Driven by the serious economic crisis bringing the country to its knees, a growing number of Greeks are becoming makeshift ”treasure hunters” (although it might be more appropriate to call them ”tomb raiders”) and have taken to digging up sites in Greece in search of ancient finds to sell on the underground market to unscrupulous traffickers.
This was brought to light in a survey conducted by the Athens daily Kathimerini, which says that the trend – especially evident in north-western Greece in the Macedonia region – is not due solely to people’s need for cash but also to the fact that the State does not have adequate funds to protect its ancient heritage. ”There have always been illegal excavations around the mountains of this zone,” the archaeologist Sofia Doukata, from Kavala, told the paper. ”But recently this practice has been transformed into a bona fide sport.” The most popular destination, which is attracting an ever greater number of aspiring looters, seems to be Mount Paggaio near the city of Kavala.
The grave-diggers, as can be inferred from the clear signs of excavations, explore the area in the immediate vicinity of the archaeological sites in the hope of finding something and being able to sell it. In the act of doing so, however, as they are not professional archaeologists, they often destroy the very clues that brought them there – as was seen with numerous rock carvings dating back to the Late Bronze Age from the Paleochristian Era.
The carvings had been discovered by official researchers in 1960, but no official systematic recording was ever made of them. From initial surveys and accounts from locals, an estimated 15 clandestine excavations have been carried out in the area, leaving pits in the ground which are from 2 to 5 metres deep and as much as 5 metres wide over a surface area of 3-4 square kilometres. ”It seems as if meteorites fell at those points,” said Thodoros Spanelis, publisher of Kavala’s online paper Chronometro. Local archaeologists began to become interested in the illegal excavations after his newspaper published an investigative piece on the damages done by the tomb raiders.
Contributing to the degradation of ancient heritage is also the fact that the security of Greece’s archaeological sites and museums has suffered severely from the effects of the economic crisis and the lack of surveillance personnel. At the beginning of the year the police disbanded a huge ring of antiquities smugglers in northern Greece, recovering thousands of ancient and Byzantine icons.
Doukata, who works at Kavala’s Byzantine Antiquities Superintendent’s Office, was tasked with surveying the area of Mount Paggaio after it was targeted by the tomb raiders. However, she is well aware that it will not be an easy task: the area, measuring 12 square kilometres, contains 102 archaeological sites which are all accessible solely on foot. Moreover, making it more difficult is the fact that the archaeological service covering Kavala, Serres, Drama and Thassos has only two staff members.