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Published on 13 March 2012
'If people are giving up their children in the street — how are they supposed to be interested in some old, broken pots?'
Sites like the Acropolis and the Parthenon have withstood tsunamis, earthquakes and the ravages of time — but some are questioning whether they can withstand the Greek debt crisis.
Thefts of ancient artifacts and cuts to culture and museum programs are ravaging a place that's deeply tied to its past.
"All of Greece is a vast archeological site, so it's impossible to guard the whole place all the time," Giorgos Vavouranakis, a professor of archeology at the University of Athens, told CBC in an interview from his home in Greece. "Everybody's backyard is a potential archeological site and museum."
Robberies and spending cuts in recent months have cast a shadow of doubt upon the future of Greek antiquities. (iStock)
The Greek government faces a unique struggle — juggling an integral part of its national identity while still maintaining the basic needs of its citizens. Compounding upon security concerns, Greek authorities face an uphill battle against geography. Many priceless artifacts reside in churches scattered about the countryside. With authorities already stretched thin, austerity measures adopted because of the international bailout have forced further cuts, leaving sites even more vulnerable.
Antiquities locked in museums aren't proving too safe, either. In January, thieves robbed Greece's National Art Gallery in Athens, making off with a Picasso and a Mondrian in the heist.
Then in February, two gunmen stormed a small museum at the birthplace of the Olympics in southern Greece and made off with dozens of antiquities. 'If people are giving up their children in the street — how are they supposed to be interested in some old, broken pots?' —Zissis Parras, Archeologist. As if robberies weren't enough, Greek museums are also having trouble simply making ends meet.
Shortly after the last robbery, Athens' Benaki Museum publicly appealed for funds from the private sector to counteract the swath of spending cuts it has endured. According to museum director Angelos Delivorias, state funding fell to 700,000 euros (slightly more than $900,000 Cdn) last year from two million euros in 2010 — an amount he said was not enough to cover staff costs.
"Things have certainly suffered from the crisis, and they have worsened," said Vavouranakis. "Culture and archeology in Greece has been underfunded for a long time anyhow." Unrest and cuts aside, the thefts are somewhat shortsighted. All the stolen items are recorded and photographed, so there's no way to turn a profit selling them legally. "They cannot go into the market," Vavouranakis said. "They have very little value unless they're sold undercover to a private collector."
"These are small-time thieves looking for whatever they can get because of the circumstances," he said, noting the heists likely aren't linked to organized crime, which usually involves important private collectors and private institutions.
Social ties tested
Zissis Parras, an osteologist and archeologist living in Mississauga, Ont., told CBC News he is worried Greek antiquities could be harmed and stolen at an increasing rate — his worry intensified by his Greek heritage and vested interest in the culture. "If everyone's wages and pensions are getting cut, people are going to try and make a buck where they can," Parras said. "It's a sad thing to say, but that's my fear … it's heartbreaking, both as a Greek and as an archeologist.
"If people are giving up their children in the street — how are they supposed to be interested in some old, broken pots? I can appreciate what their priorities need to be." Vavouranakis said these robberies aren't simply a matter of funding deficit or ministry cuts, but a symptom of a much deeper problem. "I think the Ministry of Culture is holding things up as best as it can, given the circumstances," he said. "Social ties are really being tested. My feeling is that this is all happening because of social disintegration, which is a symptom of the crisis."
As it stands, the Ministry of Culture is in disarray. After the robbery at the Olympia museum, ministry head Pavlos Gerounalos offered his resignation — though he is still in office.
"My personal interpretation is that he made a gesture of dignity," Vavouranakis said. "I think he meant to show that he understood his political and administrative responsibilities regarding the theft. I also think he knew the resignation was not going to be accepted."
Police forensic experts, left, look on as Greece's Culture Minister Pavlos Geroulanos, second right, enters the antiquities museum in Ancient Olympia where two thieves made off with dozens of artifacts in February. (Dimitris Papaioannou/Associated Press)
Vavouranakis said the ministry has suffered from personnel cuts because several employees have been forced to leave work in order to reduce the budget. Repeated attempts by CBC News to contact the ministry were met with no response.
One possible restructuring for the system that controls antiquities is the reins will pass from the public to the private sector. As it currently stands, Greek law dictates all antiquities belong to the state. Almost all museums are exclusively state-run. "The state has to always make sure that it has control of how antiquities are treated," Vavouranakis said. "It's then obliged by our constitution to give access to antiquities and all cultural goods to the citizens."
That constitutional framework could pose an issue to any privatization moves, as legislators would need to balance current law and private collections. Some legalized private collections do exist, like the Goulandris Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens.
The new Acropolis museum is also state-funded, but legally speaking it's a private foundation — still owned by the state but run like a private sector corporation. Parras said he can appreciate the struggle the Greeks are going through, and how it's understandable that at this point in time they can't put many resources into archeology and antiquities.
The Greek flag, perched on top of the Acropolis, marks an important part of the country's national identity. (iStock)
"I know enough history to know that people's lives are much more important than anything we dig out of the ground," Parras said. "When societies change and people's priorities change, having a 'monument to the pharaoh' isn't the most important thing."
Parras said this underlying concept lies at the root of archeology and why it's necessary not to lose sight of it, no matter the other issues at play. The discipline isn't simply the study of ancient artifacts — it's also the reactions to those artifacts and the history surrounding them. "It's about us — why we do the things we do. It's not just holding up pretty things we make and saying 'this is what they believed in.' It goes much deeper than that."