Text Size



Giorgos Vavouranakis


The recent thefts of paintings from the National Gallery in Athens and of ancient artifacts from Olympia, home of the ancient Olympic Games, have resulted in a loss to Greek cultural heritage. These are not isolated incidents, but part of a wider trend in which Greek cultural heritage, both ancient and modern, finds itself exposed to danger. The seriousness of the situation can be judged by the long list of Greek buildings which are considered to be under threat [1]. This is an issue of wider interest, not only due to the global cultural appeal of Greek antiquities, but also to the fact that it constitutes a new type of heritage threat. The case of Greece shows how it is possible for cultural heritage protection to become undermined, even in an until recently prosperous state, a member of the European Union, with a long history of participation in all international heritage institutions and an up-to-date national heritage legislation. This paper focuses on Greek antiquities and argues that the recent and still ongoing Greek economic crisis is rendering them vulnerable. The crisis has created short-term administrative problems and has highlighted the long-term structural deficiencies of heritage management in Greece. However, the deeper roots of the problem should be sought in the role played by antiquities in Greek identity. The complexities inherent in this identity affect the relationship between heritage protection, economic development, government administration and the wider public.


1. Features and Short-term Causes of the Antiquities Crisis

According to the current heritage law (No. 3028/2002), all antiquities in Greece belong to the state. As a result, the former Ministry and - since 2012 - General Secretariat of Culture (GSC) is the main heritage institution in the country. The few private collections and private museums in Greece are under strict GSC control, and they frequently rely upon state funding. The GSC is directly responsible for all excavations and other archaeological fieldwork, while university projects, both Greek and non-Greek, are only supervised by the GSC. Private development may include excavation work, especially for large-scale development projects, but, until recently, archaeologists had to be hired through the GSC. Local authorities and the Church may undertake restoration projects, and these are also strictly supervised by the GSC. As a result of this centralized state control, the deeper the economic crisis, the more extensive are its effects upon antiquities in Greece.

Contrary to a recent argument [2] that artworks are more endangered by managerial neglect than by economic deficiencies, the example of Greece demonstrates that budget cuts have resulted in significant administrative problems. Personnel cuts across the government sector in 2011 reduced the number of available security guards [3], leaving antiquities increasingly exposed to looting [4]. In addition, research projects have been stalled, because museum storerooms remain locked, while major museums and archaeological sites, such as the National Archaeological Museum, the Acropolis of Athens, Delphi and Knossos remain partly closed during tourist peak periods. Personnel cuts have also affected the scientific staff of GSC, especially experienced people in executive positions, many of whom have been forced to retire early, in order to reduce government salary spending. Furthermore, temporary staff, who are crucially important during the peak tourist season, have been dramatically reduced as well.

The origin of such problems can be traced back to the administrative over-stretching of the GSC over the last 10 years [5], during which the Greek state attempted to combine traditional government administration with a more up-to-date heritage management system. These changes were largely prompted by the preparation for the Olympic Games in 2004 and the influx of European Union funding through the so-called 3rd Community Support Framework for Greece from 2000 to 2006 [6]. In spite of such support and given the upcoming staff cuts, the GSC is facing a significant challenge in the management of EU funds, that Greece continues to accept, and in the completion of ongoing restoration and conservation projects. The inability to manage the transition to a new system is critical, because Greece needs to urgently fast track development projects, as a remedy to the economic crisis, and to effectively supervise the archaeological excavations, linked to such projects. The GSC has responded to these challenges by embracing unregulated privatization of its activities and outsourcing of its services [7].


2. The Structural Problems of Greek Heritage Administration and Management

Admittedly, the privatization of archaeology and cultural heritage management and the retreat of the GSC into a supervisory role are not negative prospects in themselves. They do, however, become problematic when viewed as a sign of the long-term structural deficiencies of the GSC, particularly its inability to develop effective regulatory mechanisms and its failure to keep pace with advances in archaeological practices. Such deficiencies are related to the history and evolution of the GSC [8]. Since its foundation as a discrete Ministry in 1973, the GSC has attempted to leave behind the traditional organization of antiquities protection, which was controlled by largely autonomous regional services, single-handedly run by the heroic, scholarly and authoritative figures of the ephors. An effort was made, during the Eighties and Nineties, to create an administrative mechanism that would operate according to a set of rules rather than to personal initiatives and wishes [9]. During the last 20 years, this effort shifted towards the notion of management [10], so as to absorb EU funding effectively.

Despite both positive intentions and noticeable progress, especially regarding the effective response to the urban and tourist growth of Greece since the Sixties, the operation of the GSC remains excessively dependent on the efforts of a few individuals. Authority, and thus responsibility, is still confined to high executive levels, while the long term underfunding of the GSC, which has never exceeded 0.5% of the annual state budget, has inevitably restricted the efficiency of the agency to personal initiatives. At the same time, even positive initiatives are frequently undermined by a lack of morals and an overgrown bureaucracy. The current problems have many causes including: repeated salary cuts, labyrinthine administrative procedures, (due to the parallel expansion of both central and regional services of the GSC since 2003) and, finally, the incomplete digitization of administrative procedures.

Such an atmosphere has meant a gradual loss of the scholarly status and credentials of the scientific personnel of the GSC. For example, the requirement to hold a Ph.D. in order to become an ephor was abolished in 1984 and it has only recently been reinstated [11]. Also, the organizational chart of the GSC has never included specialized personnel, such as environmental archaeologists, bioarchaeologists or archaeometry specialists. The main Greek archaeological journal, the «Archaiologikon Deltion» (Archaeological Bulletin), was not published in between 2002 and 2012.

In such a degraded scholarly atmosphere staff feel discouraged from undertaking post-graduate studies and pursuing their research interests. Also, potential advances in the discipline of archaeology have been neglected, with serious ramifications [12]. Emphasis now falls upon the monuments themselves, rather than upon their contexts, (with noticeable exceptions). This affects the quality of both excavation data and museum exhibitions. Moreover, it undermines actions against illegal trafficking of antiquities, since the main argument against looting is the loss of archaeological context [13]. Consequently, the GSC now sees antiquities as state property to be administered, rather than as cultural artifacts to be managed through coherent national heritage policies. Such a monolithic approach implicitly restricts the interest in monuments to trained specialists and does not allow the development of a dynamic public archaeology, despite the plethora of GSC educational programmes in museums and archaeological sites. It also prevents the integration of cultural and economic policies, in other words, of tourism and economic development.


3. Antiquities and the Public in Greece: a Historical View

Because of the reasons outlined so far, Greeks feel ambivalent towards their archaeological heritage. On the one hand, they are proud of it, because it constitutes a major cornerstone of Greek identity. On the other hand, they consider it a threat to economic development and daily life. Antiquities are accepted only as heterotopias [14], places outside society, cast as cultural sanctuaries [15]. I wish to further dwell upon public awareness of archaeology in Greece, because of its importance for the protection of monuments. After all, the abundance of antiquities in Greece makes it unreasonable to think that relatively few people, i.e. archaeologists, architects, conservators and guards, would be able to safeguard every single Greek monument against looting or illegal developments. Only a greater degree of public awareness might be able to effectively protect a country so rich in antiquities.

This ambivalent approach to antiquities is deeply rooted in the beginning of the nineteenth century when the modern Greek state [16] emerged from the war of independence against the Ottoman Empire. Greece was eventually placed under the auspices of the great powers of the time, namely Britain, France and Russia. In 1834, after a short period of local government, the three powers appointed Otto I, the son of the Bavarian king Ludwig I, as king of Greece. Otto’s Bavarian officers set out to create the administrative infrastructure of the new state. Influenced by the romantic and neo-classicist high esteem for Greek Antiquity and faced with the obvious difference between the nineteenth century Greeks and their ancient ancestors, they took measures to divorce Greece from its Ottoman past, re-connect it with its glorious antiquity and transform it into a European state. Such measures included new town plans with roads at right angles [17], civic buildings, a university and a new capital city [18], namely Athens. Care for antiquities became part of this externally imposed Europeanization project of the Bavarian administration [19].

In the twentieth century, monuments became and remained an issue of national identity through the territorial expansion of the Greek state until the Twenties [20], the rise of fascism in the Thirties [21], the western allegiance of Greece during the Cold War in the Fifties and Sixties [22] and the dictatorship of the late Sixties and early Seventies.

This attitude transformed but survived in the Eighties through socialist-populist policies such as the claim for the Parthenon marbles and also in the Nineties, through the Greek reaction to FYROM’s (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) challenge of the history and national identity of Macedonia after the fall of the Balkan communist regimes [23]. In this context, classical Antiquity was prioritized at the expense of the Greek Prehistoric and Byzantine past [24], since Classical monuments linked Greece to Western ideals. Hence, an antiquarian and historicist narrative on the monuments and the past were promoted [25] and monuments became the exclusive realm of specialists [26], be they Bavarian administrators or Greek scholars. As a consequence, academic discourse on antiquities and their protection became an issue of external imposition upon the public. This is the origin of the ambivalent attitude of the Greeks towards antiquities, since they embraced the notion of an identity with roots in the glorious ancient past, but they were never allowed to actively participate in its production. The GSC still rests on the foundation of this static narrative or, more accurately, by this state-public dichotomy regarding past monuments, either implicitly or explicitly.


Conclusions and Future Directions: from Monument to Knowledge

It has been argued that the Greek economic crisis has created problems in the running of the GSC, the heritage institution par excellence in Greece. In reality, these problems have been added to an already over-stretched organization with long term structural deficiencies, most of which stem from an incomplete transformation of the old, scholarly administration, overly reliant on a few individuals, to an up-to-date heritage management one. The deeper roots of these issues lie in the importance of antiquities for the national identity of Greece and in the static narrative on the past, which prevents the formation of a comprehensive cultural policy and essentially alienates the public from its archaeological heritage. Such a state/public disjuncture has significant implications for the future protection of monuments in Greece, because the most probable scenario for the future of the GSC is that of extensive privatization of its activities and outsourcing of its services. This will result in a changed role for the GSC: from main curatorial organization to simple supervisory institution. In a situation where the Greek economy is in desperate need of large-scale development projects to revive its economy, only greater public awareness might be able to ensure more respect for ancient monuments, which, in turn, will ensure their safety.

It has been suggested that public awareness may be increased by allowing people to fully engage with the monuments even in non-scholarly and unconventional ways [27]. However, an uncritical acceptance of such a proposal would compromise the safety of the monuments, due to their long-term alienation from the public.

A bottom-up engagement with antiquities requires a top-down transformation first, which hinges upon an expanded horizon and the transformation of the public discourse on the past, from the existing static narrative, to an exploration of the many different ways in which the public could understand their past through the monuments. This way forward would lead to the formation of a new heritage narrative away from the fetishisation of monuments and towards the production of knowledge about the past through these monuments.

Such a transformation would not only lead to a new national, and for the first time comprehensive and dynamic, cultural heritage policy, but, more importantly, it would constitute a feasible goal for the future of GSC. Its supervisory role would largely revolve around the monitoring of excavation, restoration and heritage promotion projects, possibly - and at least partly - around the management of archaeological sites and museums and, finally, around the keeping of relevant archives about all the above activities. The control of the production and dissemination of knowledge about the past is then the only viable and fruitful way to supervise (semi-) private heritage projects and ensure sustainability of their primary subject matter, namely the monuments themselves, while allowing the people to actively engage with them and feel invested in their protection.


Monumenta, Monuments at Risk, in Monumenta, Athens, 2012, <http://www.monumenta.org>.
[2] T. Cremers, Museum takeaways, in «Museums Journal», 112, May 2012, <http://www.museumsassociation.org/museums-journal/comment/01052012-how-to-combat-museum-takeaways>.
[3] According to the official report, the National Gallery at Athens had been able to afford only half the necessary night guards during the night of the artwork theft in January 2011. Π. Ζάρρας και Τ. Καββαθάς, Έκθεση αποτελεσμάτων ελέγχου. Αντικείμενο: «τον έλεγχο των µέτρων φύλαξης και των συνθηκών ασφαλείας που έχουν ληφθεί στην Εθνική Πινακοθήκη - Μουσείο Αλεξάνδρου Σούτζου», Αθήνα, 2012, <http://www.gedd.gr>.
[4] Greece is after all one of the main targets of antiquities looters. For statistics since 1930 see Σ. Μπουτοπούλου, Δέσμη μέτρων και ενεργειών της Διεύθυνσης Μουσείων, Εκθέσεων και Εκπαιδευτικών Προγραμμάτων για την προστασία των πολιτιστικών αγαθών από την παράνομη διακίνηση: διαπιστώσειςεπισημάνσεις, in Η προστασία των Πολιτιστικών Αγαθών από την Παράνομη Διακίνηση και η Διεκδίκησή τους. Πρακτικά διημερίδας, (24-25 Σεπτεμβρίου 2008, Νέο Μουσείο Ακρόπολης,) επιμ. Σ. Μπουτοπούλου, Μ. Μούλιου, Σ. Καλλιώδη, Β. Σακελλιάδης, Αθήνα, 2008, pp. 57-70.
The expansion of the GSC organizational chart was effected in 2003, with Presidential Decree (henceforth PD) No. 191/2003.
E.g. see L. Mendoni, Greeting, in Enhancement and Promotion of Cultural Heritage, Proceedings of the Seminar Held in the Context of the Greek Presidency of the European Union under the Auspices of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture (Athens-Delphi 17-19 March 2003), Athens, 2006, pp. 27-30.
[7] For example and according to a recent law (No. 4072/2012) on the improvement of the business environment in Greece, the responsibility for the selection of archaeological personnel in public works passes from the GSC to the developer, while the GSC only retains a supervisory role.
[8] For the history of archaeological legislature and institutions see Β.Χ. Πετράκος, Δοκίμιο για την αρχαιολογική νομοθεσία, Αθήνα, 1982.
[9] Critictal approach by Α. Ζώης, Η Αρχαιολογία στην Ελλάδα. Πραγματικότητες και Προοπτικές, Αθήνα, 1994, pp. 18-24.
L. Kolonnas, Management of Archaeological Sites and Monuments, in Enhancement and Promotion, cit., pp. 47-48, esp. p. 48.
Cfr. Πετράκος, Δοκίμιο, cit. pp. 50-51, PD 941/1977 and Law No. Ν.4024/2011.
See papers in A. Stroulia, S.B. Sutton, Archaeology in Situ: Sites, Archaeology, and Communities in Greece, Lanham, 2010.
N. Brodie, J. Doole, P. Watson, Stealing History: The Illicit Trade in Cultural Material, Cambridge, 2000, pp. 10-11, <http://www.mcdonald.cam.ac.uk/projects/iarc/research/illicit_trade.pdf>.
E. Solomon, Knossos: Social Uses of a Monumental Landscape, in Archaeology and European Modernity: Producing and Consuming the “Minoans”, ed. by Y. Hamilakis and N. Momigliano, «Creta Antica», 7, 2006, pp. 145-162.
Y. Hamilakis, E. Yialouri, Sacralising the Past: The Cults of Archaeology in Modern Greece, in «Archaeological Dialogues», 6, 2, December 1999, pp. 115-135.
See A.J. Petropoulos, Politics and Statecraft in the Kingdom of Greece: 1833-1843, Princeton New Jersey, 1968.
V. Hastaoglou-Martinidis, K. Kafkoula, N. Papamichos, Urban Modernization and National Renaissance: Town Planning in 19th century Greece, in «Planning Perspectives», 8, 4, 1993, pp. 427-469.
E. Bastéa, The Creation of Modern Athens. Planning the Myth, Cambridge, 2000.
Α. Παπαγεωργίου-Βενετάς, Πόλεις και μνημεία στην Ελλάδα του Όθωνος, Αθήνα, 2010.
A. Alexandri, Names and Emblems: Greek Archaeology, Regional Identities and National Narratives at the Turn of the 20th century, in «Antiquity», 76, 291, 2002, pp. 191-199.
D. Kokkinidou, M. Nikolaidou, On the Stage and behind the Scenes: Greek Archaeology in Times of Dictatorship, in Archaeology under Dictatorship, ed. by M.L. Galaty and C. Watkinson, New York, 2004, pp. 155-190.
Y. Hamilakis, The Other Parthenon, in «Journal of Modern Greek Studies», 20, 2002, pp. 307-338.
K. Kotsakis, The Past is ours. Images of Greek Macedonia, in Archaeology under Fire, ed. by L. Meskell, London and New York, 1998, pp. 53-54.
The latter were initially highlighted selectively, when and wherever they complemented they could further support the main national identity discourse. They were fully incorporated in the frame of heritage protection in the course of the twentieth century. See Y. Hamilakis, E. Yialouri, Antiquities as Symbolic Capital in Modern Greek Society, in «Antiquity», 70, 267, 1996, pp. 117-129; K. Kotsakis, Paths to Modernity: Dimitrios R. Theocharis and the Post-war Greek Prehistory, in A Singular Antiquity. Archaeology and Hellenic identity in Twentieth-century Greece (Mouseio Benaki 3rd Supplement), ed. by D. Damaskos and D. Plantzos, Athens, 2008, pp. 174-183.
K. Kotsakis, Ideological Aspects of Contemporary Archaeology in Greece, in The Impact of Classical Greece on European and National Identities, Proceedings of the International Colloquium (Netherlands Institute, Athens, 2-4 October 2000), ed. by M. Haagsma, P. de Boer and E.M. Moormann, Amsterdam, 2003, pp. 55-70.
Y. Hamilakis La trahison des archeologues? Archaeological Practice as Intellectual Activity in Postmodernity, in «Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology», 12, 1, 1999, pp. 60-79.
Y. Hamilakis, Decolonizing Greek archaeology: Indigenous Archaeologies, Modernist Archaeology and the Post-colonial Critique, in A Singular Antiquity, cit. pp. 273-284, esp. p. 280.