Even Ancient Greece Suffers from Austerity Budget Cuts Taking Their Toll on Antiquities, as Treasures Are Walking out the Door

By Kennedy, Randy | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), June 17, 2012 | Go to article overview

Even Ancient Greece Suffers from Austerity Budget Cuts Taking Their Toll on Antiquities, as Treasures Are Walking out the Door


Kennedy, Randy, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


KYTHIRA, Greece -- A jarring public-awareness ad that has appeared recently on Greek television news shows a little girl strolling with her mother through the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, one of the country's cultural crown jewels. The girl skips off by herself, and as she stands alone before a 2,500-year- old marble statue, a hand suddenly sweeps in from behind, covering her mouth and yanking her away.

An instant later, she reappears, apparently unharmed but staring forlornly at an empty plinth: The kidnappers weren't after the girl - - they were after the statue.

The ad, produced by the Association of Greek Archaeologists, is most immediately a reminder of an armed robbery of dozens of artifacts from a museum in Olympia in February, amid persistent security shortcomings at museums across the country. But the campaign's central message -- "Monuments have no voice. They must have yours" -- is a much broader attack on deep cultural budget cuts being made as part of the austerity measures imposed on Greece by the European economic establishment, measures that have led in recent weeks to an electoral crisis, a caretaker government and the specter of Greece's departure from the eurozone.

Effects of the cultural cuts are already being felt by the public across the country, as museum galleries and sometimes whole museums suffer from sporadic closings.

But Greek and international archaeologists and curators warn that the real consequences of the cuts will not become fully apparent for years and will be far more dire for ancient artifacts and historical scholarship. Over the last six months dozens of the country's most experienced state archaeologists -- those with the highest number of years of service and highest salaries, 1,550 euros a month, or a little less than $2,000 -- have been forced into early retirement as part of a 10 percent staff reduction within the government's Ministry of Culture and Tourism. Through regular retirements and attrition over the last two years, the archaeological staff has shrunk even more, to 900, from 1,100, according to the association, the union that represents the archaeologists.

At a time when taxes are being raised, pensions are being cut, and the national unemployment rate stands at more than 21 percent, this exodus has faded quickly into the bleak economic landscape. But scholars say the cuts are beginning to cause precisely what the television ad dramatizes: the disappearance of antiquities. The primary culprits are not museum robbers and looters of antiquities sites, but two even more treacherous forces that now have fewer checks on their power: the elements and developers' bulldozers.

In a dry riverbed one late April morning on the island of Kythira, Aris Tsaravopoulos, a former government archaeologist who was pushed out of his job in November, pointed out a site where a section of riverbank had collapsed during a rainstorm a few months earlier. Scattered all along the bed as it stretched toward the Mediterranean Sea were hundreds of pieces of Minoan pottery, most likely dating to the second millennium B.C., some of them painted with floral patterns that were still a vivid red. Mr. Tsaravopoulos, who directed archaeological projects and supervised foreign digs on the island for more than 15 years, said he believed the site might be part of a tomb or an ancient dumping ground.

Extensive digs in the mid-1960s by British archaeologists helped establish that the island was a longtime colony of Minoan Crete.

The collapse of the bank had already caused some of the artifacts to wash out to sea. Filling the pockets of his khaki vest with larger pieces of pottery to date and place in storage, Mr. Tsaravopoulos said, "The next big rain will carry away more, and before long it will all be gone."

In years past Mr. Tsaravopoulos would have organized an emergency dig at such a site. Now, he said, he can no longer do anything but alert already overburdened colleagues in the state archaeological service, with little hope any rescue work will be done in time: Since his forced retirement last fall, Kythira, a sparsely populated island slightly larger than Malta and six hours southwest of Athens by ferry, had not been visited by a government archaeologist. …

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