First Post: Greece, Archaeology and Economic Crisis

by Tyler Mackie

It’s obvious that Greece has a rich cultural heritage, which has shaped our Western world. It was once a centre of intellectual thought and innovation in arts, both literary, architectural and sculptural arts. Equally clear in current politics is the soaring debt of this country. And this debt crisis is changing the way its rich heritage and archaeology significantly.

One archaeologist said at a recent media event organised to protest the spending cuts imposed as a condition for the EU and IMF loans, that ”Greece’s historic remains have become our curse”. As Greece is moving further into recession, there have been massive cuts to finance archaeological research, an estimated fall of 35%. Current legislation to excavate in Greece, that you have to own the land, every item you uncover by law belongs to the government. As a volunteer to participate in fieldwork, this will mean very expensive fees, which will see increases in order to meet financial needs for academic research. Which has lead to significant declines in licensed excavation, illegal digs on the increase nearby sites and also closing of museums to the public. One out of 10 culture ministry employees have been dismissed, and 3,500 temporary staff were brought in to allow museums, sites and excavations to operate. Entire museum halls have been closed from these cuts, illegal excavations have increased significantly with ‘treasure hunters’ hoping to find relics of monetary value.

And yet, from cuts in research and the increase of illegal digs, there has been some interest in reviving Greece’s rich heritage in an international sense. Recently, Stephen Fry has voiced the campaign for the Parthenon Marbles to be reinstated in Athens,and there is a conscious move in giving back the marbles, even stated in Fry’s essay to British Government that to help “boost the morale” of Greece. And it would seem that this would be the motive to help restore and revitalize the past conception of Greece as an intellectual hub to overcome its current global humiliation. There are now clear political motives to as sympathy towards the “humiliating sovereign debt crisis [that it has] has brought”. Current restoration on major Greek sites have also been undertaken. The issue is that the sites which are being restored are at the expense of sites lesser known, for reasons of tourism and to boost the economy. But equally I would argue that in the current economic climate that  Greece is in, the restoration projects and campaigns which will hopefully be successful are tactical in providing economic boost in order to fund research in lesser known sites.

In retrospect, the crippling effects of economy on archaeological sites are clear. In historical contexts, in times of financial downturn, places were sacked, bronze melted down and  an eerie example such as Athena Parthenos’ peplos being robbed of her golden robe to pay off debts have left places barren of what could have been invaluable in our eyes today. And now we see an uncanny repetition of this effect, in a debilitating way. What is being done can be prevented by intervention and awareness. A country with the riches of the archaeological world, should never feel as if this background was a burden, solely from the economic crisis the country currently faces. The direct correlation of economy and the ability to recognize, preserve and celebrate your cultural heritage is sadly too interlinked, and Greece has now become a case study for this.