A barefoot Chinese woman with the train of her wedding dress trailing along the narrow footpath struck a posed in front of the caldera and took a selfie. They say a picture is worth a thousand words and, in this case, also thousands of yuan, considering the hefty price of traveling to the Aegean island of Santorini all the way from the distant Asian country. However, most visitors don’t just come for the sunsets – glorious as they may be. They also expect to soak up a bit of ancient culture, for which Greece is famed, and where better to find it than the Akrotiri archaeological site? After all, here they can see one of the world’s best-preserved prehistoric settlements, destroyed by a cataclysmic volcanic eruption circa the spring of 1615 BC.
People of all ages and nationalities were queuing outside the entrance to the archaeological site on a recent Sunday. According to early estimates regarding the current season, 2,000-3,000 people have been visiting the site every day. Ticket revenues go straight into the coffers of the state which then covers operational costs and staff salaries.
However, state funding to the Akrotiri site basically stopped four years ago. This means that excavation work only takes place every now and then these days. Meanwhile, the fresco conservation laboratory, which was set up in 1967 by leading experts including the late Tassos Margaritoff, has remained shut for most of this year due to lack of funding.
The images in these frescoes have become visual trademarks that virtually every gift shop and business on Santorini has capitalized on. Poor imitations of these fine artworks depicting people, animals and flowers can be seen on plastic bags, restaurant menus and in the form of kitsch souvenirs. Archaeologist Christos Doumas who first set foot in Akrotiri in 1968 knows the area like the back of his hand. He guides us around the site and we ask him whether he thinks that digging here should continue. After all, archaeologists have already unearthed the top parts – and in some cases entire floors – of 35 buildings.
“We must finish work at what is known as ‘Xeste 4,’ the largest and most luxurious building in the Akrotiri settlement,” Doumas says. Archaeologists have uncovered the fragments of frescoes that belong to a spectacular over-50-meter-long composition which adorned the walls on either side of the staircase at the entrance to the building depicting life-size male figures ascending the steps in procession. “More research has to be made at the point where archaeologists found the golden goat idol,” he says.
Dozens of frescoes that have been restored are protected there between styrofoam sheets. “Mice love styrofoam. Who can guarantee that the place will not be invaded by rodents if there are no people left to work here?” Doumas says.
The authorities may have turned their back on Akrotiri, but locals are aware of its huge significance – not only as a tourist attraction but also as part of Santorini’s heritage, just like the island’s unique morphology.
The people of Santorini, tourism professionals as well as ordinary citizens, support the Society for the Promotion of Studies on Prehistoric Thera. A large number of people attended an event organized last month under the auspices of the municipality, featuring music, food as well as a silent auction and lottery. The aim was to collect money to resume the operations of the lab, even if that meant with fewer staff. The event was organized by chef Giorgos Hatzigiannakis with the help of the Estia cultural center, the Santorini of the Past cultural village and La Ponta tsambouna (Greek bagpipe) workshop. About 25,000 euros were collected that day.
Meanwhile, several Greek artists designed a series of beautiful souvenirs inspired by Akrotiri, including bags, bookmarks, mini frescoes and clay figurines. The cost was covered by the Society for the Promotion of Studies on Prehistoric Thera, which requested permission from the Archaeological Receipts Fund (TAPA) to make the items available at the now empty museum shop in Akrotiri. TAPA turned down the idea.
The society’s souvenirs have been made available at a makeshift stand near the site and organizers say they have been making 500 euros per day on average.
Meanwhile, the official Akrotiri gift shop makes an average of just 17 euros a day.