History under our feet
Pottery, says Greek archaeologist Giorgos Hourmouziadis, “is the gold of pre-history”. So it turned out to be when we visited Messenia’s Archaeological Museum in Kalamata. It’s tucked away behind the beautiful 13th century church of Agii Apostoli in the centre of town, housed in what was once the mansion of the Benaki family, benefactors of the great museum that bears their name in Athens. The building was transferred from the municipality to the national Ministry of Culture after the 1986 earthquake.
Some local findings have gone to the Athens institution, but the Kalamata collection is significant, and beautifully kept. Each object is accompanied by meticulous information plaques in Greek and English, and along the walls linking the exhibition areas are sayings from writers and archaeologists, including this from Marcel Proust: “The past is hidden in some material object … which we do not suspect.”
RED MARBLE TABLET
The holdings here go back six millennia, to artefacts found near Pylia on the west coast. The earliest object on view is a tiny Neolithic female figure dated to around 4000 BCE, from the Homeric kingdom of Nestor to our north-west.
There are also some stunning exhibits from the ancient history of places we’ve seen. A beautiful third century BCE wine decanter painted in red with wreaths and dolphins, unearthed from below the Venetian castle at Koroni. A 4th century BCE head of Athena from Lefktra near the beach village of Stoupa. From Kardamilyi, where we found Leigh Fermor’s house, a stele cut from the red marble of the Tayghetos mountains. A series of superb heads dated to the first century CE (AD), from Petalidi where we’d stopped for a cold drink in the quiet village square. Amphorae from shipwrecks found along the coast. And so much more, from 13th or 12th century BCE funerary offering jars excavated at Ancient Messene, to relics from the Frankish occupation of the Mani coast after the fourth Crusade of 1204.
The European Union provided 80% of the funding for the museum. But what will happen to it if Greece is forced out of the EU? The national archaeological service, which is part of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, has more than 350 such projects jointly funded with the EU. And what, in any case, is happening to museums under the austerity measures enforced by the troika of the European Commission, the IMF and the European Central Bank?
MUSEUMS UNDER ATTACK
Under the troika, 10% of culture ministry staff have been made redundant across the country, with at least a further 30% to go by the end of the year. The 950 archaeologists among them have had already low salaries of between $1,000 and $2,000 a month reduced by a further third and the budget for their work has been similarly slashed.
Even security at Greece’s landmark museums has been cut, resulting in unprecedented robberies, including the theft of 60 objects from the Olympia site back in February which forced Pavlos Gerounalos, culture minister in the previous government, to resign. Two months later his successor cut the museum security budget by a further 20%.
International and Greek experts raised the alarm at the time. Stephen Miller of the University of California, Berkeley and former director of excavations at Nemea, was furious with the troika. “It is very shortsighted,” he said. “This is the last place you should make your cuts. The antiquities of Greece are not recognised for what they are, and that is the treasure of Greece, the resource Greece has that is unique to Greece.”
Despina Katsoumba, president of the Union of Greek Archaeologists, said: “If you go to a country and you destroy the country and make everyone poor and say that this country is in danger, this country is at war, this country is the Titanic, that we deliberately want to dismantle the public sector of Greece, then you say to private collectors that you may order whatever you want from a Greek museum.”
Yannis Mavrikopolous, president of the Museum Guards union, added: “Greece is one big archaeological park. With growing poverty, more and more people are turning into tomb raiders working for shady art dealers.”
The troika and the new coalition government have so far taken little notice. Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, despite being descended from the Benaki dynasty of philanthropists, is proceeding with the cuts.
A LOVE OF POTS
Everywhere in the Mani you still see the traditional ridged terracotta pots, on balconies, in courtyards, cemented into walls – sometimes planted, sometimes not, and often huge. For centuries they have been made in the same way, built up in coils from the base, the coil edges flatted into their distinctive ribbed shape. A couple of generations ago they would mostly have been used as storage jars; they live on as much-loved decorative items.