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Cultural Heritage and Historical Memory in Danger: Some Notes on Greece’s Situation
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What has been going on in Greece for the past four years is not just the result of the economic crisis in a poor or nearly bankrupt country; it is more reminiscent of colonial times. When everything started in 2010, the public debt was 120 percent of the total gross domestic product, while now, after three bail-out attempts, the public debt is around 172 percent, unemployment is at 27 percent (with youth unemployment at 58 percent), and many young scientists are forced to leave the country to find a job. These policies look more like a big social experiment. The truth is that in the name of the global economic crisis and public debt, and with the International Monetary Fund acting as a Trojan horse, austerity measures have undermined public services, the overall welfare of the nation, and the social cohesion in Greece. At the same time, democracy and national dignity are under attack, and neo-Nazi ideas are growing in a country which was proud of being the cradle of democracy.

The Archaeological Service in Greece is dedicated to the pursuit of scientific knowledge and defending culture as a public good. However, as part of the public sector, it suffers from constant lack of funding and personnel. It also suffers from the tendency to treat archaeological research as an obstacle to development. For many years the Archaeological Service and the Forestry Service have been treated as the main obstacles to growth, investment, and development. Especially recently, as exemplified in new legislation designed to facilitate investment through so-called fast-track procedures, there is open talk, even from the part of government officials, that archaeology is an obstacle to investment and development.

This is not something new. Since the 1980s, the Ministry of Culture has never received more than 1 percent of the total national budget and has the lowest rate of hiring new permanent staff. Funding for excavations and archaeological research has been constantly reduced in the past years, and in 2011 the Ministry of Culture announced that it would not fund any systematic excavation unless it was co-funded from foreign institutions.

As a result, all major archaeological excavations and research now take place in Greece within the context of big construction works, either public or private. We work primarily in terms of so-called salvage excavations. We have gained a wealth of knowledge from this kind of excavation that, in one sense, is bigger than what comes from systematic excavations. The great difference, however, is that in a salvage excavation the time, place, manner of excavation, as well as the presentation of the findings are not determined by archaeologists’ choices and decisions. In the best case scenario there is a co-decision process, whereas in the worst case these decisions are being imposed by the technical requirements of the work, the resources of the contractor, etc. We are also facing the charge that archaeologists think only of the past and do not care for the present economic situation and the needs of contemporary Greece. This was, for instance, the main argument against in situ preservation at the metro station of Byzantine Thessaloniki, a major historical crossroad. The same argument is used to support major investments, such as the hotel and golf development project in eastern Crete (near Toplou Monastery), or public investment such as a big landfill near the Ovriokastro archaeological site in Attica. It was the same argument that led, long before the crisis, to the construction of an artificial rowing lake for the 2004 Olympics at the site of the battle of Marathon.

Preserving the cultural heritage is (or at least should be) per se a question of public interest. This is explicit in the Greek Constitution, according to which cultural heritage, including archaeological monuments and remains, is public property and a patrimony of the Greek people. This should make us pause and reflect. We have entered into a “development and investment frenzy” which is a “road to disaster,” especially when it ends up destroying exactly what is considered Greece’s comparative advantage: our way of life. It’s the way we co-exist with history, the very process of the historical formation of...

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