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For many months this year the sovereign debt crisis in Europe dominated the news. While we readers of ARCHAEOLOGY no doubt share many of the concerns outlined in leading business publications, we have our own pressing concern: How will the financial woes of archaeologically rich countries such as Greece and Italy affect their ability to maintain their cultural patrimony? Reports from the field have not been encouraging.

In Greece, museums have reportedly only been open during limited hours, or closed entirely because of a shortage of guards. Even the National Archaeological Museum in Athens has not been immune. In early summer, the local press ran interviews with disappointed tourists who were missing what was, for them, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to view the greatest repository of ancient Greek art in the world. The bind that these institutions are in is clear. The new Acropolis Museum and the numerous new rooms in the National Museum both ought to be major draws for tourists, but without the necessary staff, public access to them is limited—and, therefore, so is the necessary revenue that such visitors bring.

Less broadly publicized are the cutbacks to the Greek Archaeological Service. There are scores, even hundreds, of sites throughout mainland Greece and the islands where small, local teams ordinarily conduct fieldwork in either organized seasons or on an emergency basis when development threatens. These projects are now at risk.

In the case of Italy, so far, financial collapse has been avoided. But there, as a professional class, archaeologists have historically been underpaid and the country’s uncertain economic future does not augur well for the employment of a younger generation of archaeologists whose commitment to long-term projects is so necessary.

In a few rare cases, disaster and adverse publicity have induced authorities to allocate funds. The collapse of several walls of the House of the Gladiators in Pompeii last winter was met with sufficient outrage to spur the disbursement of new funds for maintenance and security. However, when a late Roman villa was discovered along Rome’s Via Aurelia this past summer, excavation came to a halt when the initial budget of €10,000 was exhausted. To complete, conserve, and secure the dig would have required at least five times that amount. It is clear that without more consistent management, even generous funding will be inconsequential.

The final twist for both of these nations is that many of their citizens have taken their considerable frustration over the financial crisis to the streets. It has to be observed that any disruption of the close relationship between tourism revenue and financial support for archaeological sites and cultural institutions cannot be seen as positive. It is a catch-22, indeed.

Elizabeth Bartman is the president of the Archaeological Institute of America.

« President's Letter S/O 2011

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