Who is buried at Amphipolis?

If you want the short answer, it is “any hope of a reliable answer anytime soon.”

This time last year, the news was full of excitement over the unearthing of a monumental tomb at the site of Amphipolis in northern Greece. Fast forward one year, and the site of the discovery has gone quiet, while the controversy over it has moved almost entirely into the field of politics, from where it will be almost impossible to extract it in the near term. The neglect has come about only in part because of lack of funding from we have got used to calling “the cash-strapped Greek state”. The whole affair, though, is rooted in deeper pathologies of the public management of archaeology in Greece that go back well before the crisis.

This sad outcome was almost inevitable given the timing and history of the excavation. Amphipolis was not “discovered” in 2014 – the existence of a site (or more precisely multiple sites) has been known for a long time. The surrounding area on the estuary of the Strymon river is strewn with fragments of ancient masonry and nearby a monumental lion sculpture stood forlorn for decades, having once graced the 1,000 drachma note, while locals are known to have conducted their own “investigations” in the surrounding hills. The area is mentioned in historical documents since classical times; the plain of Amphipolis was a famous battlefield in Classical times and the port became Alexander the Great’s main naval base in Europe. It was not entirely surprising, then, that the hill of Kasta turned out to contain a monument of human construction.

What gave it an entirely new level of prominence was its adoption as a cause celebre at the highest levels of the Greek government, and the personal involvement of the then Prime Minister, Antonis Samaras. At the time, Samaras was leading a crumbling coalition that had spent the past two years passing unpopular legislation in order to meet the demands of Greece’s international creditors. The opposition was gaining power and threatening to force elections. But he knew the worst was yet to come; his government’s programme was front-loaded with tax rises and spending cuts, and they had left for the end the harder elements of the “bailout package” like labour and pension reforms, which could be their undoing in government.

Like every Greek government during the crisis, the Samaras government’s dominant political rhetoric was one of victimhood: they had fought the reforms but their hand was being forced by an international front against the suffering Greek people. This message may have been adequate for keeping a lid on popular discontent, but it was wearing thin. What better for boosting public morale and reminding the Greeks of glories past, than the discovery of what looked like an intact Macedonian tomb? Even better, Samaras personally had built his political career in the early 1990s on the “Skopje affair”, a political dispute with the neighbouring Former Yugolsav Republic of Macedonia which was deeply entwined with the “Greekness” of Alexander the Great and focused on the right to use of the name “Macedonia” and the royal symbols of the House of Macedon. This was a gift too good for him to ignore. Samaras lent his personal support by visiting the excavation, funding was fast-tracked, and the media kicked into gear, treating the project like reality TV, with daily updates and behind-the-scenes gossip. It was the main topic of conversation in Greece over the summer holidays and into a difficult autumn, and the daily discoveries also made their way into the international news. The included spectacular finds: the sheer size of the monument and the quantities of marble used in its construction were only rivalled by a beautiful mosaic inside the chamber, depicting the abduction of Persephone by Hades. There was much speculation over who was buried in the tomb. Was it (in declining order of desirability) Alexander himself? Or his mother and son? Or one of his generals?

All was not going to plan, however, and as the excavation progressed it failed to live up to public expectations, the media cycle moved on, and cracks begun to appear in the official story. While the excavation itself was like a reality-TV version of an excavation, the backdrop was a living caricature of archaeology in Greece.

On the one hand, we had the high priesthood of the archaeological service guarding the entrance to the shrine. The excavation director, the head of the regional unit of the Greek archaeological service, now cocooned in political patronage but under the spotlight of daily media scrutiny, appeared protective of “her” site and the preferred interpretation of the findings, and drip-fed information directly to the press. Any attempt at interpretation that diverged from the “official” one was greeted with a backlash of criticism. A respected archaeology professor who dared to suggest some of the finds looked (o heresy!) Roman was so savagely pilloried that a petition was started on her behalf in defense of academic freedom. While we might sympathise with the excavator’s plea for time to properly study the evidence outside the media glare, this was not really a debate on the facts, it was a debate over access. The excavator’s repeatedly stated defence that can be summarised as “only I have excavated the site, only I can interpret it,” only makes sense in a universe where local archaeology directors build fiefdoms around controlling access to the evidence. Access imparts authority, influence, and ultimately patronage. The Greek archaeological service, like of the civil service, is highly politicized, both in the party-political and the personal sense, and this kind of control is vitally important in gaining and maintaining power. This is not to denigrate the people who work diligently within the service, but it limits what they can achieve.

Why is this a problem? Should we not trust the experience of a senior archaeologist in doing her job? Well, no; or at least no more than any practitioner in a scientific field. An archaeological excavation has been called an “unrepeatable experiment”. What this means is that the results can’t be replicated in the normal scientific manner. Those conducting it have a duty to document and preserve the evidence so that future generations can re-evaluate it as objectively as possible in the light of new findings. That is how knowledge progresses. Even with the best of intentions, it is unlikely that this will be the case here. A Prime Minister in a hurry, an excavator given preferential access to resources, media in a frenzy, the implicit promise of the next Vergina, none of these are factors conducive to careful, methodical work.

Then there is the question of resources. There is now concern that after a winter of neglect the monument will be “buried” under the weight of the tumulus and the spoil from the excavation, as the funds for stabilizing the site have not yet been released. This is of course bad news, and it has been all too easy to blame “the crisis” or capital controls for these deficiencies. But before getting too sentimental about this specific site it is worth pondering that the vast majority of Greek antiquities, once unearthed, are “buried” again. Some are buried intentionally for preservation, but that is a very small minority. Mostly, the physical sites are left to decay because they are judged insufficiently interesting to develop for tourism but too important to plough or build over. They remain in a state of limbo, fenced in from the public but open to the elements and to plunder. The artefacts recovered from the excavations crowd the store rooms of museums, often without proper recording and identification, so in effect “buried” metaphorically.

All the time, new excavation projects are funded and inaugurated, creating yet more demand for storage and conservation, but not resulting in any marginal increase of knowledge about the past. When you visit any of the regional museums, many of them charming and well cared for (when they are open), you should bear in mind that the one or two rooms of carefully selected items on public display are just the polished tip of a crumbling, dirty, uncatalogued iceberg of finds in the apothiki (αποθήκη: store room). This cannot be blamed entirely on the current crisis, it is the way that archaeology in Greece has functioned for decades. Resources have always been contested, but the priorities of the archaeological service have never been seriously examined, even as funding became tighter. Funds, largely European and thus not directly affected by the Greek state budget, are held up by a weak and ill-equipped administration, and routinely misdirected and squandered through lack of supervision. Amphipolis is these problems writ large.

Then, there is local politics. In the midst of the crisis, who can blame the modern Amphipoleans for spotting a legitimate opportunity to profit from the antiquities in their backyard? Controversy over the interpretation of the monument is not good for business, and nor is lack of funding for the site’s development. These locals are now threatening to vote based on the government’s treatment of the site, much as they would over a local factory closure.

Finally, national politics. What has happened between then and now is, of course, a change of government in January. They say that those that live by the sword can expect to die by the sword, and once Amphipolis lost its political patronage, the swords came out. On the anniversary of the excavation, the newspaper Avgi, the official organ of the governing Syriza party, summarised the conclusions of a report by a Ministry of Culture inspectorate which challenges the interpretation of the monument, and criticised Samaras for expediting the excavation for political gain.

Why should we care about a petty archaeological squabble, even if it is used as a political football? Well, we are constantly being told that tourism is the “heavy industry” of Greece, and that it will provide one of the engines of growth that will return the country to a healthy state. The national heritage is part of this equation, unless we picture tourism as a series of gated golfing resorts surrounded by slums on the Caribbean model. So, if only out of self-interest, we should care more about how it is managed for the common good.

Some say the Greeks feel a more urgent need to find Alexander now because their own leadership is so sorely lacking. Nowadays, we are more likely to find Alexander in the eyes of an Afghan refugee who has recreated (approximately) the land route of his returning armies from their furthest eastern conquests to the Aegean. But rather than falling back on the usual fatalistic attitude perhaps we should reflect that taking charge of our future includes taking charge of our past, and not expecting the earth to deliver treasures on demand. The treasures are already there if you dare to open the door to the apothiki and let in some light – and maybe some fresh ideas. But that is the subject for another post…

Image: The lion of Aphipolis on a 1,000 drachma note issued by the Bank of Greece in August 1942. Source: From The Archivist’s Notebook.

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Who is buried at Amphipolis?

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