Archaeologists report that the severe budget cuts imposed by international lenders on the Greek government have impeded research, forced museums to slash security staff and placed the country’s cultural heritage at risk. As two recent museum thefts raise fresh fears about the security of Greece’s antiquities, concerned scholars are launching a global appeal for help.
The antiquities of ancient Greece have withstood the ravages of time, weather and war, but according to some Greek archaeologists, the country’s cultural treasures are now facing a new threat: fallout from the debt crisis that has left Greece in turmoil. In return for tens of billions of dollars in loans to help Greece avoid bankruptcy, the European Union and International Monetary Fund have required steep cuts in government spending, and the Greek Ministry of Culture and Tourism—charged with overseeing thousands of archaeological sites and more than 100 museums with antiquity collections—hasn’t escaped the ax.
According to the Association of Greek Archaeologists, a union of 950 archaeologists working for the federal government, 10 percent of the culture ministry’s workforce was laid off or forced to retire last November. The association reports that the ministry’s archaeological budget was slashed by 35 percent in 2011 and further cuts are proposed for 2012.
Two years of layoffs imposed by the government have halved the number of ministry security guards, which has forced some museums to close or cut back on operating hours. Last summer, a security guard shortage led the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, the country’s premier repository of ancient Greek art, to shutter numerous exhibit halls. Staffing shortfalls also caused the archaeological site at Nemea, which includes the ancient Temple of Zeus, to close on Sundays.
Of even greater concern is that, in a country where nearly all museums are state-run and crime is on the rise, security staffing cuts have left priceless antiquities more vulnerable to theft. Two high-profile robberies in the past couple of months have only intensified fears. In January, three pieces were stolen from the National Gallery in Athens, including a Pablo Picasso painting personally gifted by the artist himself to the Greek people in recognition of their resistance to Nazi Germany during World War II. It was the first robbery in the museum’s 112-year history. Just weeks later in Olympia, two armed thieves broke into the Museum of the Olympic Games—which had reduced security staff—and tied up the lone guard on duty before making off with 77 priceless bronze and pottery artifacts.
Another challenge is securing Greece’s 19,000 archaeological sites—attractive targets of illegal treasure hunters, looters and smugglers in the best of economic times, let alone when one in five Greeks workers is unemployed. Earlier this month, Greek police arrested 44 people suspected of smuggling ancient artifacts out of the country. Authorities recovered more than 9,500 ancient coins, jewelry pieces, bronze statuettes and wooden icons, some dating back to the sixth century B.C. The items had been unearthed in illegal archaeological digs, mainly in Macedonia and Thessaly.
The Greek newspaper Ta Nea reported that increased looting of archaeological sites was of such concern to Aristotelio University archaeology professor Michalis Tiverios that he successfully lobbied the Greek government to rebury a previously unknown early Christian basilica in Thessaloniki. “Mother Earth is the best protector of our antiquities,” Tiverios told the newspaper. “Let us leave our antiquities in the soil, to be found by archaeologists in 10,000 A.D., when Greeks and their politicians will perhaps show more respect to their history.”
While street protests against austerity measures have received considerable news coverage around the world, the cuts to the culture ministry have not captured as much notice. In response, the Association of Greek Archaeologists has launched an international appeal to draw attention to the vulnerability of the country’s ancient artifacts and to oppose any further cuts to the culture ministry’s budget.
The archaeologists are trying to dispel the notion that all branches of the Greek government, including the culture ministry, had become severely bloated and in need of sharp reductions. They point out that the ministry accounts for less than 1 percent of the national budget. “The Greek Archaeological Service is not overstuffed, nor are we being overpaid,” the association said in a statement. “Further personnel cuts would mean that the Ministry of Culture will be unable to cover even its basic needs.”
The association has incorporated social media into its global campaign, even launching a Facebook page titled “I support Greek cultural heritage against IMF/EU cuts.” Members are encouraging people to send protest emails to the Greek culture minister and prime minister as well as download posters depicting ancient mosaics, paintings and sculptures. The tagline for the posters reads: “Monuments have no voice. They must have yours.”