A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
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