Greece and the Illicit Antiquities Trade

An uncharacteristically-detailed item from Kathimerini:

The majority of visitors to state museums in Greece find the experience disappointing. There are various reasons for this, including closed halls due to staff shortages — a factor which also affects service — and impractical opening hours. However, what is a disappointing situation to many presents an ideal opportunity for a few.

The issue of museum security — particularly when it comes to safeguarding archaeological sites — is a constant headache for the Greek Ministry of Culture, which is struggling to cope with the limitations of being short-staffed.

However, it is clearly failing in its efforts: In mid-April antiquities were stolen from the ancient site of Eleusis, while prior to that there had been another theft in Arta at the beginning of the year.

Part of a tombstone column unearthed in Ancient Amvrakia and destined for the nearby Archaeological Museum of Arta never made it there. In the case of the antiquities stolen from Eleusis, the Greek Police’s Antiquities Theft Department managed to locate them with the ministry’s assistance and the ancient works will soon return to the archaeological site. However, the Archaeological Department is still concerned and so are regional antiquities ephorates.

The issue of illicit trading in antiquities has long been a major subject at conferences organized by archaeologists. Even more so considering that certain museums around the country have yet to record the treasures lying in their storerooms, while in some cases, artworks have not been restored at all.

Safeguarding and reclaiming cultural treasures from illicit trade was the subject of an interesting conference at the Acropolis Museum. The conference minutes, which were published recently, point to the fact that illicit trade is of major concern and goes beyond the field of antiquities. As it turns out, the country’s ecclesiastical heritage has been dealt a heavy blow as well.

The Culture Ministry records thefts by region and the results show that the areas which are most vulnerable are Epirus, Thessaly, the Peloponnese, Central Greece, the Ionian Islands and the Cyclades.

According to data compiled by V. Sakelliadis, there is intense activity in the aforementioned areas, resembling the spike in thefts during the 1970s and the 1980s.

Topping the stolen items list are religious icons (343), followed by woodcuts (36), sculptures (33), metal and ceramic objects (13) and sanctuary doors (11). Most thefts take place in the fall and winter time while ephorates don’t usually discover that items are missing until the weather improves.

Equally interesting is a chapter regarding the repatriation of stolen items, prepared by Smaragda Boutopoulou. Repatriation, it seems, has been on the rise since the 1940s. By the 1980s there had been 12 cases of repatriation, a figure which grew to 24 in the 90s and to 29 in the 2000-08 period. The conclusion? Out of 78 cases of repatriation, 15 were court-ordered, 37 were settled through out-of-court procedures, six were due to the Greek state purchasing the items and 21 were cases of voluntary surrender by foreign nationals.

According to Boutopoulou, a total of 1,938 ancient artifacts were repatriated from 1945 to 2008: 62 were repatriated during the 1960-80 period, 101 were returned to Greece in the 80s, the figure rose to 613 in the 90s, and over 1,161 repatriations have been recorded since 2000.

The conference’s findings are numerous and of great interest. They include a presentation of Greek antiquities around the world by specialist Alexandros Mantis, a talk by Eleni Banou on the case of antiquities repatriations from the Shelby White collection, and an analysis of the global ring of illicit antiquities trade and Greece’s position in it, by journalist Nikolaos Zirganos.

Rosa Proskynitopoulou, head of the Documentation and Protection of Cultural Goods Department at the Culture Ministry, admits that the ministry is highly active as far as trying to locate stolen antiquities goes, but not when it comes to museums.

“Above all, we have illicit excavations taking place in unguarded places. Incidents have increased in this area,” Proskynitopoulou told Kathimerini. As for repatriation, she said that the department is putting major emphasis on this issue, especially when it comes to negotiating the return of documented antiquities.

While Proskynitopoulou did not divulge more information, it is no secret that the department operates with only nine multitasking archaeologists, who also aid the police in their investigations.

In the past, announcements regarding the department being staffed by 47 experts (including a public prosecutor, legal advisers and police officers, among others) never made it beyond the stage of promises. Despite all its problems, however, the Documentation and Protection of Cultural Goods Department is currently on the right track regarding a number of cases of illicit antiquities trading in the United States and the UK.

… all of which is kind of interesting, insofar as over twenty years ago, when my wife and I were honeymooning in Greece, we went through so many museums where I pointed out to her how easy it would be to steal things if someone put in a modicum of effort. I seem especially to remember that the Zeus of Artemision (now in the National Archaeological Museum) or some similar bronze was actually in a display (protected from rain, but nothing else) outside a museum …

From the Italian Press: Roman City in Azerbaijan

This one doesn’t seem to have made it to the English press yet … from Virgilio:

Una città di origine romana è stata scoperta in Azerbaigian. Lo scrive oggi l’agenzia azera Trend News. La scoperta archeologica, secondo Arif Mammadov dell’Accademia delle Scienze di Baku, si trova nel territorio dell’attuale Ganja, seconda città del paese.

La città si chiamava Laso e, secondo l’archeologo, sarebbe stata indicata in antiche mappe romane come Laso, risalente al II secolo avanti Cristo. L’attuale città di Ganja ha origini medievali.

Mammadov ha annunciato che, a partire da luglio e fino a settembre, nell’area individuata verranno condotti scavi.

Gist: Remains of a Roman city called ‘Laso’, dating from the second century B.C. (perhaps a later Roman presence at an earlier Greek/other foundation), in the territory of Ganja. Excavations will be running from July to September, so perhaps we will read more about this later …

Late Bronze Age Fortress from Bamboula

Interesting item from the University of Cinicinnati:

A recent find by a University of Cincinnati archeologist suggests an ancient Cypriot city was well protected from outside threats.

That research, by UC’s Gisela Walberg, professor of classics, will be presented at the annual workshop of the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Center in Nicosia, Cyprus, on June 25, 2011.

Since 2001, Walberg has worked in modern Cyprus to uncover the ancient city of Bamboula, a Bronze Age city that was an important trading center for the Middle East, Egypt and Greece. Bamboula, a harbor town that flourished between the 13th through the 11th century B.C., sits along a highway on the outskirts of the modern village of Episkopi, along the southwestern coast of Cyprus and near the modern harbor town of Limassol. The area thrived in part because the overshadowing Troodos Mountains contained copper, and the river below was used to transport the mined materials.

Her most recent research at the site revealed the remnants of a Late Bronze Age (1500-750 B.C.) fortress that may have functioned to protect the urban economic center further inland, which does not seem to have been fortified.

Clues to the function of the structure were clear to Walberg. “It’s quite clear that it is a fortress because of the widths and strengths of the walls. No house wall from that period would have that strength. That would have been totally unnecessary,” she said, noting that one wall is 4.80 meters thick. “And it is on a separate plateau, which has a wonderful location you can look north to the mountains or over the river, and you can see the Mediterranean to the south — so you can see whoever is approaching.”

Remains of stairs leading up to a destroyed circular tower-like structure, which would have been convenient to look out over the area, were also found.

“We found the first walls, which we thought were interesting, in 2005,” Walberg said. “But, we continued, and this year, we found a staircase – actually we had found two steps before of a similar staircase, but this time we found a whole staircase.”
staircase and lintel block in fortress

According to Walberg, the staircase seems to have been broken in a violent catastrophe, which throws lights on the early Late Bronze Age history in Cyprus, a period of which little is known but characterized by major social upheaval and cemeteries containing what a number of scholars have identified as mass burials.

The recent find is also particularly significant because there is another older site from the Middle Bronze Age nearby, within walking distance, of the fortress. Upriver exists remains of a large economic center, called Alassa, a center for trading agricultural products and metal.

“Our find, the fortress, fills the gap in time in between this early settlement and the very big, important economic center. It probably was the center, the core, from which urbanization began in the area,” Walberg said.

Walberg is currently the Marion Rawson Professor of Aegean Prehistory in the Department of Classics at the University of Cincinnati. Her fieldwork experience includes participation in excavations in Sweden, Crete and Cyprus. She has also participated in archaeological surveys in Greece and Italy, and directed an excavation of a Mycenaean citadel (Midea) in mainland Greece.

Walberg’s published works include 10 books and monographs. One is a report on the 1985-1991 excavations at Midea. She has also authored 81 articles and 20 reviews in American and international archaeological periodicals and lectured in many countries. Currently, Walberg is working on a book about the Bamboula excavations.

UC Research Uncovers Late Bronze Age Fortress.

The University of Cincinnati press release includes some photos …

Iron Maiden: Alexander the Great

As I emerge from the zombificatory cloud I’m in after all the report card and graduation festivities, I came across a review of Iron Maiden’s recent performance in Athens, inter alia:

Musically, Iron Maiden were as crisp and meticulous as they are in the studio, and long-term Maiden fans expect nothing less from the band. Great sound and stunning backdrops and lighting effects, as always, although my only complaint is directed against Bruce Dickinson who once again managed to insult the Greek fans. Every Greek fan lives with the dream of listening to Alexander the Great live, at least once in his or her lifetime. Given that every time Maiden release a new album, it goes straight to number one in the Greek charts, you would think they can make an exception and play it just for them, at least once – as a bonus. And even if they don’t play it, at least don’t tease them about not playing it. Bruce, that was not nice, mate, you weren’t funny if you thought you were, and it was bang out of order.

via Sonisphere 2011: Maiden Athens | The Sofia Echo.

In case you’ve never heard it … here’s a good fan mashup video:

I’ve always thought the intro to this was a bit too long and Spinal Tap-like … decent song otherwise, though. We’ll be getting to other matters relating to Alexander sometime in the next few days …

This Day in Ancient History: ante diem viii kalendas quinctilis

Emperor Titus. Marble, Roman artwork, late 1st...

Image via Wikipedia

ante diem viii kalendas quinctilis

  • under Servius — dedication of two temples to Fors Fortuna (and associated rites thereafter)
  • 1 B.C. — birth of John the Baptist (traditional date)
  • 79 A.D. — dies imperii of the emperor Titus
  • 109 A.D. — the Aqua Traiana are officially dedicated
  • 1741 — Birth of Alexander Adam (Classics educator)
  • 1989 — death of Russell Meiggs (author of Roman Ostia, among others)