NEWS

Thousands of wannabe Indiana Joneses in Greece

Seekers of lost or hidden treasure in Greece can now exchange news on the Internet. They may share experiences and opinions, cross-check and collect information about the mountains of Macedonia, the caves in central Greece and Thrace and the highlands of the Peloponnese. Some of the sites advertise books about forgotten treasures, legends and stories of people who got rich quick. Most of the sites that refer to hidden treasures in Greece and present methods of locating them also carry advertising for metal detectors that can be ordered online. Other side of gambling «Treasure hunting in Greece is the other side of gambling,» said a former official in a prosecutor’s office, who worked for many years in Western Macedonia, where tales of hidden treasure abound. Given that Greece is a front-runner when it comes to legal gambling, it’s easy to believe what metal detector sales staff claim, that «half of Greece is hunting for treasure.» Moreover, more than 3,000 metal detectors are sold in Greece every year, while in Ptolemaida a local newspaper reported that an unofficial treasure-hunting office is in operation. Armed with metal detectors, secret maps or «reliable information» from relatives and the descendants of resistance fighters or left-wing partisans who went to the Soviet Union and never returned, today’s treasure hunters set off for the mountains and gorges of Greece – often after spending considerable sums; a metal detector costs 4,000 euros – in search of fabled treasures, cargoes of gold sovereigns, Ottoman hoards and pirates’ loot. But the hunt is not always bloodless. Treasure seekers often come to grief. Many have lost their lives (30 since 1988), been injured or encountered serious danger in search of some treasure. Recent examples include the case of three youths who were trapped in the Bareta shaft at Mount Pangaio in November 2006 and had to be rescued by a special team, as well as the death a month later of another treasure seeker, aged 45, at Nigrita in Serres. The most deadly site for treasure hunters has been Mount Pangaio, where four friends who were hunting for treasure died in a shaft eight years ago. There are thousands of would-be Indiana Joneses in northern Greece. Since the 1960s, the fever has spread so much that in some villages in the prefectures of Kilkis, Kozani, Grevena, Pieria, Pella, Halkidiki, Kavala and Serres, half the inhabitants have taken part in treasure hunts. The main sites they explore are old bridges, church and chapel floors, monastery courtyards and walls, ruins of old buildings which used to house public offices, abandoned mills, labyrinthine caves and the hideouts of partisans and bandits that are associated with stories and myths about pirates and Jews from the time of Turkish rule and the German Occupation. After Pangaio, the mountains that have been most often excavated are Vermio, Paiko and Bourinos (in Kozani), at the peak of which treasure hunters blew up caves and extracted tons of rock only to conclude, as they often do, that «someone else beat us to it.» Contemporary treasure seekers walk a fine line between legality and illegality. In hundreds of areas, illegal excavations have caused irreparable damage: The wall paintings of Kavala, the stone bridges of Zagori, the Lamp Cave on Mount Parnitha, Chryssi in Pella, and the Moutsialis Monastery in Pieria are just a few examples. As police officers and archaeologists say, treasure hunting is very close to antiquity theft. Two recent cases are typical. During a legal search at Ermakia in Kozani last November, three treasure hunters discovered a Byzantine tomb. While searching at night, another treasure hunter found 100 significant antiquities, which he later confessed to the village priest. Most groups of treasure seekers only request excavation permits from prefecture or archaeology authorities when they have no other choice. Almyros in Vilos, Gonnoi in Larissa (where hunters had to remake the square they destroyed while searching for treasure), Diavata and the Phoenix Turkish baths in Thessaloniki, Ermakia, Myriofyto in Kilkis and Margariti in Thesprotia are some of the areas that have been legally dug up by excavating machines in recent years.