Monday, August 20, 2012

LONG FRAGILE GREEK ANTIQUITIES ARE ENDANGERED BY AUSTERITY

“I believe that this ministry could double or triple the number of archaeologists it hires — and the number of guards — and still be understaffed,” said Pavlos Geroulanos, Greece’s culture and tourism minister until the May 6 elections brought in a caretaker government. Mr. Geroulanos has overseen the layoffs and forced retirements as his annual operating budget has dwindled 30 percent over the last three years. “There’s so much out there, and so much work to be done,” he said.

But now Greece’s already hidebound and inefficient archaeological bureaucracy, for years among the largest in Europe (where the state plays a central role in the field in many countries), is confronting a drop in resources so sharp that it is beginning to cede the responsibility for cultural heritage it has had for more than 150 years.

In Messenia, on the Peloponnesian peninsula, excavation work has come to a halt on a fifth- or sixth-century B.C. mountaintop temple discovered in 2010 not far from the well-known Temple of Apollo Epicurius, a Unesco World Heritage site. Xeni Arapogianni, the state archaeologist who oversaw the region and directed the initial excavation of the newly discovered temple, was forced into early retirement last fall before she could complete research for publications about the find.
“There’s still work that needs to be done there, but no one goes to do it,” Ms. Arapogianni said in an interview. “A department cannot function without a director.” She added that the temple was not important simply as another place that might someday dot a tourist map but because the history of fifth-century temple cults in the region is still an emerging field of research, and the site could provide crucial insights. “This is not just another temple,” she said.

To many Greek archaeologists and university colleagues from other countries who dig with the government’s permission, an even more troubling repercussion of the austerity budget is that research leaves of absence for government archaeologists are being canceled, and money for their research excavations is no longer being provided unless they can find other sources to share the cost.

One effect is that Greek archaeologists are being pushed to focus almost exclusively on the more bureaucratic side of their jobs: inspecting construction sites for the presence of buried antiquities. It is a crucial task, but one that, even with the slowdown of development during the crisis, consumes almost all their time now. This means that scholarship is put on indefinite, and in some cases probably permanent, hold.

An American archaeologist with decades of experience in Greece, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of alienating government officials at such an uncertain time, said: “Nobody in Greece digs nearly as much as the government archaeological service. And if they aren’t able to publish what they find, they might as well not be doing it at all; they might as well just rebury it.”

Despite its relatively low pay, the profession of archaeology has long been held in high esteem in Greece; it is a job that children aspire to, like becoming a doctor. And in a country where the public sector has been plagued for decades with corruption, archaeologists have retained a reputation as generally honorable and hard-working.

Veteran Greek archaeologists tend to view the crisis with a grim resolve to make do with the resources at hand. But many in the next generation are unable to do even that. The archaeological service has all but stopped hiring, and the hundreds of young archaeologists who work on part-time contracts are finding those contracts renewed more infrequently.

Even with the ministry’s budget falling every year of his tenure, he said, it has been able to complete important projects, like modernizing the facilities at more than 100 publicly accessible ancient sites. Over the last three years Greece has also managed to compete successfully for tens of millions of euros from the European Union available for archaeological projects. But critics of austerity say these few bright spots pale against the irreversible damage already under way.

On the island of Kythira, Mr. Tsaravopoulos recently visited a plot of sparsely wooded field, acting on a tip from a friend that a bulldozer had been at work there without a permit or antiquities inspection. He arrived to find a makeshift dirt road freshly carved into a hillside, scattered with dozens of broken pieces of glazed pottery dating to Hellenic and early Roman times. As he was leaving, the owner of the land arrived with his family, and he and Mr. Tsaravopoulos, who knew him, had a curt discussion in the middle of the road before the man walked on.

“He told me he didn’t realize he’d damaged any artifacts and that he was sorry,” Mr. Tsaravopoulos said later. “Then he told me very nicely: ‘Oh Aris, I heard the news that you had to retire. I’m very sorry about that.’ He knows that I have no power anymore to prevent people from digging wherever they want.”

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