Aegeus Society For Aegean Prehistory


31 March 2012

Greek antiquities threatened by austerity plan

CBC News, 13-03-2012

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.”

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.

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