CULTURE

A big piece of natural history finally comes back to Greece

For paleontologists researching the evolution of the species, time has another dimension. The first mammals, large and small, appeared in Greece around 35 million years ago. Elephants, rhinoceroses, lions, hippopotamuses, horses, among others, started to become endemic to the Mediterranean and adapt accordingly. A paleontologist will tell you that until relatively recently, there were dwarf elephants on Tilos. This «recent» period dates to around 6,000 years ago, and is exceptionally recent if we consider that the dinosaurs disappeared 75 million years ago and the first vertebrate fish appeared 450 million years ago. It gives perspective to think that the field of paleontology terminated 10,000 years ago. It is also known that in the comparatively modern era of antiquity, there were lions and panthers in Greece (think of the mosaics at ancient Pella, which date to around 300 BC). The magical world of paleontology, a bridge between geology and biology, is practically unknown to the wider public, yet it has a strong tradition of research in Greece (from as early as the 19th century), and is today expanding through the geology departments of the universities of Athens, Thessaloniki and Patras. Occasionally it even produces news headlines of interest to the broader public, such as the 80 cases which arrived at the Geology Department of the University of Athens recently. They contained valuable material, which in fact was being repatriated. The material came from the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, and its return to Greek soil relates a tale which began with research carried out in Greece 40 and 50 years ago. «Holland itself may not be of exceptional geological interest, because of the morphology of the terrain, but the Dutch have a tradition in paleontological research,» said Professor C.S. Doukas, who was directly involved in the repatriation. In the past the University of Utrecht had organized missions purely for research purposes to the Mediterranean, and especially Spain and Greece, countries of great paleontological interest. Over the years an original collection of large mammals was gathered at Utrecht. The collection was well known within academic circles internationally, but, for economic reasons, the university ceased to conserve it. A new home had to be found. «The following dilemma was posed,» Professor Doukas said: «The material would either remain in Holland under new proprietorship, or it would be returned to its countries of origin.» The fortunate return of the Greek portion of the scientific material was a «diplomatic victory» for the University of Athens, which had to face strong Dutch competition. Large Dutch museums, such as the Museum of Natural History in Rotterdam and the Museum of the University of Leiden, wanted to acquire the splendid «Mediterranean» collection of Utrecht, using the argument that it belongs to the cultural heritage of the Netherlands, since it came to light thanks to Dutch science. On an initiative of the vice dean and president of the University of Athens’s Museums Committee, Professor Michail Dermitzakis, and the efforts of Professor Doukas (both of whom are paleontologists), the 80 cases arrived in Athens. Professor Doukas (who did his PhD in the Netherlands) had to face the Dutch national committee for the fossils, and managed to secure approval for the transfer of the material to Athens by appealing to a law of 1932 (the founding law of Athens University’s Paleontology Museum), which states that any fossils found within Greek territory are the possession of the museum. This argument was bolstered by the willingness of the University of Athens to assume the expenses for packaging and transport. A team of Greek paleontologists (Assi Antonarakou, Giorgos Lyras, Theodora Tsourou and Yiannis Dimitriou) went to Utrecht to pack the material. These same people will be in Athens to integrate it into the collection here.