Italy (see below) is not the only place within our purview where strange goings-on are going on at archaeological sites. You’ve no doubt heard by now how Greece’s fiscal crisis is affecting archaeological sites — my inbox has been filling with the stories, but in case you were paying more attention to the Olympics or something, here’s the incipit of a piece from the Guardian which will give you an idea:
It was the world’s first university, where Plato taught, Aristotle studied and philosophy was born. But today as buses hurtle down the boulevard that bisects the park, past grey highrises, it is hard to believe this is one of the Greek capital’s ancient treasures; Plato’s Academy is so overlooked it is not even signposted.
“We haven’t managed to save the €7,000 [£4,500] such a sign would require,” says Nikoletta Divari Vilakou, the archaeologist in charge. “And that’s because of the economic problems.”
The crisis that has gripped Greece, rocked markets and rattled Europe’s single currency is now enveloping the country’s cultural heritage. The seat of learning, founded on property the philosopher inherited in 387BC, is not alone. This year, antiquities beneath the Acropolis stood under tangled weeds, testimony to the overstretched culture ministry’s inability to clean and prune.
Nationwide, some of Greece’s greatest glories – museums, castles and antiquities – have been closed to the public, from Kastellorizo in the east to Pella, Alexander’s birthplace, in the north. Like the desolate tourist shops alongside them, the ancient sites are devoid of holidaymakers, symbolic of the recession engulfing the nation.
“Where will the ministry find the money to complete rescue works on the monuments and sites that are in danger?” asked the authoritative Sunday Vima newspaper. The scale of the crisis has not been lost on the governing socialists elected to run Europe’s weakest economy after five years of scandal-plagued conservative rule. Unlike his predecessors, the new culture minister, Pavlos Geroulanos, a friend of the prime minister George Papandreou, readily acknowledges that although by far the nation’s most significant resource, the sector remains painfully under-funded.
“Culture and tourism represent over 20% of GDP, a huge chunk of the economy,” he told the Guardian. “We are the first to admit that for far too long culture has been marginalised, that not enough money has been dedicated to it, that we keep our ancient monuments away from the public and close them down.”
Few areas embody the fiscal mismanagement that has blighted Greece in recent years as much as those of culture and tourism. With the exception of the New Acropolis Museum, the capital’s biggest cultural success, the domain has all too often been treated as the fiefdom of politicians dispensing favours.
Highlighting the tawdry tales of corruption and incompetence at the culture ministry, a senior official in charge of finances and close friend of the former prime minister Costas Karamanlis, leapt from his home’s balcony after being linked to wrongdoing.
“We have found funds going to the wrong places in terms of financing new creativity, sports teams, promotion and communication projects,” said Geroulanos. “You hear of a shadow organisation that suddenly got €200,000 and has done nothing to show for it … or permits given out for bribes.”
The minister, who studied public administration at Harvard and is seen as an architect of the wide-ranging “revolution” the socialists would like to bring to Greece, estimates that at least 60% of his time is now spent “clearing the air of the toxic waste of corruption and bad practice. What we are doing is combating waste and corruption and funnelling saved funds in the direction of necessary healthy projects which are an investment for the future.”
But the task is far from easy. This year, as the cash-strapped government struggles under EU orders to pare the €300bn public debt and deficit, Geroulanos’ €710m budget has been cut by 10%. Worse still, the sector has lost out on EU funds, crucial for restoring and renovating monuments. “Greek culture has lost out because the previous government didn’t bother to design an [EU-funded] culture programme,” he said. “We are now trying to redirect funds from other ministries.”
Morale is also a problem. In the Plaka district below the Acropolis, custodians of wonders dating back to classical times – including many renowned archaeologists and conservationists – labour in graffiti-covered buildings under conditions that in any other EU capital would be considered intolerable.
“There is simply no money,” said an archaeologist with more than 30 years’ experience. “The lamp in my office blew the other day and I know that unless I pay to mend it, it will never be fixed.
Meanwhile, various members of the European Community weren’t exactly happy with the idea of having to support one of their less-than-responsible members and a pair of German parliamentarians had some suggestions which were widely covered in the English press (we’ll confine our mention to the coverage in the Christian Science Monitor):