Friday, September 12, 2014

“Amphipolimania” strikes Greece and the future paths of archaeology and heritage management in Greece

Map of northern Greece
For the last six weeks Greece has been increasingly enraptured with the excavation of the huge burial mound at a locality called Kasta near Amphipolis in Macedonia. The circumference of the tumulus covering what appears to be a barrel-vaulted, multi-room tomb measures almost 500 m! It is encircled by a tall ashlar retaining wall built with marble from nearby Thasos. The late Demetrios Lazarides first recognized the importance of the site. The present excavation started a year and a half ago under the direction of Katerina Peristeri, the proistemeni of the KH’ Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities at Serres. Work resumed this summer. It is likely that the “Lion of Amphipolis” once stood on top of the tumulus covering the tomb.

View of Argilos
This region is well-known to CIG as Prof. Jacques Perreault and Dr. Zisis Bonias have been digging the Archaic and Classical site of ancient Argilos on the coast to the southwest of Amphipolis for many years. While the city was destroyed in 357 BC by Phillip II the construction of the impressive rural mansion on the acropolis is roughly contemporary with that of the tumulus. Since 1992 the Argilos excavation has stored and studied their finds in the Archaeological Museum of Amphipolis.

General view of the tumulus at Kasta; source:
The discovery of the entrance to the tomb, at the end of a nearly 5 m wide road, guarded by two (now headless and wingless) sphinges, stimulated much speculation as to who is buried in this monumental tomb which dates to the last decades of the 4th century BCE. Alexander the Great is often stated (despite ancient accounts of his tomb being in Alexandria), followed by Roxanne and their son Alexander IV who were murdered at Amphipolis, Alexander’s mother Olympias, as well as a general or an admiral of Alexander. The national TV news programs now follow the discoveries each day, bringing in experts and non-experts alike to hypothesize freely on whose tomb this is. One channel even interviewed a few local illegal antiquities diggers for their insights, as the looting of Macedonian tombs is unfortunately widespread in the region. Some foreign archaeologists have been bold enough as well to venture into the quicksand of this coverage, including Hector Williams (University of British Columbia). When a Greek learns that you are an archaeologist s/he immediately asks if it is the tomb of Alexander the Great!

What had been found as of September 9th: source Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sport
In order to provide accurate information and current images the Ministry of Culture and Sport posts press releases (in Greek only, to date) on its website ( every few days. This is the source of the official images that one can view in the digital media now. Others of the exterior have been taken by enterprising photographers from afar and from helicopters.

With tourists flocking to see the covered-up entrance to the tomb, locals selling souvenirs and refreshments and news crews camped out, the area around the tumulus has become a circus. Since yesterday visitors are not allowed in the immediate vicinity of the tumulus and police forces are guarding the excavation on a 24-hour basis. Last night the TV coverage showed the curious visiting the area of the site at night. Even the Prime Minister visited the excavation in August before the digging had gone beyond the sphinges. In all of this media coverage and public interest the emphasis unfortunately has been on more and more “exciting new discoveries”, and little or nothing on the praxis of archaeological fieldwork, the in situ conservation needs and the overall goals of archaeological research. Further, this archaeological feeding frenzy is a distraction from the many unresolved issues related to the country’s long-awaited economic recovery. The tomb is being used by some politicians as a new component in the traditional construction of the nation’s identity by reference to aspects of its past, especially in relationship to ancient Macedonia. This has set off a debate in the media and more so in the social media about appropriateness of such use of antiquities in the national discourse. The Union of Greek Archaeologists has reacted sharply to the government’s handling of the media coverage and its direct intervention into the archaeological process.

Regrettably this overemphasis on the excavation of one ancient monument, unique and spectacular as it is (and which may well have been looted more than once), obscures the general state of archaeology in Greece today. On August 29th a new law was proclaimed by presidential decree which radically re-organizes and downsizes the Ministry and the Hellenic Archaeological Service as of October 1st. It is ironic that the outpouring of public support for this excavation by senior members of the government and others did not protect Ms. Peristeri from the incorporation of her Ephorate into the Ephorate of Byzantine Antiquities based in Kavala.

There is pressure to privatize the major archaeological museums and sites. This year, the longer site and museum hours, seven days a week, in effect from April 1st until the end of October only, was applied only to the 33 “most popular” ones. A two-tiered system has thus been created by this policy. A recently-commissioned study by McKinsey and Company (an international management consulting firm) on the cost of entrance to major Greek archaeological sites and museums compared to those in other European countries showed that the average ticket price here is much lower than elsewhere. The suggestion was made to raise the ticket prices significantly to make more money for the government. Is culture simply a “luxury commodity” for sale? The new unified annual property tax law (EN.F.I.A) that takes effect on September 15th has serious ramifications for the properties that are presently included in the “A Zones” which encompass known, registered archaeological sites, as these were previously untaxed since the owners could not use them or build on them.

The times are a-changing in the administration of archaeological heritage in Greece. It will be some time before we know the long-term effects of these changes and the re-organization. Given the importance placed on the promotion of cultural heritage by many sectors of the society here, the ramifications from these changes could be very significant. What appears lacking in all of this is a thorough public examination and debate of where archaeology in Greece should go in the medium- and long-term future and why? At this point there is no clear long-term strategy behind these changes except the reduction of the cost of the Hellenic Archaeological Service.

David Rupp

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