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Archaeology becomes Greece's Achilles heel

ATHENS--Faced with massive public debt, Greece is finding that its fabled antiquity heritage is proving a growing burden — with licensed digs postponed, illegal ones proliferating, museum staff trimmed and valuable pieces stolen.

“Greece's historic remains have become our curse,” whispered an archaeologist at a recent media event organized to protest spending cuts imposed on the country for the past two years as a condition for European Union and International Monetary Fund loans.

With Greece moving into a fifth year of recession, licensed archaeology digs are finding it ever harder to obtain public funds while antiquity smuggling is on the rise, archaeologists warned at the meeting.

“There are an increasing number of illegal digs near archaeological sites,” said Despina Koutsoumba, head of the association of Greek archaeologists.

“Some of them are excavated by semi-professionals who work for art trafficking networks. Others are done by treasure hunters,” she told AFP.

Last month, Greek police arrested 44 people and recovered thousands of ancient coins and numerous Byzantine icons after smashing a large antiquity smuggling ring in northern Greece.

In October, another gang was arrested in possession of Macedonian golden grave offerings from the 6th century B.C. which were valued at some 11.3 million euros (US$14.8 million).

Some senior archaeologists have argued that given the lack of funds for archaeological research, it would be wiser to rebury valuable discoveries to better protect them.

“Let us leave our antiquities in the soil, to be found by archaeologists in A.D. 10,000, when Greeks and their politicians will perhaps show more respect to their history,” Michalis Tiverios, a professor of archaeology at Thessaloniki's Aristotelio University, told Ta Nea daily in early March.

For now, the penury seems to have spared the work of foreign archaeology schools which have helped bring to light some of the country's most important sites from the late 19th century onwards.

But even here, creative accounting is sometimes called for.

Resources Badly Stretched to Nonexistent

“The Greek state is obliged to provide a certain share of financing for each excavation,” said a foreign school representative, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“But as there's no more money available, we put in our budget calculations the use of state facilities such as storage areas or lots,” he said.

Greek archaeologists said last month that funding for the country's archaeological service fell by 35 percent to 12 million euros (US$15.7 million) last year, and will be further reduced this year.

One out of 10 culture ministry employees has been dismissed, and 3,500 temporary staff brought in to allow museums, sites and excavations to operate.

Greece's financial difficulties and staff shortages did not take long to attract unwanted attention.

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This March 18 photo shows antiquities at the National Archeological Museum in Athens. Faced with massive public debt as it moves into a fifth year of recession, Greece is finding that its fabled antiquity heritage is proving a growing burden. “Greece's historic remains have become our curse,” whispered an archaeologist worried about budgets that are badly stretched to nonexistent.

(AFP)

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