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1:13 pm
Thu March 8, 2012

With Cutbacks, Greeks Say Antiquities Are At Risk

Originally published on Thu March 8, 2012 4:11 pm

At the Museum of the Olympic Games in Olympia, Greece, lush pine trees and olive groves are filled with chirping birds. The one guard at the site looks nervously at the few visitors.

There is still a sense of shock in Olympia following the theft last month at the museum, when armed robbers broke into the building and tied up the single guard on duty.

Archaeologist Kostantinos Antonopoulos says they ran off with 77 priceless objects, including votive figurines, chariots and horses.

"But the most precious and valuable exhibit that they took was a golden ring of the Mycenaean times. And it had a picture on it, very important from the early times of the games," he says, adding that the ring was more than 3,000 years old.

Fewer Guards At Museums

International creditors have pressured Greece to make severe cuts in its large public sector to help pay back billions of dollars in loans and avoid default. But the recent robbery at the Museum of the Olympic Games added to the sense that these cuts are making the country's vast cultural heritage increasingly vulnerable.

Even before the economic crisis, critics say that Greek governments were never generous in safeguarding antiquities from the cradle of civilization. Less than 1 percent of the budget was earmarked for the country's hundreds of museums, archaeological sites and monuments.

The Culture Ministry says austerity policies have cut that sum in half. Ten percent of the Culture Ministry's archaeologists have been either laid off or forced to retire. And the number of guards has also been cut in half, to fewer than 2,000.

Nemea is another major archaeological site, with an imposing temple in honor of the god Zeus. But on a Sunday, it's closed.

"The reason it's closed is because there are not enough guards to keep it open," says archaeologist Stephen Miller as he looks at the site's thin wire fence.

Miller is the former director of excavations at Nemea, carried out under the auspices of the University of California, Berkeley. He's known for his discovery of the ancient stadium where the Panhellenic Games were held.

Miller is angry with Greece's international creditors — the IMF, the EU Commission and European Central Bank, known collectively as the troika — for what he says is a policy of indiscriminate budget slashing.

"It is very shortsighted. This is the last place you should make your cuts," says Miller. "I would like to think the troika would understand that. The antiquities of Greece are not recognized for what they are, and that is the treasure of Greece, the resource Greece has that is unique to Greece."

Picasso Stolen From National Gallery

Just a few weeks before the Olympia robbery, Athens' National Gallery was the victim of the first theft in its 112-year history. There, too, there was only one guard on duty.

The loot included a painting by Dutch artist Piet Mondrian and a Picasso that had been his gift to the Greek people in recognition of their resistance to the Nazi occupation.

Despina Katsoumba, president of the Union of Greek Archaeologists, blames Greece's creditors for exposing its cultural heritage to plunder.

"If you go to a country and you destroy the country and make everyone poor and say that this country is in danger, this country is at war, this country is the Titanic, that we deliberately want to dismantle the public sector of Greece, then you say to private collectors that you may order whatever you want from a Greek museum," she says.

Yannis Mavrikopolous, president of the Museum Guards union, says as the economic and social crisis deepens, illegal digging increases.

"Greece is one big archaeological park," Mavrikopolous says. "With growing poverty, more and more people are turning into tomb raiders working for shady art dealers."

Olympia archaeologist Kostantinos Antonopoulos says antiquities are in need of special safeguards.

"They are like children, they cannot protect themselves," he says. "We will appeal to other European — and not only [European] — countries to [help us] make a shield for this cultural heritage."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

To Greece now, and one impact of severe cuts in the public sector. The country's international creditors have demanded the cuts in exchange for billions in loans to help Greece avoid default.

But as NPR's Sylvia Poggioli tells us, the austerity measures are endangering Greece's vast cultural heritage. Sylvia takes us to Olympia, the site of a recent armed robbery.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS)

SYLVIA POGGIOLI BYLINE: This is the sanctuary of Zeus, the father of the gods. Lush pines and olive groves are filled with chirping birds. The one guard at the site looks nervously at the few visitors.

There's still a sense of shock in Olympia following the theft last month at the Museum of the Olympic Games, when armed robbers broke into the building and tied up the single guard on duty.

Archaeologist Konstantinos Antonopoulos says they ran off with 77 priceless objects.

KONSTANTINOS ANTONOPOULOS: There were votive figurines, chariots, horses; but the most precious and valuable exhibit that they took was a golden ring of the Mycenaean time. And it had a picture on it, very important, from the early times of the games.

BYLINE: That ring was more than 3,000 years old.

Even before the economic crisis, Greek governments were never generous in safeguarding the antiquities of the cradle of civilization. Less than one percent of the budget was earmarked for the country's hundreds of museums, archaeological sites and monuments. The Ministry of Culture says austerity policies have cut that sum in half. Ten percent of the culture ministry's archaeologists have been either laid off or forced to retire. And the number of guards has also been cut in half, to less than 2,000.

Nemea is another major archaeological site, with an imposing temple in honor of the god Zeus. But today is Sunday.

PROFESSOR STEPHEN MILLER: It's closed and the reason it's closed is because there are not enough guards to keep it open.

BYLINE: Archaeologist Stephen Miller looks nervously at the site's thin, wire fence. He's the former director of excavations at Nemea, carried out under the auspices of U.C. Berkeley. He's known for his discovery of the ancient stadium where Pan-Hellenic games were held.

Miller is angry with Greece's international creditors – the IMF, the E.U. Commission and European Central Bank, known collectively as the Troika – for a policy of indiscriminate budget slashing.

MILLER: It's very shortsighted. This is the last place you should make your cuts. I would like to think the Troika would understand that. The antiquities of Greece are not recognized for what they are, and that is the treasure of Greece, the resource that Greece has that is unique to Greece.

BYLINE: Greeks are alarmed by the increased risk to their cultural heritage. Just a few weeks before the Olympia robbery, Athens' National Gallery was the victim of the first theft in its 112-year history. There, too, there was only one guard.

The loot included a Mondrian and a Picasso that had been a gift of the artist to the Greek people, in recognition of their resistance to the Nazi occupation.

Despina Katsoumba, president of the Union of Greek Archaeologists, is convinced both robberies were carried out on commission. She blames Greece's creditors for exposing its cultural heritage to plunder.

DESPINA KATSOUMBA: If you go to a country and you destroy the country and you make everyone poor, then say that this country is in danger, this country is in war, this country is the Titanic; that we deliberately want to dismantle the public sector of Greece, you say to private collectors - you may order whatever you want from a Greek museum.

BYLINE: Olympia archaeologist Kostantinos Antonopoulos says antiquities are in need of special safeguards.

ANTONOPOULOS: They are like children, they cannot protect themselves. We will appeal to other European and not only countries to make a shield for cultural heritage.

BYLINE: Greek archaeologists are preparing a campaign to ask for international help and solidarity to protect a cultural heritage that belongs not only to Greece but to the entire world.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Athens. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.