ARCHEOLOGY IN GREECE: Tomb raiders: Greeks resort to grave robbery as EU austerity bites deeper. THE TIMES [LONDON] (28/04/2012)., a photo by Martin G. Conde on Flickr.
ARCHEOLOGY IN GREECE: Tomb raiders: Greeks resort to grave robbery as EU austerity bites deeper. THE TIMES [LONDON] (28/04/2012).
Olympia. The hole in the hillside outside Ancient Olympia, the birthplace of the Olympic Games, is a mark of the growing desperation of the Greeks. Tomb raiders have dug a 6ft-deep trench in the sandy soil in search of buried treasure at the site of a known Mycenaean cemetery dating back to the 13th century BC. Illegal excavation has surged as the economic crisis deepens and the cash-strapped Greek state struggles to protect its glorious archaeological heritage. “People are desperate and are trying to find treasures without being noticed, because if you rob a store or a bank someone will notice and you might have to use violence,” said Konstantinos Antonopoulos, a state archaeologist who oversees the area. “Illegal digging has increased here in Olympia. About once or twice a month, police or citizens inform us that at this place or that place there is a hole because people are digging illegally there,” he said. “Sometimes they find things, sometimes they don’t.” The scramble for treasure is unsurprising. Greece is in the deepest slump of all eurozone countries. At the end of last year, one in five Greek workers was unemployed, and the country was entering its fifth year of economic depression. Facing new uncertainty, the parliament has dissolved and voters will go to the polls again on May 6. The would-be grave robbers, hoping to find jewellery and weapons buried with the ancient corpses, dug at the Mycenaean cemetery in Daphne for at least two nights last month before a local farmer raised the alarm. The villagers mounted a night-time guard for ten days running to scare the robbers off, is difficult to catch people digging red-handed,” said Michalis Prokopis, the local mayor. “They escape.” Some of the tomb raiders believed to be amateurs, but others are professional gangs exploiting a lack of guards. “In any political, social, economic crisis you always see a rise in looting and robberies, whether it’s a war or a collapse of society, said Nikolas Zirganos, a journalist whose work has helped to retrieve pillaged artifacts from overseas.”I don’t say we are in a war, but we are in a very deep crisis and this affects the cultural heritage very much.” The pillaging has become so severe that the culture ministry decided to rebury a previously known early Christian basilica uncovered during work on Salonika new underground railway. “Mother Earth is the best protector of our antiquities,” said Michalis Tiverios, a professor of archaeology at Salonika Aristotelio University, and an adviser on the project. “Let us leave our antiquities in the soil, to be found by archaeologists in 10,000AD, when Greeks will perhaps show more respect to their history.” Excavation of a necropolis at Pella, the capital of the ancient Macedonian kingdom of Alexander the Great, was suspended after ten illegal pits were found at the site. Last month Greek police recovered more than 8,000 ancient coins and numerous Byzantine icons when they arrested 44 people in alleged antiquity smuggling ring in northern Greece. Another gang was apprehended in October in possession of Macedonian golden grave offerings from the 6th century BC valued at E113 million. “We have more people who are desperate and they are trying to find something and we have more people who do it professionally — and we have fewer guards,” said Despina Koutsoumba, president of the Association of Greek Archaeologists. Greece has 250 organised archaeological sites and at least 19,000 other known locations of importance. With the country in its fifth year of recession, the culture ministry has lost 10 per cent of its archaeologists because civil servants have been forced to take early retirement. There is also a severe shortage of guards, with just 2,000 full-time security personnel. Even the Acropolis is closing at 3pm at weekends, instead of 7pm, for want of staff. The crisis was highlighted by two robberies at Greek museums. Two robbers broke into a museum at Ancient Olympia in February and tied up the sole female guard. After smashing display cases with hammers, they got away with 76 bronze and pottery artefacts including a 3,200-year-old gold ring valued at E4 million ( 3.3 million). In the previous month, burglars stole paintings by Picasso and Mondrian from the National Gallery in Athens. A report later found that dead batteries had not been replaced in the security system. There were only two night-guards, and if one was sick or on holiday, he was not replaced. Alarmed by the losses, the Association of Greek Archeaologists has mounted an international campaign to save the country’s heritage with the slogan: “Monuments have no voice. They must have yours.” On Tuesday, Ms Koutsoumba, the president, took the campaign to the British Museum. Without the guards apparently noticing, she and supporters unfurled a banner in front of the Elgin Marbles — which once adored the Parthenon — opposing the austerity measures imposed on Greece. “We want the people of Europe to understand that when you see reports of cuts in the public sector, it’s not abstract. They are schools, nurses, monuments and museums,” she said.