Speaking with Greece's Minister of Culture: Marathon and the Olympic Rowing Venue - Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Marathon and the Olympic Rowing Venue "Speaking with Greece's Minister of Culture"
March 19, 2002

Greek and international protests dogged the construction of the Rowing and Canoeing Center for the 2004 Olympic Games last year. At stake, said archaeologists, was the integrity of the plain of Marathon northwest of Athens, where the Greeks defeated the invading Persian army of Darius in 490 B.C. Nongovernmental heritage organizations alarmed by the project included Europa Nostra, the International Council on Monuments and Sites, and the Archaeological Institute of America, which publishes ARCHAEOLOGY (see "Olympic Battle," July/August 2001). "I understand very well the international sensitivity and the international awareness about the memory of Marathon as a place, as an idea, as a historical event," says Minister of Culture Evangelos Venizelos, choosing his words carefully but speaking emphatically.

[image] Aerial view of Schinias beach region shows old civil airstrip, at top, and abandoned military installation, center. (Courtesy Ministry of Culture Hellenic Republic of Greece) [LARGER IMAGE]

The initial plan called for both the rowing and the canoe/kayak slalom courses to be built at Schinias, the beach area adjacent to Marathon, and debate focused on whether or not the modern topography was unchanged since antiquity. Project opponents of the project cited a late-1990s study of geologic cores as showing there had been little change in the landscape. They also noted that a second-century A.D. description of a painting of the battle--showing Persians forced back into a marsh and fleeing to their ships drawn up on a beach--seemed to correspond to the modern topography. Was Schinias actually part of the battlefield? No, says Venizelos: "Our approach was completely different. According to two geological studies we knew that this region was in the past sea or lagoon and not the field of the battle of Marathon. And now, after the construction, we have absolute proof--geological and chemical analyses--that this region was always sea or lagoon."

What of the integrity of the larger landscape? Venizelos seems baffled by the protests. In 1923, the wetlands behind the sandy Schinias beach were drained, the land used for a now abandoned airfield, a unused military base, and residential and commercial developments. The rowing venue--two lakes, a larger one for competition (1.35 miles long and about 12 feet deep) and a smaller practice lake, along with grandstands, and a parking lot--occupies the area that had been the landing strip. "The site of this venue was a small civil airport," he recalls. "There was no opposition to the installation of the airport, but much regarding the Olympic venues. This is a paradox. But anyway, my final decision was to transfer the other venue, the canoe/kayak slalom center, to Ellinikon, another region of Athens. Not because Schinias was historically important, but to respect the overall landscape, because of its proximity to Marathon."

Construction of rowing lake at Schinias at site of old civil airstrip in January 2002. (Courtesy Ministry of Culture Hellenic Republic of Greece) [LARGER IMAGE] [image]

Venizelos returns to the Parthenon sculptures and what he views as an inconsistent attitude among scholars. "Pressure from the international academic community is very important for us in assuring the restitution of the Parthenon marbles," he says, pausing and then continuing more forcefully, "Why is this international academic community, with its awareness about [the archaeological sensitivity of] Marathon, not part of the team for the restitution of the Parthenon marbles? Why do American or British scholars in archaeology or classics have the right to make international statements about the need to preserve and to respect the memory of Marathon but not for the restitution of the Parthenon marbles? I accept their concern about Marathon, but I don't accept this distinction, between the sensitivity about the integrity of Marathon and the insensitivity about the integrity of the Parthenon. You must have a single standard." Archaeology's parent organization, the Archaeological Institute of America, has no formal position on the restitution of the Parthenon sculptures.

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© 2002 by the Archaeological Institute of America