At a time when pensions are being cut, unemployment rates are astoundingly hight, and a hasty exit from the Euro looks more and more like the only option of a government overwhelmed by its debt burden, a much less publicized disaster faces some of Greece’s most essential cultural treasures: its antiquities. In February, a shocking heist saw armed robbers break into the Olympic museum, tie up the single armed guard on duty, and make off with over seventy-seven priceless artifacts–including votive figurines, racing chariots, and a 3,000-year-old ring of pure gold. Nor was this the first theft of archaeologically significant items to take place in Greece since financial disaster struck the country in 2009. It is not, however, armed bandits that pose the greatest to Greece’s cultural heritage–it is the debt itself.
Harsh austerity measures imposed by the government in order to keep the state solvent have meant (among other things) that funding for the maintenance of Greek museums, as well as for new archaeological excavations and preservation initiatives, has been drastically reduced to less than half its pre-crisis levels. Ten percent of the Culture Ministry’s archaeological staff (state archaeologists are responsible for the vast majority of the excavations that take place every year in Greece) has been forced to retire, and the number of security personnel at national heritage sights has been cut by almost two-thirds (doubtless, the presence of only one security guard was a factor in the choice of the Olympia museum for February’s audacious robbery). In addition, the state has all but halted its hiring of a promising younger generation of archaeologists–a decision which has resulted in masters and doctors of this revered discipline (which, in a country with over 19,000 declared archaeological sites, has plenty of work to do) working in restaurants, assembly lines and even municipal trash collection. Budget slashing has also meant that museums are sporadically closed to the public, while scarce research funding prevents the publishing of even those few findings that are made. Materials from numerous sites which might well contain invaluable information about the life of one of the world’s foundational civilizations are routinely lost to flooding, erosion, and the bulldozers of developers before they can be documented and preserved. All of which begs the question: in a financial climate in which thousands of people are suffering both economically and even physically, what is the value of cultural patrimony? What is the price of the spirit? // Patrick Barrett