With the support of the National Science Foundation, Dr. Michael Galaty and an international team of archaeologists, historians, ethnologists, and geo-scientists are studying the origins and growth of settlement and society in the Northern Albanian high mountains. The Shala Valley Project (SVP; www.millsaps.edu/svp) brings together U.S., Albanian, British, Norwegian, and Hungarian specialists and students in order to examine the relationship between cultural isolation and tribal formation in the territory of the Shala tribe (Albanian fis), one of several Northern Albanian tribes that survived intact into the 20th century. The SVP is employing archaeological survey, test excavation, ethnohistorical and architectural surveys, and ethnographic interviews in order to determine during what periods of the past the valley was occupied, how social and economic systems were organized during these periods, and how these systems affected the local mountain landscape. The working hypothesis is that the people of Shala, who are Catholic, originally sought isolation in the mountains as protection from the invading Ottoman Turks, but that the tribal system subsequently formed and evolved through complex processes of interaction and negotiation with the outside world. It is argued that such negotiations probably occurred in most times and places where indigenous people resisted incorporation by external powers.
Results to date indicate that humans first entered the Shala Valley during the Middle Paleolithic (circa 100,000 year ago). The next major influx of people occurred during later periods of prehistory. In the village of Theth, in the neighborhood of Grunas, the team discovered and test excavated an extraordinary fortified settlement that dates to the transition from the Bronze to the Iron Age (a radiocarbon test returned a date of 800 BC). It is probable that the site was occupied during the summer months, and may have been an outpost of the so-called Illyrian peoples who occupied much of the Adriatic coast during this time. A long hiatus was followed by re-settlement of the valley during the Middle Medieval period, perhaps associated with Venetian activities in the area, and then major population growth in the very Late Medieval as people found refuge in the mountains.
Northern Albania is the only place in Europe where tribal societies survived into modern times. These societies were disrupted and damaged by the Albanian Communist government, but some traditional practices have been retained. What remains of Shala's culture is threatened by depopulation, as villagers leave the mountains for the city. One possible solution to this problem is development of a carefully-crafted, locally-controlled cultural- and eco-tourism industry that would provide villagers supplemental income. The SVP is thus in the unique position to help local people create a tourist industry, by providing data about sites of cultural and historic value that would be of interest to foreign tourists. This will have a meaningful, positive effect on the people of Shala. Through a website and through various forms of media (e.g., television and radio), the research group is also helping to educate Albanians about the history and archaeology of Northern Albania. Finally, each year American and Albanian undergraduate students participate in the SVP thus helping to train the next generation of archaeologists in both countries.