2,300-year-old tomb-guarding girls revive Greek cultural hopes

When Greek archaeologists brushed away sandy soil to reveal two female statues guarding a tomb in Amphipolis this month, they put more than the 2,300-year-old town on the map.

After six years of recession and belt-tightening, a country riveted by the finds from the vast circular burial mound has put funding for culture back on the agenda. Ever since Prime Minister Antonis Samaras scrambled over the site in mid-August heat, dwarfed by the 1.5-meter sphinxes at the outer entrance, speculation has swirled about whose tomb it may be: Alexander the Great, his wife Roxana or perhaps his successor Cassander.

For culture ministry officials meeting in a darkened amphitheater in Athens two weeks after Samaras’s televised tour, it didn’t really matter. The public interest, stoked by near- daily press releases and photographs, has put the ancient world back in the spotlight and thrown into sharp relief the diminishing amounts archeology and culture in general get from a shrinking pool of resources after six years of recession.

“It doesn’t matter who’s inside,” said Lina Mendoni, the culture ministry secretary-general. “Amphipolis has already won because it has this important monument. The crisis has had its effect on cultural sponsorship. But culture, especially Greek culture, always draws the attention of people.”

Europe’s austerity drive cut spending on everything from museum exhibitions to site guards. In Greece, the crisis epicenter hit by austerity measures it accepted in exchange for 240 billion euros ($311 billion) in loans, officials like Mendoni are now making the case that money for renovations, restorations, digs and exhibitions will have a knock-on effect on growth, tourism and jobs.

‘A necessity’

The culture ministry’s funding has been cut by half since 2010 as money has been diverted to reduce a budget gap that soared to nearly 16 percent of output. The economic downturn also shrank the pool of funds available from private donors. Foreign archaeological schools, some in Greece for centuries, have had funds cut in their home countries.

Culture officials are now seeking a piece of European funds set to be distributed for the next six years. Greece has already had 730 million euros allocated for some 640 cultural projects from a previous funding program.

“Funding for culture is not a luxury,” Mendoni said at the August 28 seminar, citing European studies that show the cultural sector added 4.5 percent to the region’s gross domestic product, more than the car industry. “It’s a necessity.”

Investments in culture are a driver for the economy, creating jobs and spurring private investments, she said.

Pantheon, Colosseum

Greece hasn’t been alone in sacrificing spending on culture with a slumping economy and falling government revenue. In France — home to the Louvre Museum and the Paris Opera — the culture budget has shrunk by 2 percent in each of the last two years. The government has started seeking donations to restore monuments such as the Pantheon in Paris in exchange for a name inscription on a door of the building.

In Rome, the Italian government has opted to lure companies and private sponsors to fund works on sites such as the Colosseum, the largest amphitheater in the world.

“It’s something they have to start thinking about,” said Epaminondas Farmakis, who runs Athens-based Elpis, a consultancy for donors. “When there’s austerity the almost automatic reaction is to cut funding for arts and culture.”

While Mendoni was watching the caryatids coming out of the dirt of Amphipolis on the weekend of September 6, Samaras was announcing the end of Greece’s recession about 99 kilometers (61 miles) away in Thessaloniki, the city named for Alexander’s sister. Growth will return in the next quarter, he said.

Samaras’s burden

While the European Commission forecasts Greece’s economy to expand 0.6 percent this year, the first annual expansion since 2007, Samaras will still need to stay the course on budget discipline and other economic reforms as he works on capping a debt load that’s about 177 percent of GDP.

Samaras knows all about the cost of cuts on the arts. As culture minister in June 2009 he had to scale back a gala opening of the New Acropolis Museum, built after three decades to press Greece’s case for the British Museum to return missing sculptures from the Parthenon.

Just months later George Papandreou won elections and revealed that Greece’s deficit was four times larger than European Union rules, sparking a four-year crisis that shaved a quarter off national output, put 1 million Greeks out of work and called into question the survival of the euro.

Greece may now need to get over its aversion to corporate sponsorships for culture, which has long been a motif.

Corporate sponsorships

In 1992, Coca-Cola Co.’s Italian office apologized to Greece after an outcry when it adapted the Parthenon’s white marble columns to resemble a Coke bottle, part of an ad campaign that transformed European landmarks like the Eiffel Tower and the Tower of Pisa into Coke bottles.

Greece called the advertisement an insult to the Parthenon and international culture. Tighter budgets since have made the country more accommodating.

The Stoa of Attalus, rebuilt by American archaeologists with funding from the Rockefeller family in the 1950s, is now available for corporate functions. “Excessive” permit costs for sites and museums for film crews and photographers were lowered in January 2012.

Still, Greece has yet to embrace corporate sponsorships like Italy, where Tod’s SpA, the luxury footwear maker, is financing the revamp of the Colosseum and Bulgari SpA is donating money to restore the Spanish steps.

“We don’t oppose private sponsorship, we are careful how the sponsor will be promoted,” said Mendoni. “They cannot put up a banner on the monument that’s being sponsored by them.”

Private money

Stephen Miller, professor emeritus of classical archeology at the University of California, Berkeley, has worked at the site of ancient Nemea since 1973 and has advocated allowing private companies to develop and protect sites.

“Many archaeologists within the ministry, as opposed to those in the universities, regard it as shameful to make money from the antiquities,” said Miller, who worked briefly on the Amphipolis site in 1970. “They fail to note that their salaries depend upon those antiquities and that they themselves are making money from them.”

The advantages of coordinated business planning are apparent in the New Acropolis Museum, said Farmakis. The museum has turned into the biggest draw-card among its peers in Greece, with adjacent pedestrianized roads luring tourists and locals alike to restaurants and bars, boosting the economy.

‘Regenerate Greece’

Farmakis said he’d like to see similar moves in Amphipolis.

“There doesn’t seem to be a strategic plan on what will happen with Amphipolis,” he said. “In Italy they would run scenarios on what would be found so each scenario would have a business plan associated with it.”

The time for a business plan for the site was never better, given the large-scale interest in the finding.

The Greek public is fascinated by the two towering female statues in intricate sleeved chitons, with long luxurious plaits resting on their shoulders and traces of red and yellow paint still visible on their feet.

Archaeologists have replaced economists and politicians on talk shows and news bulletins in Greece, in an echo of the intense interest sparked by the discovery of a Roman temple in central London in 1954, which captured the imagination of war- weary Londoners.

“What’s missing in Greece is hope,” said Farmakis. “It feels like endless austerity measures. In Amphipolis they see the hope of something new and untouched that could regenerate Greece.” [Bloomberg]

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