Can Privatization Save the Treasures of Ancient Greece?

In the wake of government austerity, some closest to Greece's treasures are advocating turning them over to private companies

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Derek Gatopoulos / AP

Stephen Miller stands in front of the Temple of Neamean Zeus in southern Greece, Wednesday Sept. 25, 2013.

Many objects dug from the earth or drawn from the legends of Nemea could be used to promote the ancient Greek site: the mythological Nemean Lion slain by Hercules in the first of his seven feats; weights lifted by competitors during its ancient athletics; the bronze statue of the baby Opheltes, whose death is said to have inspired the games which rivaled those at Olympia further west.

That no replicas exist and the gift stand at the site’s museum instead sells copies of Cycladic idols from an archipelago 200km east infuriates Stephen Miller, an American archaeologist who has spent the last four decades unearthing Nemea’s treasures. “None of these had anything to do with Nemea,” he tells TIME, gesturing at the paltry selection in the glass cabinet.

Equally frustrating to the 72-year-old is the lack of hotels and restaurants to serve visitors to the site. “The Ministry of Culture does some things very well: it does conservation work extremely well, they are very good at setting up exhibitions,” says Miller. “They are lousy businessmen.”

Miller has a solution, which he says will generate jobs and protect Greece’s vast archaeological wealth from the ravages of an economic crisis which has closed down ancient sites, shuttered museums and caused looting to surge. In a detailed proposal sent to the government at the end of last year, he suggests letting private companies take over the development, promotion and security of certain under-exploited sites in exchange for a share of revenue generated from tourists.

The proposal may not seem too radical at a time when Italy is letting a fashion company sponsor The Colosseum, Britain is privatizing certain services at some iconic museums, and other European nations are selling off job lots of historic buildings as budgets dwindle. But any suggestion of letting Greece’s vast cultural riches fall out of government hands stirs deep nationalist sentiment in a country scarred by repeated plundering by foreign nations.

The depth of the crisis, however, means private sector involvement in the vast treasures of Greece is not the political taboo it once was.

“Inevitably the Ministry of Culture will shrink,” says Giorgos Vavouranakis, a lecturer in archeology at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. His concern is that the shift from state to private sector is happening in a haphazard and unregulated fashion: “We need a vision on culture, on heritage, on how we deal with these things, which I think is currently lacking.”

Since Greece’s massive public debt pushed the nation to the brink of bankruptcy in 2009, austerity measures demanded by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund in return for €240bn in bailout loans have hit every sector of government and society. Today, a fifth of Greeks live in poverty; youth unemployment is at 58 per cent; and whole swathes of the civil service are awaiting months of back pay or have simply been let go.

The Minister of Culture, Panos Panagiotopoulos, says his budget has been slashed by 52 per cent since 2010. The consequences will be wide-ranging and long-lasting, the Association of Greek Archaeologists has warned. Fewer archaeologists operating with less money will impact preservation, research and analysis. No staff to sell tickets means sites and museums have had to close or reduce their opening hours, depriving them of revenue. Increased poverty means more people turning to crime, and with fewer guards keeping an eye on treasures, reports of looting of artifacts and illegal digs have increased.

At Nemea, in the north of the Peloponnese peninsula, the sudden withdrawal in 2012 of overtime pay for the ten guards meant the site was partially closed for ten weeks. Tourists arriving on weekends could no longer visit the elegant columns of the 330BC Temple of Zeus or read the ancient graffiti scrawled on the tunnel by athletes more than 2,500 years ago as they made their way to the stadium for the Nemean Games.

The guards finally went back to work after negotiations with the government, but Miller says they have still not been paid for any of the Sundays worked since. A current court case on the legality of temporary contracts could cause the number of guards at Nemea to drop from ten to three. Similar stories are repeated at many of the nation’s 9,000 archaeological sites and 228 archaeological museums, and it is frustration at their lack of development for the record numbers of tourists traveling to Greece – it peaked at 17 million last year – that prompted Miller’s proposal.

“I’ve kept my mouth shut for 40 years, but now I’m going to bang the table – this is such a wasted asset,” says Miller, who is officially retired but still involved in maintenance at the site.

His anger is borne from a lifetime devoted to Nemea. When he arrived as a 30-year-old with the University of California, Berkeley, in 1973, Nemea was an unguarded jumble of ruins. In the intervening years, using funds from foreign and Greek donors, Miller and other Berkeley archaeologists have preserved the land, built the museum, pieced together the story of the site from the artifacts they unearthed, and partially restored the Temple of Zeus.

Berkeley is not the only foreign academic institution working in Greece. Schools from 17 countries are involved in digs nationwide. The wealthy US universities are particularly prominent, with at least 10 involved in current projects. All artifacts foreign archaeologists unearth are the property of the Greek state, and Miller is at pains to stress that he is not suggesting Greece sell artifacts and or historic sites. This is a sensitive issue: an interview with two German politicians which appeared in Bild magazine in 2010 under the headline “Sell your islands, you bankrupt Greeks, and the Acropolis too!” provoked outrage and revived memories of the plunders of the past.

Elena Korka, the culture ministry’s Director for Antiquaries and Private Archaeological Collections, says pillaging for prestige or profit dates back to the Romans, who raided Greek tombs for artifacts to decorates nobles’ villas. Invading foreign powers like Napoleon and the Nazis also took a share of the rich archaeological pickings. As a result, Greece now has some of the strictest laws protecting antiquities. “We do not consider it an object of commerce,” says Korka.

The culture minister right now rejects any suggestion of handing over administration of sites. “The cultural wealth, the legacy of this country, will remain under state control because it belongs to the Greek people,” says Panagiotopoulos. But he does not rule out greater private sector involvement in other areas, and says parliament recently passed a measure allowing tour companies to effectively rent out archaeological sites for an event or an out-of-hours visit. Businesses can now also shoot their commercials against the backdrop of Greece’s dramatic monuments.

Vavouranakis, the academic, says another new law allows firms to hire their own archaeologists to carry out assessments at potential development sites. He is concerned such outsourcing could mean the hiring of cheaper, under-qualified individuals. While he is not opposed to giving private companies licenses to run sites, he says it is crucial that the Ministry of Culture retain strict control over how the story of the cradle of western civilizations is told.

“If you leave the narrative produced to somebody else,” he says, “then essentially you lose any grip on your national identity and sense of history.”