Slow compensation thwarts fight against antiquity smuggling

Avraam Primoudis tries to keep his footing in the slippery mud. “There are monuments scattered all around,” he says pointing at the farmland around his property, just a few kilometers from the ancient tomb at ancient Amphipolis, Macedonia. I look, but I can’t see anything but plowed fields.

We are standing at the location where this farmer from the village of Nea Kerdylia in Serres had found a big hole after a spell of heavy rain. Inside lay a Hellenistic tomb filled with gold offerings.

“There were many things inside. A necklace, a ring with snake heads, a paper-thin gold foil with one stone on the edge,” Primoudis’s wife, Stella, says. “We gave all the stuff to the archaeological service. We’re no thieves. We want the antiquities to stay in Greece,” she says.

The archaeological service was already aware that the region held hidden artifacts. Primoudis’s farm and the neighboring land are considered an extension of ancient Amphipolis. In 1991, a team of archaeologists from Kavala led by Zisis Bonias arrived at the spot after receiving a phone call from Primoudis. By the end of the day, the team had unearthed the grave before covering it back with ground soil. A few years later, Primoudis would be compensated with more than 2 million drachmas (close to 6,000 euros) for handing over the findings which are now on display at the Archaeological Museum of Amphipolis. It was the largest amount of compensation ever paid out by the Culture Ministry.

“We found a 4th century BC box-shaped grave. Inside, we found a bronze mirror and jewelry, but it was just an ordinary grave,” Bonias says. The compensation was so big because authorities were trying to use Primoudis as an example in a campaign against illicit trade in antiquities, he says.

The area around Amphipolis has been dogged by illegal excavations and trade for decades. “Where I used to live it was common to trip over antiquities and then sell them. Their main concern was to make a living,” Mrs Primoudi says. When her husband decided to call the authorities, many fellow villagers reacted. “They said: ‘We’ve known each other since we were kids. Why didn’t you come to us?’” adds Primoudis, who is now 83 years old.

At the time Alexandros Kochliaridis was working as chief guard at the archaeological site. He was always urging locals to turn any artifacts they might spot in to the authorities. “The area down there is an endless necropolis. Because of the River Strymonas, it was a transit point and that is where they buried their dead,” he says. During works to widen the Amphipolis-Mesolakkia highway between 1992 and 2002, workers unearthed about 800 graves dating from the mid-5th century BC to the Late Roman Imperial years. Those that had not been looted contained rich offerings.

Despite the compensation paid to Primoudis, the tomb raids continued. In September 1999, police arrested two residents of Amphipolis and a farmer from Aidonohori, in Serres, on the Thessaloniki-Kavala highway as they were transporting 26 6th-5th century BC grave offerings to their cache. It was not the first time that the three had been arrested in connection to trading in illicit antiquities. “It’s in our blood,” one of the three had told police at the time of his arrest.

“One problem was that the state was too slow to give compensation to those who did turn in antiquities, and people were upset about that,” Kochliaridis says. Five years ago, a man in Hania on Crete handed in an ancient urn to the authorities. His compensation, 1,500 euros, only reached him in March, after an intervention by the Ombudsman.

It took two years for Primoudis to receive his compensation. But he kept handing in findings to the archaeologists. He has kept a record of all the letters exchanged with the Ministry of Culture. In 2000, he collected the last compensation, 135,000 drachmas, for other artifacts he discovered.