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Light and Shadow: Isolation and Interaction in the Shala Valley of Northern Albania

July 2016 (120.3)

Book Review

Light and Shadow: Isolation and Interaction in the Shala Valley of Northern Albania

Edited by Michael L. Galaty, Ols Lafe, Wayne E. Lee, and Zamir Tafilica (Monumenta Archaeologica 28). Pp. xxvi + 274, figs. 137, tables 18. Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press, Los Angeles 2013. $65. ISBN 978-1-931745-71-0 (cloth).

Reviewed by

This volume represents a tremendous effort to bring together vast amounts and kinds of data to address ongoing debates about the nature and causes of culture change. The volume draws upon principles of archaeology, ethnography, history, and the environmental sciences to trace strategies of isolation and interaction in the Shala Valley of northern Albania. The major themes of isolation and interaction as strategies of cultural resilience and adaptation are carefully interwoven throughout, with two recurring elements. The first is a practical goal central to the peoples and cultures of northern Albania and is dedicated to producing a record of cultural heritage that can be helpful in heritage resource management. The second makes a theoretical contribution regarding the effects of isolation on people who have always lived in a frontier zone or along the margins of larger polities or empires. This book should therefore be of conceptual value to those with globally comparative interests related to cultural heritage, adaptation, and resilience, but it should also appeal to those with methodological interests in the articulation of ancient, historic, and modern records, and, in this case, a deeper understanding of the formation, resilience, and adaptation of cultural identity through time.

Chapter 1 outlines the scope of the volume, laying the groundwork for the case that peoples of the rugged northern Albanian mountains used isolation and interaction to their advantage in adapting to or remaining resilient in the face of broader changes in society, politics, and climate. Chapter 2 provides an overview of the methodology and history of the Shala Valley Project, emphasizing its interdisciplinary framework designed to generate data spanning multiple time periods, drawing principally from archaeological remains, archived historical records, interviews, and ethnoarchaeological sources of information. Chapter 3 centers on the geophysical context of the study, including a characterization of contemporary economic resource opportunities, historical changes in resource availability, and a brief climate overview.

Chapters 4 through 10 present the bulk of primary field and archival data generated by the Shala Valley Project. Chapter 4 provides a chronological framework and historical overview of the region from Greek colonization to the present era. Drawing from rich archaeological, historical, and archival records, the authors do an admirable job of providing a fairly concise account of a very complex geopolitical history for the region surrounding northern Albania, one that essentially includes the Greeks, Romans, Avars, Slavs, Bulgars, Normans, Venetians, Ottomans, Serbs, Montenegrins, and Russians. Chapter 5 considers ethnographic data from Shala to identify changes in social patterns over the past century, comparing ethnographic data from interviews between 2005 and 2007 with demographic and social statistical data from 1918 and 1929. Chapter 6 describes the economic structure and flexibility of Shala, whereas chapters 7 and 8 detail modern settlement patterns, the built environment, and sacred elements of that landscape. Chapters 9 and 10 turn squarely to the material record, presenting the results of a regional archaeological survey that identified remains from the Middle Paleolithic to the modern era, and excavation data from the Iron Age archaeological site of Grunas. Combined with environmental, ethnographic, archival, and ethnohistorical data, Galaty and colleagues are able to construct a long-term model of oscillating settlement and land use in the region, which suggests that premodern systems of occupation and land use were organized very differently compared to modern ones. The authors note that the most recent settlement of the Shala Valley likely began during the latter decades of the Late Medieval period, with the dispersed settlement and agricultural systems seen today forming later. In chapter 11, Galaty and colleagues conclude that peoples of Shala have been culturally resilient because of their strategic employment of isolation and interaction in a challenging mountainous environment. They further emphasize that peoples of northern Albania were not simply pawns in a wider sphere of historical geopolitics, but rather they were actively engaged in the process of political expansion, contraction, economic intensification, and the formation and perpetuation of cultural identity.

A significant shortcoming of many edited volumes is the lack of consistent and coherent focus among individually authored pieces. This is refreshingly not the case here. Indeed, a major strength is the collaborative and interdisciplinary effort of the authors to tackle the overarching question of culture change in northern Albania using a variety of different sources. The remarkable consistency is bolstered by the fact that several scholars are lead or coauthors on multiple chapters, effectively ensuring a degree of consistency. Lead editor Galaty, for instance, takes first authorship on chapters 1, 2, 3, 9, 10, and 11, with most having one or more coauthors, and six major contributors to the volume coauthored two or more chapters, with four of them coauthoring no fewer than four chapters. In my estimation, this commitment to a collaborative and interdisciplinary dialogue is reflected in the overall strength, scope, and consistency of the volume.

Humanity currently faces many challenges concerning conflict resolution, cultural identity, globalization, and climate change. This volume tackles many of these issues as they have played out in northern Albania over the past several millennia, with the primary goal of identifying those characteristics that render some societies resilient to change while others have disappeared. In this context, the book is both timely and salient, and it makes several significant contributions. First, it represents an interdisciplinary, problem-focused research design as opposed to the disciplinary silos into which many studies fall. Consequently, its relevance reaches a number of fields in the social sciences, environmental sciences, and humanities. Second, this study advances the practical application of archaeological and historical records to contemporary issues. It does this by taking on the very difficult challenge of articulating ancient, historic, and modern records pertaining to cultural identity in northern Albania and its mechanisms of resilience and adaptation into the 21st century. In sum, the methodological and conceptual standards put forth in this volume can serve as an exemplary model for similar applications in other world regions.

Gregory Zaro
Anthropology Department / Climate Change Institute
University of Maine

Book Review of Light and Shadow: Isolation and Interaction in the Shala Valley of Northern Albania, edited by Michael L. Galaty, Ols Lafe, Wayne E. Lee, and Zamir Tafilica

Reviewed by Gregory Zaro

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 120, No. 3 (July 2016)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1203.Zaro

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