Greece’s ancient treasures are easy prey for thieves

Culture Ministry staff stepped up action this week to protest the imminent redundancy of short-term employees, which is expected to aggravate staff shortages, from administrative workers to museum guards. But understaffing – at excavations, in maintenance and preservation work, at museums and archaeological sites – is a chronic problem, since each successive government has simply shuffled off responsibility for a solution onto the next. Mycenae Ministerial heads have not yet announced a specific policy on hirings and no new hirings have been made since 1994, as is well known. But in some instances, the situation is very grim indeed. At Mycenae, for example, permanent staff have not been hired for for 14 years. At a major archaeological site that attracts many thousands of visitors, and which extends over 50 hectares (or 50,000 square meters), there are only 10 permanent employees to act as guards, together with 22 workers on short-term contracts that run out in November. There is only one night watchman, while the excavations remain unguarded. The situation at Mycenae is typical of the whole country. A recent case of antiquity theft was brought to the attention of this paper via a letter by K.G. Botopoulos. On Sunday, October 17, during a visit to Mycenae, Botopoulos witnessed an incident during which ancient finds were stolen from the site. An Italian tourist, he wrote, «under the noses of the short-term contract workers, used a simple hoe to extract small ancient artifacts, such as a piece of a figurine and shards of clay vessels, virtually undisturbed.» The tourist was arrested and taken to the nearest police station, he added, which «brought to light other important issues regarding the functioning of the state services in the area.» Information on the number of personnel at the archaeological site of Mycenae was supplied by G. Chronis, who is responsible for guarding the site. «Due to staff shortages, [he] was forced to cancel leave both for permanent night watchmen and for those on short-term contracts, who in fact do double shifts. «And as though that were not enough, a similar state of affairs seems to prevail at the local police station at Argos, according to statements by police officers. For the whole of the city and the surrounding police district, there only 22 officers, with the result that they are wholly unable to carry regular patrols.» If one of the foremost archaeological sites in the country suffers from such a dearth of personnel, then aspiring antiquities thieves must be having a grand old time in the remoter areas of the country. Manning Culture Ministry services to meet needs practically and in the long term must be addressed immediately, without rushing it in order to placate protesters. The situation at Mycenae is simply the tip of the iceberg.