Saturday, July 27, 2013

Video and Post! re Greece: Antiquity Falls Victim to Economy

Today I am going to expand on the argument that when a centralized government collapses or loses stability, we tend to see a spike in looting of archaeological sites or cultural institutions within that country.  I will analyze the current economic conditions and events in Greece as a case study. (You can also watch the video above).

With the economic downfall in 2008, within the European Union, Greece’s economy took one of the hardest hits.  This economic collapse in Greece led to massive protests and general discontent throughout the population, along with disillusion with the government.  In previous posts I discussed looting in Syria, Egypt, and Iraq, and although the reasoning behind the looting differs, the anger at the government for one reason or another remains the same.  This anger leads people to destroy symbols of power and seek means of capital (be it economic capital, symbolic capital, or cultural capital).

Brief review of capital, which gives power:

Economic Capital = $

Symbolic Capital (sometimes referred to social capital) = who do you know? Networking/Connections who allow you to advance your own interests

Cultural Capital = knowledge, skills, and education, all of which you can acquire, embody, and/or inherit (like objects)

For our purposes, economic capital and cultural capital play a role in the discussion of looting and the destruction of sites. People angry at a government will destroy that government’s symbols of power/capital.  Think of the destruction of Saddam Hussein's statue after coalition forces took Baghdad.

Greece's Ancient Past
Greece’s ancient past is a part of the modern country’s national identity (when you think of Greece, you think of the Parthenon, Greek gods and goddesses, statues, etc).  Because the past directly links to Greek’s national identity, the country continues to fight for the return of the Parthenon Marbles that I discussed previously.

Some highlights of Greek history include:

  • The Acropolis in Athens
  • The famous poet Homer (writer of the Iliad and The Odyssey aka Trojan War etc)
  • The playwright Euripides (wrote more plays that Shakespeare)
  • The Olympics
  • Greek gods and goddesses
  • Let’s not forget about the development of democracy!

Taking all the rich history into consideration, one can understand why historians, archaeologists, and lovers of all things Greek, find the news of the looting of museums and archaeological sites troubling.


In 2012, robbers raided and stole artifacts from the Museum of the Olympic Games in Olympia.  The robbers bound the only guard on duty (a female), and smashed display cases taking 77 objects in total, including figurines depicting athletes.

Luckily, later that year, in November, police recovered the stolen artifacts when one of the men tried to sell a gold ring, which he originally prices at 1.5 euro, but dropped the price to 300,000 euro.

Since 2009, the Greek Minister of Culture cut 30-35% of jobs in the culture industry affecting conservation jobs and security and protection of sites.  Since then, the illicit antiquities trade spiked 30% (BBC News Europe).  One bold example of looting involves the robbery of works by Pablo Picasso and Piet Mondrian from the Athens’ National Gallery.

At the same time looters target archaeological sites, some of these sites tourist attractions.  Unfortunately, these sites became easy targets because the government closed many off to visitors because of lack of security.  This is important because of the cycle that I described when discussing the protests in Egypt:

Archaeology/History = important sites and antiquity = allure to tourists=tourism market = money 

You need money to - protect sites - to fund research- to create museums- to lure tourists - to bring more money!

This is of course more of a problem because Greece’s economy is the impetus for the discontent, and the reason why people are looting to make money.

I will end this post by playing devil’s advocate and bring this back to the repatriation debate, and the Parthenon marbles.  If the country leaves Greek antiquity unprotected and non-conserved (not preserving the artifacts), how can Greece argue for the return of the Parthenon Marbles?  The country cannot protect what it currently has, let alone what many consider a treasure?

So do you think Britain should return the marbles (below are images of the marbles that came from the Parthenon on the Acropolis that you see above)?