Greek Archaeology and Civilization at Risk

Dr. Evaggelos Valianatos

Discovering the past is necessary but elusive. You think of what you did yesterday and you are often in doubt in seeking the truth of a few hours ago. Imagine then walking back into thousands of years and discovering the tombs and treasures of your ancestors.

Imagine being Greek with a history of millennia. The ancient Greeks, removed from us by two to four millennia, were talking about their ancestors. The Trojan War was ancient history to Plato.

Ancient Greeks went through periods of enormous creativity, inventing and constructing what we call Western civilization: science, technology, architecture, literature, poetry, the tragic theater and democracy.

The Greeks did all that while offering prayers to several gods. Some of the Greek heroes were children of those gods.

But the Greeks had lots of enemies who, in time, conquered them.

Those conquerors included the Romans, barbarians, Western Europeans, and Turks. They nearly wiped out the material and intellectual world of the Greeks.

The Romans imposed on Greece Christianity, an enemy of ancient Greek civilization.

Only relatively recently, in early nineteenth century when the Greeks regained their freedom, did they start searching for their ancient ancestors. They witnessed Philhellenes scouring their country for buried treasures. They, too, entered the field of archaeology.

The Archaeological Society of Athens was the first Greek institution to take up this noble cause. Michael Cosmopoulos, professor of Greek studies at the University of Missouri-St Louis, explained to me that the Society has been in existence since 1837.

“In its long history,” he said, “it has had the distinction of discovering, excavating, and protecting some of the most important archaeological sites in Greece, from the Acropolis in Athens to Epidaurus and from Mycenae to Sparta. At the same time the Society is responsible for a tremendous body of archaeological research and publications. In short, [the work of] this a venerable institution has advanced our knowledge of ancient Greece like no one else.”

However, we are now, in 2016, in a new age that blindly ignores culture for ephemeral matters like money. Once again, Greece is an occupied country. It is the victim of internal and external corruption. It has a huge debt. As a result, foreigners are invisibly running the country.

Archaeology is at the bottom of the priorities of the “leftist” anti-Greek Greek government. As for the lenders, they probably eye Greek archaeological treasures as a deposit to their demands for repayment.

Cosmopoulos is aware, though cautious, of this deleterious reality in Greece. He said to me that “austerity” in Greece is affecting Greek archaeology in major ways:

“The most crucial aspect of the impact of the financial crisis on archaeological research and the protection of cultural treasures concerns the cuts in the funds needed for these two major areas of archaeology. These cuts have impacted both the infrastructure and the human resources needed for cultural organizations, such as the Athens Archaeological Society, to perform their work and fulfill their mission.”

In other words, Greek archaeologists have no money for research, excavation, and protection of their discoveries and protection of the considerable and unmatched treasures in the Greek museums.

This signals the looters to be on high alert. In fact, in 2012, thieves broke into the National Gallery in Athens and stole a painting by Picasso. They also burglarized the Museum of the History of the Olympics in Antiquity in Olympia and grabbed dozens of treasures.

Staff of the Greek Archaeological Museum in Olympia complained that the government fired about 1,500 guards protecting museums all over the country.

Another Greek archaeologist and professor of classics and archaeology at the University of Illinois-Chicago, Nanno Marinatos, expands the argument to include much more than museums falling apart and Greek archaeological services in disarray.

“The crisis in Greece,” she said to me, “is not just financial. It has profoundly affected our confidence in the future and has questioned our identity. The Modern Greek State since 1825 had to rely on archaeology as a major resource for building up the idea
of Greekness, or, its Hellenicity, as I like to call it. Antiquities are a tangible link to the past ages and Greek archaeologists, being trained superbly, are well suited to be ambassadors of Greece at a time when negative publicity is flourishing.”

But then why should these Greek crises be of any interest to Americans? Marinatos is convinced Americans should care and care very deeply. They are also at risk.

She says:

“As long as Americans feel that they have been somewhat inspired by the democratic institutions of Greece and Rome, antiquities will always have relevance to their identity as well. They represent not just history but ONE of the golden ages of mankind.”

Marinatos’ father, Spyridon Marinatos, was a great Greek archaeologist who in 1967 brought to light the four-thousand-year-old magnificent treasures of the Greek Aegean island of Thera.

Thera blew up around 1650 BCE. It was a thriving polis in the Minoan Age. Spyridon Marinatos uncovered a town with houses two and three stories high, paved streets, and modern-like water and sewage works. But, above all, Thera was full of stunning wall paintings.

Nanno Marinatos bemoans that to this day the world has not seen the magnificent paintings her father discovered in Thera.

The reason? Money, of course.

“The splendid paintings from Thera, representing the great goddess,” she says, “have been buried in a basement for years because there are no resources to build a gallery for paintings. Many other treasures have had the same fate.”

In 2015, Marinatos, Cosmopoulos and three of their colleagues from Harvard (Gregory Nagy), Princeton (Angelos Chaniotis), and Berkeley (Ronald Stroud) founded the Archaeological Society Foundation to assist in raising funds for the Archaeological Society of Athens.

I urge all Americans to support the Foundation so that the Archaeological Society of Athens resumes its work of discovering and protecting the treasures of Greece – for Greece and us and the world.

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