That cryptic title is a vague reference to a song by Midnight Oil which is currently stuck in my head … whatever the case, we fairly regularly get an annual article that this or that particular monument is being neglected by authorities (e.g., most recently, e.g., a chunk falling off the Colosseum), but in the past week or so, if we believe journalists, the whole ancient world’s remains are in danger. First, e.g., we can read of the sad state of affairs in Athens, inter alia:
This week, as angry Greeks marched in mass resistance to economic austerity, the graffiti re-emerged with renewed vigour and vengeance.
On the hill of the Muses, west of the Acropolis, the Philopappos monument is now ringed by a rosary of plaintiffs and expletives. The eyesores descend all the way to the thyme-covered hill of the Nymphs where ”artworks” appear even around the rock on which the assembly of ancient Athens convened.
Taking my evening stroll, I bumped into a Melbourne man who couldn’t quite believe what he was seeing.. ”Don’t the Greeks take any pride in their ancient heritage?” he blurted. ”Where I come from they’d call it disgraceful – and you know what, they’d be removed.”
Graffiti isn’t the only problem blighting Greece’s ancient masonry. Demands on the archaeological service are such that many sites now stand unkempt; shrouded by weeds. The Ottoman seminary beneath my home has been so overtaken by eucalyptus trees that roots threaten the foundations of the rare Roman walls bordering the site. Repeated attempts to alert authorities fall on deaf ears – with foreigners who raise such things being brushed off as a rare breed of eccentric.
The problem, like so many other afflictions that have brought the country to the point of near economic and social collapse, is simply ignored. Government functionaries declare that with the debt-stricken nation trying to make ends meet, the state can ill afford such luxuries. Greece’s cultural showpieces have long witnessed its ancient splendours and contemporary sadness – never more so than now in Byron’s ”land of lost gods and godlike men”.
Then there’s the state of affairs in Rome (inter alia, again):
Especially when some of the best of it is falling down. Exhibit A: the Domus Aurea, the Golden Villa that Nero built near the Colosseum, where a vaulted gallery fell this spring. Nobody was hurt, fortunately. That’s because the place has been closed since 2008, plagued by structural problems and humidity, which threatens the frescoes. To much fanfare, the city opened part of the site for tourists in 1999. Then heavy rain collapsed a section of roof, the site was closed, reopened a while later, then closed again.
A commission assigned to address the problem spent millions but didn’t forestall the latest mishap. Construction workers were fussing with earthmovers, bits and pieces of ancient columns, broken pots and scaffolding one recent morning. Fedora Filippi, a veteran archaeologist lately put in charge, pointed out where the roof gave way in what is actually an adjacent gallery built under Trajan, after Nero. Rain seeped from a park above, she said. Everybody has known about the leaking for ages. But the park is city-owned, and the Domus Aurea is national property, so the problem is no one’s to solve.
“Everyone is paralyzed,” Ms. Filippi said. “We have problems specific to this site and, yes, we have Italian problems, too.”
After the Domus Aurea gave way, some chunks fell off the Colosseum. Salvo Barrano, vice president of Italy’s Association of National Archaeologists, afterward listed threats to the aqueducts, the Palatine. The country is basically one giant archaeological site, Mr. Barrano said, with every town and region vying for resources, no politician willing to make hard choices, and too few qualified engineers and archaeologists in charge.
“The problem for the last 12 or 13 years is that the country has stopped investing in culture,” he said. “In cases like the Domus Aurea, there just isn’t a quick enough political payoff for politicians to invest more resources.”
Finally, we read (again inter alia) of the impact of tourism on Pompeii:
Of course the de-construction of Pompeii has been going on ever since it was first uncovered. Pompeii’s marble was stripped for use in new construction, the frescoes were hacked off and carted away to the Archaeological Museum in Naples. The removal of the treasures made sense as a way of preserving them and allowing scholars to study them. Engravings published in 1781 show statuary and other treasures being hauled through the streets of Naples by teams of oxen to the museum which is still home to most of them. Due to cuts imposed by the Ministry of Culture, though, many of the galleries are today closed in rotation.
But what has happened to the site since the end of the Second World War is something quite different. Indifference, lack of resources, lack of good leadership and the numbing Italian state bureaucracy have conspired to accelerate the decline of Pompeii to the point that today it is questionable whether or not it can be salvaged.
The problem is us. We pour through Pompeii and its lesser-known sister site, Herculaneum, in such numbers, millions of us every year, that our impact is comparable to the impact we have on our own homes and streets and towns. The daily population of these sites, the activity on their streets, is not significantly less than it must have been 2,000 years ago.
The difference is that in our own homes we leap into action if the roof starts leaking. Our streets are cleaned, our sewers and roads maintained on a regular basis. But since 1945 Pompeii has been treated as if it has no need of attentions of this sort, simply because nobody actually lives there. Galloping decay is the inevitable result.
Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, the British archaeologist who has been leading a project to rescue Herculaneum for the past decade, says, “There is an assumption that by digging stuff up you have redeemed it, you’ve saved it. Except you haven’t. The laws of physics say it’s stable underground. Whatever trauma happened to it at the moment of the eruption, it reaches a stable state. And of course that’s why it comes out in such great condition.
“But the moment you excavate, you start the clock again – the clock that says, you built the house for yourself today, the maintenance bills start tomorrow. It comes back to life, which means it’s mortal again, so it starts dying.”
Pompeii’s years of glory culminated in the long career of Amedeo Maiuri, superintendent throughout the Fascist years. He turned both sites into great popular attractions, restoring many houses and shops to the sort of decorative state they were in at the point when they were inundated, and exhibiting the items found within them in showcases. He was helped by the fact that Mussolini saw in the sites a great source of patriotic propaganda, advertising the age and splendour of Italian civilisation.
But Maiuri’s retirement was followed by decades of apathy and incompetence, with the results that we see today: millions of tourists tramping through the few remaining gems that are still open to visitors, the House of Pansa, the House of the Little Fountain, the House of the Faun, with their flaking frescoes and reproduction statues, then getting back on their buses.
The concentration of such numbers on a handful of sites ensures that they, too, in their turn will soon have to be closed. And what will we all do then? Read our guidebooks in the sterile comfort of the Autogrill, toss our unfinished panini at the stray dogs, and hope that we are in time to make it to the museum in Naples before it closes.
Not a pretty picture and likely not about to change in the near future …