Greece struggles to protect sites

Inhabited for thousands of years, the environs of Athens and other Greek cities are dotted with an archaeological wealth that rarely appears in even the best of guidebooks. Hidden behind overgrown weeds, apartment blocks or simply lying in a corner of the countryside are the remains of dozens of ancient settlements unearthed by archaeologists and subsequently abandoned, simply because the Greek state lacks the capacity to catalog them all. «It’s not possible to clean and preserve everything; it would take a lot of money to weed all the sites and fence them off,» says Athina Hadzidimitriou, secretary of the union of Greek archaeologists. One of those sites is Lamptres, an ancient settlement near Koropi, some 50 kilometers (30 miles) east of Athens. Another is Megalohori, an ancient coastal village 170 kilometers south of the capital that has been left to the elements for the past 30 years, according to local authorities. Part of the problem lies with Greece’s legislation on antiquities, which complicates efforts to care for these sites. Under Greek law, each time a potentially valuable discovery is made during the construction of a new building, all activity must stop until archaeologists can inspect the find. But with so many Greek towns built over or near ancient settlements, ministry workers spend more time responding to the calls of town-based property owners than taking care of existing discoveries elsewhere. «Like Italy, Greece is rich in antiquities, (so rich that) it is impossible to take a full inventory, it would require a lot of money,» says Maya Komvou, an archaeologist and director of administration at the Ministry of Culture. Greece currently spends a meager 0.7 percent of its annual budget on culture, supplementing the maintenance of its archaeological sites with European Union funds. Komvou at the Culture Ministry notes that a number of small sites have been restored in this fashion, including the ancient theater of Argos in the Peloponnese, the prehistoric site of Emporio on the island of Rhodes, and the ancient site of Kathrea on the island of Kea. Next in line to open to the public «soon» are the ancient mines of Lavrion, a town 60 kilometers south of Athens whose silver ingots bankrolled the legendary Athenian trireme fleet of antiquity in the 5th and 6th centuries BC. «Our goal is to preserve a certain geographical balance between regions, and an historical one between ancient and Byzantine sites,» with the ancient sites demanding the most funds, says Komvou. Some archaeologists argue that given the growing volume of global heritage, preserving everything is impossible. «The big problem with archaeological activity is that people cordon off areas that cannot be protected,» says Dominique Mulliez, director of the French Archaeological School at Athens. «One has to have the courage to say that not everything merits the same treatment,» Mulliez adds. «I’m a bit worried about this tendency to worship the smallest piece of wall that comes out of the earth,» he said.