‘Prevention is everything’

Archaeologist and university professor Petros Themelis has been conducting excavations for the past few years at Ancient Messene. «Prevention is everything and it doesn't exist. Everything requires planning. The local ephors are not to blame, the fault lies at the top. There is serious indifference and ignorance. There is no continuity in the state services, people keep changing posts,» he said, adding: «Studies have been done and local ephors around the country have made requests, even to buy land surrounding the archaeological sites so protection zones can be created around the sites. But it is a financial question and the request has to be approved by the central services.» He said the actual environment at Olympia was conducive to fires. «It is full of pine trees, the worst type of trees for an archaeological site. The Sacred Grove of Zeus was a riverside forest in antiquity but it didn't have pines but laurels and wild olive trees. There used to be funds to clear undergrowth but now there is no money. Apart from Ancient Olympia, Ileia has dozens of other important archaeological sites that have been damaged as they have never been cleared of undergrowth.» Themelis has set up a non-profit organization sponsored by the Costopoulos Foundation, the Niarchos Foundation and the European Union, among others, and has bought 35 hectares around Ancient Messene, thereby setting up broad protection zones with automatic watering systems and water supplies. «Fortunately, Messene has not yet been burnt, and never will be,» he said. «The existing fire-extinguishing systems at archaeological sites are not effective in such strong winds that burn everything in their path. They are systems that water the area and keep it wet but they must be maintained, and experts must by on standby. There is no maintenance staff.» Archaeologist Xeni Arapoyianni, who was Ileia's ephor for 16 years and is now ephor in Messinia, said Ancient Olympia's monuments need to be protected from flooding and to be subject to a restoration program. «The important thing in Olympia is to safeguard the Olympic landscape,» she said. «In my 16 years there, the main concern was to protect the area from the beginning of summer. Firebreaks were made around the site in cooperation with the forestry service. Fire trucks and firemen were always on hand. We had good cooperation from the army units stationed around Olympia, a group of fire guards who patrolled the site day and night. There was a board set up with instructions on what everyone had to do in the event of fire. Workers were on continual duty to clear underbrush and anything else flammable. That is what we used to do because there was always great concern. In recent years, they have had the fire extinguishers, an advanced, complicated system that needed special handling and maintenance. It encircled Olympia and the museums and was turned on twice a day to keep the soil moist.» The Culture Ministry has not yet given a full answer as to what happened on August 26 other than issue statements that raise more questions than they answer.