inhabited for over two and half thousand years and it’s inhabitants have built high status buildings in recognition of the strategic importance of it’s location. It has not one, but three Bath Houses, two Basilicas, a Baptistery with a stunningly beautiful mosaic pavement, a partially excavated fully paved Forum, numerous Churches, a Theatre and many kilometres of walls some over 10 m in height. It rises on an isthmus in Lake Vivari almost totally cloaked in vegetation with only some of the extraordinary buildings visible from the outside.
The environment surrounding Butrint is of great beauty and also great interest, with evidence of a Roman city on the opposite shore of the Channel built to house veterans of Imperial Campaigns. At the mouth of the Channel Ali Pasha, the Lion of Yoanina, built a fortress and possibly entertained Lord Byron - he certainly built a bridge of boats across which his army passed to plunder Corfu...
Rene's talk does not aim to be a history of either Butrint or the area but consists of reflections on the people, both local and foreign, involved in either the excavation or the conservation of the ruins to be found there. He explores the place itself, both the ruined city and it’s local environment, and considers the lives of the local people, how they have been affected by so much interest in their area, their resourcefulness and the maintenance of their pre-communist traditions and customs.
Rene reflects on the challenges and opportunities that the site presents, how lack of resources has simplified conservation techniques, how approaches differed between visiting conservators from other countries and how archeology and conservation interact, clash and occasionally fall out.
René studied Stone Masonry and Conservation and then worked for St Blaise Ltd, where, under the watchful eye of Ian Constantinides, he worked on such projects as the rebuilding of Prior Park Mansion, and rose to the level of contract manager. After a few catastrophes put him off management, he embarked on a self-employed career in partnership with the sculptor John Toffee. Together they made a new ornamental plaster ceiling for the National Trust at Buckland Abbey and worked on many other projects until their partnership was dissolved owing to the usual irritations and divergences of opinion that such couplings founder upon.
A chance meeting at the Ebenezer Chapel with the director of the Butrint Foundation led to an invitation to come and work in Butrint as lead conservator, to survey and conserve both the newly exposed and existing ruined masonry structures. Training a local team and developing techniques suitable to the economic environment became a yearly event over the summer seasons for seven years until the Foundation changed it’s funding criteria from executive to grant aid. The last visit was in 2013. Recently René has been lured back into management and is currently the plaster section manager at Cliveden Conservation Workshop where he is at present building a Doric temple in the grounds of Painshill Park and re-learning the joys of responsibility.