The best cure?

No 732874

Greece is a country rich in coastline and mountains, with a Mediterranean climate and an incredible variety of vegetation. In the coastal and more low-lying areas olives and citrus fruits are cultivated, and vines extend to higher elevations, especially on the sunny slopes. The roadside stalls and the street markets attest to the wide range of seasonal fruit and vegetables produced in different regions, but the most striking feature of the countryside are the wooded areas and the scrub-covered grazing lands. Some of the mountains boast oak or beech woods and black pine, and in the higher ranges, below the barer alpine zone, there are forests of fir, but the tree that epitomises the Greek coastal landscape is the Aleppo pine, Pinus halepensis. The brilliant green of the Aleppo pine and its contrast with the blue of the Greek summer sky and the turquoise of the sea linger in the memory and the photographs of the traveller as “Greece”.

The forests of Aleppo pine provide protection from erosion on the slopes. The wood of the Aleppo pine is not highly valued, but the mature trees in some areas continue to be a source of resin, of which the island of Evia produces up to 90% of the Greek crop. The “retsinades” (resin-men) patrol their allotted trees throughout the summer, slashing the bark to open a strip that bleeds the resin into plastic bags skillfully stapled to the trunk to catch every drop, and replacing the full bags which are emptied into the nearest resin tank. The technology may have changed a bit – 50 years ago the resin was collected in little tin cups – but the process remains labour-intensive, hot and sticky, and mules are still the best way of reaching some of the stands of pine. Beekeepers also erect their hives in the clearings.

Every summer there are hundreds of forest fires in Greece. It is estimated that about 50,000 hectares of forest are burned each year. The Aleppo pines, with their high resin content, burn particularly well, and the explosion of the burning cones spreads sparks far and wide, igniting other trees in a wide circle, often giving rise to elaborate conspiracy theories of multiple arson. The pattern is as often as not a natural one, even if the first spark is ignited by human action.

When a major forest fire gets under way, a predictable series of events is put into motion. The fire service responds to the call and the appropriate dousing measures are activated. The media appear soon after, eager to fill their airtime in the quiet summer months (I mean, inform the public). The videos accompanying the first breathless TV descriptions usually have a faint “archive footage” watermark in one corner, as one shot of an ageing yellow Canadair dropping water on flaming Aleppo pines is much like another. A Government Minister cuts short his vacation and is rushed to the scene to “coordinate the operation” (I say “his” because it always seems to be a male minister on such occasions, and he makes sure that the TV cameras are rolling to capture his arrival). The same, or another, minister and the local MP are subsequently filmed looking serious, meeting with the representatives of local groups whose property or livelihood have been affected, and making concerned statements. Soon after this, an opposition leader and/or local MP visits to be filmed expressing outrage at the tardiness and incompetence of the government efforts and the lack of sensitivity to the interests of the local population. Occasionally, things turn ugly.

“Quick, look concerned!”: Environment Minister Yiannis Tsironis on the site of the Limni forest fire.

Meanwhile the TV, radio and newspaper coverage consists of a recombination of stock phrases: “πύρινη λαίλαπα” (pyrini lailapa, fiery whirlwind), “δύσβατη περιοχή” (dysvati periochi, difficult-to-reach spot), “θυελλώδεις άνεμοι” (thyellodeis anemoi, gusty winds) the last two used as explanations for why the fire engines and planes/helicopters, respectively, have not yet extinguished the fire. The firefighters are making “υπεράνθρωπες προσπάθειες” (yperanthropes prospatheies, superhuman efforts) and the pilots are all heroes. There is the inevitable “vox pop” with a distraught homeowner clad in baggy shorts and flip-flops wielding a small hose or broom. “Where is the State?” they cry, as they try to protect the house they were happy for the State to ignore when they erected it illegally on forest land (a common land-use pattern already noted by the archaeologist of the future).

When the wind drops and the flames are replaced by charred stumps, comes the announcement of the vast area of forest and scrub that was burnt, along with the beehives and sometimes olive and fruit trees or flocks of sheep or goats “but fortunately there was no loss of life, and no homes were damaged”. There are promises of compensation for the local communities, and an opportunity for a demonstration of largesse by those in control of the funds or enforcement mechanisms, with the implied expectation of deferred political reciprocity somewhere down the line. The next event, sometimes avoided, takes place when the first torrential rains arrive and wash down the hillsides unimpeded, denuding them of soil, and carrying rocks, rubble and mud down to block the roads and flood the fields and villages, and the drama resumes.

This series of events was re-enacted this summer, when fire broke out on 30 July near a village in central Evia and in high winds spread rapidly through the magnificent Aleppo pine forests that the area is famed for. There had been a similar fire in the same area in 1977, and the forest was just regaining its former splendour; Aleppo pine regenerates naturally when protected from humans and goats. Within hours the flames had crested the hills to the west and were threatening the attractive coastal town of Limni and a well-known neighbouring seaside monastery. The nuns were evacuated along with holiday-makers camping by the sea. The town was saved and the politicians duly arrived, in this case the local MP and (coincidentally) Minster for Agricultural Development, Vangelis Apostolou, who wrote an account praising the efforts of the responders and promising special easements to those affected. The Environment Minister Yiannis Tsironis, also paid a visit, during which he promised the retsinades compensation and gave the rights for retrieving firewood from the burnt areas to a local cooperative. The Forestry Service was charged with organising anti-flooding measures on the burned hillsides. Opposition leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis put in the obligatory appearance and inspected the area in a freshly pressed smart-casual shirt and suspiciously clean tennis shoes.

“What’s the damage?”: opposition leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis visiting the scene of the Limni forest fire.

The fire at Limni was by no means exceptional; large fires in Greece this summer destroyed large parts of the islands of Chios and Thasos, including extensive cultivated areas. An article about forest protection entitled “Bitter Lessons” written by the then head of the firefighting department of the Forestry Department was republished to mark the occasion – as relevant today as it had been at its original publication in 2008, and a reminder that the lessons haven’t in fact been learned.

It is no exaggeration to say that the elaborate ritual of fire response described above actively discourages the learning of any lessons. The clamour of the fire engines and the human drama of evacuations serve as a noisy distraction from a series of crucial policy failures around forest management that have unfolded in Greece over recent decades. The formulaic language used gives us some clues. The lens through which the media and political culture present forest fires almost seems designed to sensationalise the event itself, and invoke an emotional reflex rather than a reasoned response – to render the audience helpless so as to capture its eyeballs and votes. The fire is a “natural disaster” and the appropriate response is first heroism, followed by sympathy, and eventually a handout. This tweet by a governing party MEP in the aftermath of this summer’s fires exemplifies the genre:

We know what he is getting at, of course; this is a clearly styled and branded political message to the EU, aimed at unlocking a particular line item in the aid budget. But the clichés in which it is cloaked, and which are routinely trotted out on such occasions across the political spectrum, are not merely tokens of sloppy thinking but are actively harmful. At best, they encourage unquestioning passivity and the shrugging off of responsibility; at worst they fuel destruction in exchange for financial compensation and political patronage. Indeed, recent research has shown a link between the severity of forest fires and election cycles (areas burned in election years have been 2.5 times the area burned in non-election years) that suggests anything but a natural cycle. We would be well advised to heed the well-publicised verdict on a major disaster in another part of the world, Hurricane Katrina, that “there’s no such thing as a natural disaster”, and ask the tough questions about the human factor in such events, the extent to which our individual and collective choices, economic, social and political, have shaped the catastrophic outcome:

If a tree falls in a forest – to make illegal firewood or build a holiday home – and no one is around to hear it – for their own reasons, perhaps a backhander, a vote, or simply the desire for “a quiet life” – does it still make a sound? We should really be considering the impact it has on everyone’s pocket and quality of life. When an individual choses to put themselves and their property in harm’s way by illegally encroaching on a high risk zone – where they also consequently increase the risk of fire – can they truly be considered victims of a “natural disaster”? Or are they in fact passing on the risk and cost of their actions to the rest of society? When a local official or national politician turns a blind eye to encroachment or tacitly rewards its outcomes, is that just a cheap inconsequential favour, or is it in fact a very costly one for those not directly involved in the transaction? And what do we prioritise through our democratic processes? Are we allocating our dwindling national resources in the wisest way? It should quickly become apparent that you don’t have to be a card-carrying tree-hugger to care.

The overwhelming emphasis on safeguarding life and property, which is also made to seem “natural” in the context of fire reporting (because what kind of misanthrope wouldn’t be concerned about casualties?), has its own policy and political hinterland. Before 1998 the responsibility for extinguishing forest fires in Greece was shared by three independent agencies: the bulk of the responsibility lay with the Forestry Department of the Ministry of Agriculture, which complemented this activity with extensive prevention and protection measures; the aerial means, which came under the authority of the Air Force (Ministry of Defence), but was coordinated by the forestry service; and the Fire Department (Ministry of Public Order) which was responsible for residential areas, and whose vehicles were restricted to paved roads, and which being a uniformed service did not take orders from others outside their hierarchy. The army could also be called in to help on the ground.

Legislation passed in 1998 by the Simitis government under the direction of the EU separated the responsibility for the extinguishing of forest fires from that of prevention, and allocated it exclusively to the Fire Department, ostensibly in the interests of conforming with the practice in most of the other member states (N.2612/1998). The Fire Department was also allocated generous funding for equipment and training of staff. The accumulated experience of several generations of foresters in controlling fires in the forests and their knowledge of the local terrain and network of forest roads, were lost overnight. The younger foresters were probably relieved to be spared the extra firefighting duties, which typically involved shift work over the holiday period. The Fire Department, accustomed to easy access to flaming buildings took a long time to adjust to the very different circumstances of wildfire in the forest, and have never really appeared to relinquish their original priorities – hence their much repeated statement that “there has been no loss of lives or property”, and their apparent reluctance to leave the paved roads. The efforts to control fires in the forest now rely heavily on the aerial means and become concerted on the ground only when a village becomes threatened. The division of funding – 35% for protection and 65% for fighting fires – has curtailed the Forestry Service’s ability to apply effective protection measures.

Almost 20 years later there has been no systematic effort to make a proper assessment of the results of the transfer, but the conclusions of the one published attempt are negative, based on numbers of fires, hectares destroyed, means deployed and cost. Every year, an average of €357 million is spent on forest protection, of which €230 million goes purely to extinguishing fires. In addition, the study highlights that the annual cost of fighting forest fires in Greece dwarfs the equivalent expenditure in the US and Canada, countries with a much higher incidence of wildfires per head of population.

It was probably unfortunate that in the first years in which the Fire Department took charge the summers were particularly conducive to forest fires, and some particularly rapidly-spreading fires occurred, including some with loss of life to fire-fighters. Following these events, there seems to be a tacit agreement that the appropriate terms to describe their efforts are heroism and tragedy, rather than inexperience or, dare we say it, lack of competence. And in the apparent gaps left by the official response, some of the volunteers keen to take on the hero’s mantle have less than pure motives – witness the recent appearance of Golden Dawn groups in insignia among the first responders, and their eagerness to publicly mourn those fallen in the line of duty.

But there is an even more fundamental misplacement of priorities behind the vicious cycle of forest fires. Yiayia happened to visit Limni a few weeks after the fire in the company of a friendly expert, who had this to say:

“In the last 30-40 years there have been extensive forest fires, which have destroyed large areas of coniferous trees and shrubs in the Eastern and Western Mediterranean. These fires have sometimes been caused by lightning in summer storms, but are usually anthropogenic. Forest fires are not 100% avoidable, but their incidence can be managed. The opening up of road systems in mountainous areas has allowed easy access of more people to the forest areas (though also facilitating the approach of firefighters). In the critical dry windy summer months when the low vegetation is dry, the danger of fire is greatest and the conditions are ideal for rapid spread and unfavourable for easy control, despite the deployment of large numbers of firefighters and their variety of equipment (fire engines, aeroplanes, helicopters, etc.).

Forest fires of this extent and intensity cause incalculable damage, economic and ecological, to a region. All the resources and the beneficial effects for the people and for the stability of the environment (enrichment of the atmosphere with oxygen, provision of forest products, regulation of the flow of rainwater, protection from erosion, natural conservation of biodiversity, not to mention human enjoyment and recreation) are obliterated in the course of a few hours. It is estimated that the reestablishment of these forests takes 30 to 50 years, depending on the type of trees and their capacity for regeneration, and the soil and climatic conditions in the area. Especially where the area is characterized by steep slopes, when there are heavy rainstorms soon after a fire, there is danger of even greater damage through soil erosion and landslides, and flooding in the land below.

In the management of forests as a national natural resource, we seem to have our priorities wrong, focussing on the emergency response measures of extinguishing forest fires rather than investing in preventive measures. This would be a less expensive approach, resulting in less damage to the environment.

Preventive measures would include: a good network of firebreaks; maintenance of the forest road network for easy access; annual clearing of the dry roadside vegetation; defence measures in the summer months such as forest outlook posts and patrols; enforcement of restrictions of hazardous activities in the summer months (burning of rubbish, campfires, welding, etc.); better public education on the importance of the forest for our health, physical and psychological, and how to avoid hazardous activities; and, long-term, cultivation in schools of love and respect for the forest and the environment in general, by people who themselves know and love the forest. None of this is new of course, but it has never been consistently applied.”

This all agrees nicely with the Yiayia philosophy on preventive medicine, which also takes a back seat in our national allocation of priorities to rampant antibiotic use. Here, too, we need a change in the prevailing wind. For now, let us hope that the anti-flooding measures are in place by the time the autumn rains come to Limni, bringing the first wild cyclamen from the corms that will miraculously have survived the fire.

With contribution from Atlantis Host and a forestry expert who wished to remain anonymous.

Photos from,,

The best cure?

Vapour, smoke and mirrors


It is now one year since Yiayia first voiced her concerns on the alarming dimensions of the tobacco epidemic in Greece, and the Sunday edition of Kathimerini thoughtfully reported on the latest figures on smoking and “vaping” (“άτμισμα”, “atmisma”, i.e., electronic smoking) in Greece. This report was also well-timed, because the present Minister of Health, Andreas Xanthou has recently announced the planned introduction of legislation to forbid the use of electronic cigarettes in public places. Meanwhile, his Deputy Minister, Pavlos Polakis, a surgeon by profession, openly flouts the smoking ban in work places by lighting up in the canteen in Parliament and at press conferences in the Ministry – part of a lovingly cultivated “Cretan mountain man” persona which also includes composing threatening verse in the traditional mantináda style directed at his adversaries, and Berlusconi-style rants alleging corruption in the judiciary.

The debate over electronic cigarettes continues, with evidence to show that their use as a source of nicotine helps smokers to quit, and other evidence to suggest that new users will get addicted to nicotine and then graduate to smoking “the real thing”. Nicotine itself is harmful to the blood vessels and other elastic tissues, so “vapes” themselves are not entirely harmless to the user. Regardless of the debate, “vaping” has caught on in Greece, and the sales of electronic cigarette products is one of the few domains that has flourished during the crisis, with 300 registered specialty stores and over 1,000 sales points now operating throughout Greece. Kathemerini quotes current estimates of 200,000 systematic “vapers” among the Greek population.

Yiayia, being suspicious of what she reads in the newspapers (ever since being misquoted by the local rag at the tender age of 10), resorted to the primary source, in this case the Hellenic Statistical Authority ELSTAT, which publishes information on all aspects of life and death in Greece (no wisecracks about “Greek statistics” please; no doubt there is the inevitable conspiracy angle here too if you go looking for it, but in my professional experience I always found them reliable, professional and cooperative where population and health data were concerned). Every 5 years a Health Interview Survey (HIS) is conducted, and the findings of the most recent survey in 2014 were published this year (in English). The report shows that the percentage of regular smokers in Greece has fallen from 32% in 2009 to 27.3% in 2014, continuing a welcome trend that we noted in an earlier post. Is it possible that the Ministry of Health warnings on cigarette packets, the health education activities, the anti-smoking campaigns and the restriction on smoking in public places are actually producing results? Perhaps it is also the decreased spending power of smokers in the crisis. Although these findings are encouraging, the idea that more than one quarter of the population are still putting themselves, and the rest of us, at risk, is still alarming and is rightfully described as one of the biggest public health problems facing Greece today.

The rationale for restricting vaping is not clear. Second hand vape may be annoying to those at the next table, in the way that taking selfies or dowsing oneself in Poison are, but at least it is not loaded with the carcinogens of exhaled cigarette smoke. And arguably the government’s efforts would be better directed at enforcing existing laws, starting in their own back yard, rather than issuing new edicts. Although the existing smoking ban is largely observed in public offices and banks, it is acknowledged that its enforcement in bars, coffee shops and eating places has met with spectacular failure. This failure is confirmed by the report cited above, whose figures show that of the people who chose to eat or drink out, nine in ten had recently experienced passive smoking in coffee shops/bars, and eight in ten in restaurants/tavernas. If these numbers are anything to go by, the “vapers” have no more to fear than the traditional Greek smokers from the introduction of legislation to restrict their habit…

Image via

Vapour, smoke and mirrors

“Our piece of Paradise”: Patterns of human activity in coastal zones of the Aegean basin in the Middle Anthropocene (late 2nd-early 3rd millennium AD)


The paper presents the results of an archaeological survey of the the Aegean region, which combined systematic pedestrian and underwater survey with extensive use of remote sensing techniques (including satellite imaging and ground penetrating radar) to document patterns of human activity in the coastal zones during the Middle Athropocene era (late 2nd to early 3rd millennium AD). The authors also refer to contemporary documentary, epigraphic and iconographic evidence in order to reconstruct the social and historical context of the survey findings. It is argued that the spatio-temporal patterning of the findings represents cycles of politico-religious activity in which the power of “being” was embodied in the sacred landscape. Ultimately, the cycles of creation and destruction, the appropriation and de-appropriation of land and resources represented in these usage patterns inscribe on the landscape the contestation of public and private spaces characteristic of a “weak” polity struggling to establish public rights over the assertion of private “wants”.

The survey findings


Reconstruction of a Type 1 temporary coastal structure, Aegean, early 3rd millennium AD.

Our survey has documented a range of structures and material evidence relating to the human occupation of the coastal zones of the Aegean basin during the Middle Anthropocene (late 2nd-early 3rd millennium AD). We divide these structures into two broad types and posit different, specialised uses for each. Type 1, which will be the focus of this study, consists of structures of perishable natural materials found in close proximity to the ancient coastline. Type 2 are more permanent structures, predominantly of reinforced concrete, sometimes found on the coast, but also further inland. Elsewhere we have demonstrated that this latter type structures exhibit the full range of domestic activities, and can therefore be safely described as habitations. We will therefore concentrate on the former, more enigmatic structures.

Type 2 permanent structures in coastal woodland, Aegean, early 3rd millennium AD (via

We used a combination of underwater exploration and surface survey to conduct a detailed examination of a number of Type 1 structures and collect materials for study. The configuration of the coast changed dramatically over the period covered in this study, as glacial melt due to anthropogenic climate change caused sea levels to rise in excess of 1 metre over a period of 100 years in the early 3rd millennium, and shorelines to retreat between by about 400 and 6,500 metres. The inundation of the coastal zone had beneficial effects for the preservation of organic construction materials (primarily wood and reeds), which has enabled us to reconstruct Type 1 structures in some detail.

Spatial distribution of irregular structures, late 2nd-early 3rd millennium AD, showing high concentration in coastal zones (Map of registered illegal constructions via

Through a combination of satellite imaging techniques we have been able to document and date quite precisely the evolution of the coastal landscape, which shows an accelerating pattern of infill in the latter part 20th century AD and into the 21st century.

Tx52_p3 (2)
Evolution of the coastal landscape in the survey area of Keratea, East Attica, 1950-2009 AD (via K. Chatzimichalis on

In the case of Type 1 structures specifically, our excavations have been able to determine that their usage was strictly seasonal, with pollen analysis showing that they were in use almost exclusively in the summer months. Moreover, artefact-rich layers are often interspersed with barren sandy strata and burnt horizons. The stratigraphic record thus shows a longer term cycle of what appears to be deliberate destruction (razing) by mechanical means and sometimes burning, followed by periods of abandonment and reconstruction. We attempt to explain the significance of this pattern in conjunction with epigraphic evidence at the end of the paper.


Material culture


Domed kylix and kalamaki, made from polyethelene terephthalate. The base bears the stamped legend “Made in China”.

By far the most common find associated with Type 1 structures is the “domed kylix“, a lightweight drinking vessel with a domed protective cover bearing an aperture for a drinking kalamaki (straw), based upon the high percentage of domed kylikes found containing complete or partial kalamaki. Residue analysis of the interior of the kylikes revealed in most cases traces of the berry of the plant Coffea arabica, a shrub native to the Arabian peninsula, known for its mild stimulant properties. The use of the cup suggests that it was imbibed in liquid form, while the straw is reminiscent of the earliest Mesopotamian depictions of beer drinking, suggesting that the drink was surmounted by a foamy “head”. The purpose of the protective dome is unclear due to the varied and often disturbed contexts within which the kylikes have been found; intriguingly many such domed kylikes are found in stratigraphic association with carbonised Nicotiana tabacum (see discussion infra); it is possible that the dome may have been intended to keep ash from settling in the liquid (sacramental beverage?) contained within the kylix; insufficient evidence exists to render this supposition conclusive.

The cups themselves commonly bear a manufacturer’s stamp on the base with the legend “Made in China”. Samples of the sandy earth which typically surrounds the structures show a high content of ash, also containing carbonised remains of the leaves of the plant Nicotiana tabacum, native to the Americas. This also a mild psychotropic, and it is believed to have been consumed by inhalation. This evidence attests to a far-flung trading network, bringing exotic substances and consumption habits to the users of these seasonally utilised structures. It is notable that the seasonal users do not appear to have made use of any of the marine resources available within the catchment area, but instead plastic food packaging was found in abundance, suggesting that they were entirely dependent on imported, high-value, processed foodstuffs.

A museum display of maniform pallets in Aghios Kosmas, Attica (via

Another artefact type commonly associated with the Type 1 structure is the wooden maniform pallet. Similar in form to a pizzaiolo dough paddle, their small size and the absence of association with fournoi suggests that the pallets were deployed for some purpose other than panifacture. Often found in matching pairs and with distinctive wear patterns in the centre, the use of the paddles is unknown, and many scholars have suggested that they fulfilled a ritual function.


As students of this period are well aware, the contemporary documentary record is fragmentary. Although this was a society characterised by a high degree of literacy, records were preserved overwhelmingly in digital form, and were therefore largely erased by the Great Solar Storms of the mid-3rd millennium AD. We therefore rely heavily on the epigraphic and iconographic record.

The “Mykonos fragment” (early 3rd millennium AD), thought to depict ritual activity at a Type 1 structure (via

A group of photographic images preserved on paper are thought to show events taking place at Type 1 structures, the best known of which is the so-called “Mykonos fragment” shown above. The photographs show crowds of predominantly young people of both sexes engaged in what appears to be an ecstatic ritual, often led by lightly clad priestesses (or anthropomorphic deities?) shown here dancing on an elevated platform.

Painted plaques attached to the exterior of a Type 1 structure dating to the early 3rd millennium AD.

Epigraphic evidence from the sites themselves comes primarily in the form of painted plaques, which support the idea that Type 1 structures were associated with rituals of a seasonal nature. The text contains brief exhortations (“LOVE”, “RELAX”, “ENJOY”) inviting celebrants to situate themselves outside the routine of secular life (in a state of “ecstasy”, from the Greek ek+stasis, stand outside), while others seem to promise rewards in the form of a mystical afterlife (“WELCOME TO OUR PIECE OF PARADISE”).

It is tempting to link these structures to fragmentary epigraphic evidence surviving from the time. A votive envelope typical of the period, uncovered in a religious/administrative complex in the Middle Anthropocene phase of the city of Thebes, contained a bundle of Euro notes, accompanied by fragments of paperwork bearing the heading “TAKT[O]ΠΟΙ[Σ]Η ΑΥΘΑΙ[ΡΕ]ΤΟΥ” (translated as “Regularisation of Unlicensed [Construction]”). Such finds have been interpreted as offerings made with the intention of regularising (i.e. preserving) an irregular structure such as those documented here. Collectively, they suggest a preoccupation on the part of the keepers of Type 1 and Type 2 structures with safeguarding private ownership and attesting to the legality of their activities within the official religious-administrative apparatus. It suggests that the boundaries between public and private land, and the right to build on it, were fluid and open to ongoing contestation, requiring repeated appeasement of the deities (authorities) on the part of their claimants. This ties in well with the stratigraphic evidence showing cycles of destruction and rebuilding (death and rebirth?), which can perhaps be seen as the physical manifestation of this contestation.

This provides an illuminating counterpoint to what we know about the society of this period, and suggests that the archaeological record can evidence an alternative “being”, or “practice” in Bourdieu’s sense, which challenges the “official” ideations of the relationship between space and power. We commonly think of the Greek polity of the period as being a highly centralised state society (“hydrocephalous” to use the terminology of some scholars). We know, for example that the Greek state was centrally administered by a powerful priestly caste, which at times comprised almost a quarter of the working population. This caste, defined by ties of real or fictive kinship, was able to mobilise and redistribute resources through a complex network of formal and informal exchange systems. This highly structured, centralised system of control contrasts sharply with the material record revealed through archaeological inquiry, which shows greater instability, a fluidity of public and private ownership, uncertainty and insecurity within the population, and ultimately evidence of a weak central state effectively contested by private “wants”.

Further Reading

As of the early 21st century AD, building on forest land and the coastal zone are prohibited by the Greek constitution, however in practice they are systematically built on illegally. Beach bars (“Type 1 structures”) and seaside tavernas are a particularly visible form of encroachment, and holiday homes in forested areas (“Type 2 structures”) are another. Repeated “regularisation” (amnesty) programmes by government and a record of selective political intervention aimed at cultivating a local client base, have tacitly encouraged this illegal building activity, while official land designations (like forestry maps) are regularly contested, either through legal challenges and legislative amendments, or by illegal activities such as building and burning, or encroachment by grazing.

Historical reviews and selected statistics on these subjects can be found (in Greek) here and here. The first linked article quotes an account by a popular Greek composer of a visit in the 1960s to then Prime Minister Georgios Papandreou (the Elder) to discuss an application by a group of artists to build a residential community in a forested area outside Athens; in the account Papandreou hugs them, picks up the phone to the Agriculture Minister and instructs him to get the area zoned for building within a month. The community (“Καλλιτεχνουπολη”) now even has an official sign on the highway.  The latter article notes that in 2001, the Municipality of Keratea in East Attica recorded 6,000 illegally built homes compared to 8,500 legal ones.

A newspaper article from last year (also in Greek) describes vividly the political interventions which prevented the enforcement of land zoning in Attica. When the demolition crews arrived to take down illegal homes which had been standing for 30 years and were declared illegal by the courts as far back as 1994, the local MP led emotional demonstrations by residents, the Interior Minister personally intervened to halt the demolition, and the regional authority warned that any more scheduled demolitions would be met by further public demonstrations. In other instances, MPs of all parties tabled amendments to legislation in order to prevent scheduled demolitions in their constituencies, one even legalising a number illegal cemeteries (another form of encroachment).

In recent years, central government has repeatedly overriden the rulings of the constitutional court intended to protect the coastal zones, including those included in the European Natura 2000 programme, by allowing municipalities to set up beachside facilities. Under the most recent legislative amendment, these facilities have been exempted from inspection, raising concerns for protected wildlife species and sensitive ecosystems.

Buried in a 7,500 page emergency omnibus bill of measures linked to completing the latest bailout review is a seemingly unrelated amendment which environmental group WWF warns could further undermine the current land classification scheme and result in the legalisation of large swathes of illegal build. [POSTSCRIPT: This amendment was removed from the final bill following criticism (according to Skai TV Eco News, 28 May 2016; however, the new law leaves considerable uncertainty around the status of forest maps, allowing plenty of potential for future abuse].

As an additional complication, Greece still lacks a comprehensive land registry and zoning map (cadastre) which makes it hard to establish ownership, particularly in rural areas.

DISCLAIMER: The absence of several pages of citations will have alerted you to the fact that this is not a genuine academic article. The final section is factual, and hyperlinks throughout lead to genuine sources.

“Our piece of Paradise”: Patterns of human activity in coastal zones of the Aegean basin in the Middle Anthropocene (late 2nd-early 3rd millennium AD)

Blowout: a Greek crisis parable


One of Aunt Cassandra’s few remaining luxuries in life is getting her hair done twice a year in her favourite posh hair salon in the old money enclave of Kolonaki. Fortunately, Uncle Aristos’s prudent financial management left her with enough pocket money to allow her the occasional indulgence. So she nearly required a dose of the smelling salts this time, when she called up for an appointment to be told by an equally perplexed sounding receptionist that the business was closing down.

Gosh, she thought, things must be really bad if such an august institution is forced to close its doors, a real humanitarian crisis for the french polish and blowout set… But as is generally the case, there is more to this tale of financial woe than meets the impeccably kohled eye. After a bit of detective work among her more worldly friends, Aunt Cassandra was able to track down her favourite stylist to his new establishment just a few streets away from the old place (AC does not use mobile telephony, and so had not received the text alert that had informed her cronies on the duplicated client list of this new development).

Sitting in the gleaming white space of the brand new salon, AC was soothed by the parade of familiar faces that greeted her (stylists, colourists, manicurists, waxers, pluckers, threaders and juniors) as she dispensed with the preliminary chatter about how Kolonaki isn’t what it used to be, the list of empty addresses that used to house luxury brand stores, and how no-one who is anyone will be seen dead in Mykonos this summer, now everyone of taste and substance is Airbnb’ing on Patmos. Her stylist, the proud new proprietor with his own name now etched in calligraphy on the frosted glass doors, greeted her like an old friend and made sure she was well looked after (he even managed to get her name right, unprompted).

He didn’t need much prompting to spill the beans. The old salon, he said bluntly, had been sunk by greed and mismanagement. In the bubble years, the founder, by all accounts a charismatic rogue well-loved by the society pages, had plundered the business to fund his “hair-raising” (sic) lifestyle, then taken out bank loans to keep it solvent. At the same time he expanded the already over-leveraged business and spent millions on swanky new premises in premium locations.

The first time the salon went bust was in the credit crunch of 2009, when the banks reined in their lending and the boss couldn’t refinance his loans. The stylist described his predicament paraphrasing in a slightly more earthy way Warren Buffet’s observation that “when the tide goes out you can see who is swimming knickerless (ξεβράκωτος, xevrákotos)”. Undeterred, the boss declared the company bankrupt, moved premises, and reopened under a new company registered in his son’s name (a classic λαμογιά in the modern Greek style). The staff who were already owed several months’ wages were coaxed to stay by the promise that this would be a clean slate, and they would be paid what they were owed if they stayed on.

Things did not improve. It was common knowledge that the staff were owed months of back pay, and the owner was not paying their social security contributions. They still turned up for work, but it was clear to the observant eye that they were not engaged in their work. The business could still have succeeded, the stylist felt: it had a strong brand, a loyal and growing customer base, even in the crisis. But as the wear and tear became evident and customer service deteriorated they were deterred. He hoped that his boss would learn from his past failure, but he was disappointed to see the same mismanagement repeated. He had spent the last year in a state of constant anxiety, dreading the day when he would turn up for work to find the shop shuttered. When (not if) this happened, he would find himself at a mature age (how mature? a lady never asks for fear of impugning the quality of the dye job) having built a career from scratch, having to beg for work as a jobbing hairdresser, worrying whether he would ever accumulate enough pension credits to retire on (a far cry from the quasi-mythical Greek hairdresser of peak crisis reporting, qualifying for early retirement on a full pension).

One day he woke up with his mind made up (“as if I had seen a vision”), he moved heaven and earth and managed to find a way to start his own business. With impeccable (lucky) timing, he made his move as his old boss exited stage left pursued by creditors and tax collectors, more than likely planning his comeback. AC was too discreet to ask how he managed to scrape together the means for the gleaming new premises and equipment. She was nervous enough to notice out of the corner of her eye a nervous looking man in a black puffa jacket pacing the street outside with a mobile phone glued to his ear, and feared that her hard-working stylist had made a deal with the devil. It turned out that the man was waiting for one of the clients, whether as a friend or a security detail was not clear. Still…

Why are we even talking about Aunt Cassandra’s posh hairdresser? Surely there are more important things to worry about at the moment, as another round of austerity measures is about to take effect, and words like “Grexit” and “drachma” make a comeback in anticipation of another summer of discontent.

“Kolonaki isn’t what it used to be”, November 2015.

It struck me while listening to the story that it was a variation on a theme that one encounters repeatedly while going about one’s daily business in Greece. It is perhaps no exaggeration to think of it as one of the dominant narratives of the ongoing boom and bust cycle; but it is one that is consistently ignored in the reporting, perhaps because it lacks the spurious moral clarity of Greek victim vs. predatory lender, or lazy Greek vs. principled creditor.

Beauty salons, in common with most small businesses in the service sector, have always lent themselves to what are euphemistically termed “informal” employment practices, or the “grey economy” – casual employment, cash-in-hand payment and the associated tax evasion, non-provision of health insurance, pension contributions and other legally mandated employment benefits – as well as being ideal conduits for outright money-laundering. Both before and during the present crisis, Greece has ranked well above the European average in terms of the size of its shadow economy relative to its GDP and the size of its undeclared labour market (although by their nature, quantifying both of these is very problematic). Recent workplace inspections and surveys suggest that the shadow economy is expanding its reach, as employers find themselves squeezed by lower margins and higher contributions (or claim to), but are also able to demand their own terms from increasingly desperate prospective employees. With the highest unemployment rates in Europe at 24.4% (and youth unemployment over twice that at 52.4%), many are searching for a job, but even those that hold one are not much better off in practice. It was recently reported that two out of three private sector employees are owed between two and fifteen months’ back pay.

While AC was being pampered in the comfort of the salon, trade unions marched through central Athens only a block away as part of five days of organised strike action against a pension and tax reform bill. The juniors sweeping up the hair and making coffees were regaling one another with their adventures trying to get to work by taxi from more affordable parts of town (paid for out of their own pockets, natch) because of the public transport strikes. Young, predominantly female, employed by small businesses, they are not represented by any of the strong interest groups in the labour movement and have been some of the earliest and biggest losers of the crisis.

Since 2008, Greece has lost almost one third of its businesses under a variety of circumstances (see reports in Greek and English). These headline statistics likely mask the number that followed the model of the salon’s founder, wiping clean the slate of an indebted business only to re-emerge in another guise. Some are even less subtle about it: a souvlaki shop in our ordinary residential neighbourhood shuttered overnight leaving cutlery on the tables and a delivery van falling apart in the street, and reappeared a few months later under the exact same name and branding only a few bus stops down the road. Further up the food chain, entire media conglomerates have been doing the same. A good portion of these may not have shuttered their businesses out of genuine desperation. Recent figures show that while more than half of outstanding bank loans to businesses or individuals in Greece are in arrears, the Bank of Greece estimates that about 20% of the money in these “red” loans is owed by “strategic defaulters”, i.e. borrowers who have the assets to pay, but choose not to.

Parables are found in the most unexpected places. The posh hairdresser’s tale puts a less stereotypical face on the dry macroeconomic statistics of Greece’s boom and bust years. We don’t yet know how the story will play out: it offers a hint of redemption and new beginnings for those who jump off the merry-go-round, but also a strong indication that some obvious lessons are being systematically ignored in favour of deceptively simpler narratives of villains and victims.

“Are you saying we are a nation of hairdressers?” asks Aunt Cassandra dubiously, her agile mind ready to pounce on a logical flaw with the alacrity of a thrifty widow spying an underpriced designer handbag at a liquidation sale. Not quite. But perhaps we have something to learn from their stories.

This story is mostly true. Names and inconsequential details have been changed to protect the innocent and self-indulgent alike.

For more Aunt Cassandra, click here.

Images: pinterest, Atlantis Host.

Blowout: a Greek crisis parable

Fear and loathing in Athens


Shocking evidence purporting to relate to a failed coup attempt has been uncovered in Athens in recent weeks. Less than 7km from the Acropolis, near the ancient port of Faliron (sometimes spelled Phaleron) and in the shadow of the modern Olympic Tae Kwon Do arena, redevelopment work on the site of an old race track unearthed over 1,500 sets of human remains. The finds include two mass graves containing “deviant” burials with evidence of violence. The remains are almost three thousand years old, dating to the period immediately preceding the “Golden Age” of Classical Athens, but their significance resonates strongly in the present day.

We excavate the evidence to uncover the hidden political agendas – past and present, large and small – behind the reporting of this discovery, and restore its true significance. For extra points, we will attempt to do this without resorting to the familiar mythological clichés of Greek crisis reporting (“Acropolis now!” “Lost their marbles!” “Greek tragedy!”).

Politics past

One particular find from this excavation has captured the popular imagination in Greece and abroad. The final phase of the excavations uncovered a mass grave containing 80 skeletons, many of which have their wrists bound in iron shackles. The skeletons studied so far belong to healthy young men who appear to have died an undignified death, evidently a mass execution. The excavator, presenting them for the first time recently, dated this group to the latter part of the 7th century BC, and went to suggest that they may be linked to a specific historical event, the so-called Kylonian Conspiracy.

An earlier excavation conducted in the early twentieth century during the first wave of modern development in the area had found a group of 17 skeletons that appeared to have been executed using a practice known as “apotympanismos” – an early form of crucifixion. The condition of some of the remains suggested to their excavator that they had also been subjected to violent lynching. The finds shocked early twentieth century Athenian society, and their excavator published a lengthy and detailed study of the practice that until then had only been hinted at in ancient texts. It is now suggested that the two groups may be connected.

The Kylonian Conspiracy is known as the earliest attested “historical” event in Athenian history, and several Classical historians recount versions of the story. In the early days of the Athenian city-state, Kylon was a successful athlete who, having won Olympic glory and consulted the Delphic Oracle, sought to use his father-in-law’s out-of-town muscle to install a tyranny in Athens (his father-in-law being himself the tyrant of the nearby city of Megara). Kylon and his followers were pursued by the Athenians and sought sanctuary in the temple of Athena on the Acropolis, where sacred law protected them from harm (the origin of the modern institution of “asylum”). They were besieged and starved, and were eventually cajoled into leaving the protection of the shrine, at which point they were attacked and most of them were slaughtered.

According to the ancient accounts, this act of sacrilege brought shame on the ruling family of Athens at the time, the Alkmeonidai, and also saddled them with a divine curse which followed them through the generations bringing epidemics and other disasters upon the city. The event brought a period of unrest, which eventually served as a catalyst for the first codification of Athenian law under Solon, which is considered the cornerstone of the political innovation that was ancient Athenian democracy.

The political symbolism of the Kylonian Conspiracy is not lost on the Greece of 2016, where the modern institution of democracy seems to be challenged and tested from many directions: from the perpetual election cycle as successive governments have failed to live up to the challenges of the financial crisis, to the traumatic experience of direct democracy in a controversial referendum and the hue and cry of #thisisacoup when the result was overturned, to the questioning of the democratic accountability of the supra-national lending institutions which supervise the Greek bailout, and the perceived threat from heavy-handed government interventions in the modern democratic institutions of the media and the judiciary. One humorist reacted by publishing a spoof story identifying the shackled skeletons with a group of journalists sanctioned by their union in connection with allegations of bias in their coverage of the July referendum.

You don’t need the Delphic oracle to tell you that there are more difficult times ahead for Greece, as a further round of difficult bailout negotiations looks set to drag on into another long hot summer, and more austerity is looming on the horizon. The political violence seemingly evidenced in the ground mingles all too readily with the whiff of political turmoil in the air in Athens, as the government seeks to quell rumours of early elections, new political parties are launched almost daily, and there is a general jockeying for position in expectation of political developments.

The grisly find serves as a reminder that the path to democracy was not a peaceful one, and that ancient Athenian democracy was not the scrubbed and sanitised ideal state we often like to imagine but a dirty, fractious and, yes, violent, regime which eventually exercised its punitive powers against most of the household names we associate with its Golden Age (Socrates – death by poison; Themistocles – exile; Thucydides – exile; Phidias – prison and/or exile, and the list continues). The gruesome punishment of apotympanismos continued to be practiced under no less a democratic luminary than Pericles, who used it on the captives of the Samian revolt in 439 BC. Even at its height, Athenian democracy would rank low in any modern human rights index, as in addition to featuring state-sponsored torture it was based on slave labour and excluded women from most areas of public life, including the vote. In an ideal word, these finds should shock us out of our reverential approach to the past. At the very least my unreconstructed exceptionalist friends should feel able to brag to the rest of the world that “when you were still in the trees, we were inventing new and unusual forms of punishment”.

Politics present

As is often the case, there is more to this story of ancient gore than meets the eye. Armchair archaeology is a practice fraught with more dangers than a booby-trapped Mayan tomb in an Indiana Jones film, however we can venture some general observations. The identification of an archaeological find with a specific historical event is tricky to say the least – for comparison, consider the burden of proof required to conclusively identify the remains of Richard III, only five centuries old and with several living descendants. The shackled burials have been dated based on the style of a couple of pots found in their vicinity, thought to be the remains of a sacrifice. Some controversy around the date may be based on misreporting. However, dating the finds to a specific year (e.g. 632 BC) will not be possible, given that inferring a chronological date from purely stylistic criteria is by its nature imprecise, and scientific dating techniques (when they come to be applied) will have a margin of error.

It is also worth pointing out that all of the historical accounts of the Kylonian Conspiracy date to at least a couple of centuries after the supposed event, which itself is only dated approximately by modern scholars to 632BC, based on the account that it was an Olympic year. The story has strong mythical overtones (the family curse, a recurring motif of many a Greek tragedy) and it also serves as a plot device, to explain the existence of the curse which was repeatedly used as a political slur against subsequent generations of the Alkmaionidai. Put simply, there is reason to believe that the Kylonian Conspiracy is not 100% historical fact, let alone connected to the finds in question.

But now, as then, it makes for a good story; and now, as then, it fulfils a purpose. The purpose is presumably to bring the finds in the Faliron Delta to the public’s attention, to ensure that the excavation continues to be supported and the finds are given due prominence. The excavation is the focus of a micro-political struggle of its own. The investigation of the 3,000 square metre site is being conducted as a rescue excavation, which started in 2012 to prepare the ground for a major building project, now nearing its completion. The project is the construction of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre (SNFCC), a €584 million landmark Renzo Piano-designed building funded by the estate of the late shipping magnate, which will be given over to the Greek state on its completion to house the Greek National Opera and the National Library of Greece. The Cultural Centre is eagerly anticipated, including by the top echelons of the present government; it was always intended to provide Athens with a world class library and performance venue, but in the years of the crisis that followed its commissioning its visible progress has offered a welcome contrast to the overwhelming climate of pessimism.

At the same time, it has attracted criticism from some quarters, particularly the left-wing arts community. Some (mainly on the left of the political spectrum) are sceptical of the motives behind the donation, concerned about the perceived appropriation of public culture by an expatriate shipping family (the rival Onassis Foundation has come in for similar barbs), particularly at a time when the Greek shipping industry is under scrutiny for its preferential tax status. Others (mainly on the right) fear for the future of the Centre once it is passed to the public sector, given recent examples of mismanagement and the inevitable squeeze on public funding for culture.

How does this affect the archaeology? Τhe Niarchos Foundation have been funding the archaeological investigations on the site, and are obliged by law to cover the cost of the storage and conservation of any finds, which in this case will be significant. Provision must also be made for exhibiting a selection of the finds, in the tradition of recent public projects in Greece which inevitably stumble upon ancient remains during their construction (passengers on the Athens Metro can see preserved or reconstructed archaeological sections as well as exhibition cases with objects found on the site in many of the underground stations).

As the SNFCC nears its completion (it is due to be delivered later this year), timelines are getting tighter, the magnitude of the find is becoming more apparent, and the relationship between the Foundation and the Greek Archaeological Service is evidently coming under strain. In a recent meeting of the Special Advisory Committee for the project (webcast live in its entirety – transparency advocates take note!) it was agreed that the last remaining section of the excavations containing the shackled skeletons, and fortunately located in the surrounding park rather than an area intended for building, would be allowed to remain open for continued investigation so as not to hold back the completion of the building works. But the tone was tetchy, and the Foundation’s President appeared to be growing impatient with the archaeologists. A few days after the meeting the latest finds were presented, and the theory of the Kylonian Conspiracy was mooted. Meanwhile, articles have begun to appear, critical of the Foundation for taking what is seen by some as a high-handed approach and failing to provide support commensurate to the status of the find.

In a recent article it was reported that the KAS (Greece’s Central Archeological Council) took the decision by a close vote to keep the remaining section of the excavation open and seek solutions for its conservation and exhibition. It is unclear where any further funding for the excavation will come from, what arrangements will be made for exhibiting the finds, and how these will fit in with the existing functions of the building which is now almost complete. The Niarchos Foundation has not made any further statement on the matter, but a resolution will need to be reached in the near future. The situation is complicated further by the sudden departure of the SNFCC’s Managing Director.

This will be a test not just for the Foundation, but also for the institutions involved in shaping cultural policy in Greece, which have traditionally resisted the involvement of the private sector but now find themselves deeply embroiled, given both the context and the scale of the find. Sensationalising archaeological finds in pursuit of funding, access or political favour, however tempting, is a risky strategy – as we have noted previously in the case of Amphipolis. The importance of this particular find is indisputable, but it is not because of the shaky Kylon connection.

The Faliron Delta cemetery may be one of the largest ever excavated in Greece. It was in use for almost three hundred years during a poorly understood period on the cusp between prehistory and the historical era. The large sample size will make it possible to reach significant conclusions about the population of Archaic Athens, its genetic makeup, its diet and its historical evolution. Moreover, the preservation conditions are exceptional, because the site lay in swampy ground in a river delta. In addition to the mass graves, it includes an amazing variety of funerary practices, including infant jar burials, funeral pyres, boat burials (with carved wooden boats fully preserved), and animal burials (including several horses) (further information and photos here). Archaeological techniques for recovery, conservation and analysis have progressed significantly since the first excavations on the site, but the sheer volume of material will undoubtedly pose a logistical, as well as a funding challenge for those involved (an international team based in the American School of Classical Studies in Athens has already been given permission to study the osteological material).

Although the present situation looks like a bind, it actually presents an enormous opportunity to overhaul the practice of archaeology and heritage management in Greece. Having excited the popular imagination with blood and gore, we hope that the public will be rewarded with access to the findings, breaking with the tradition of proprietorial neglect that characterises large swathes of archaeological practice in Greece at the exclusion of the public. At the same time, it would be a mistake to treat the private sector as a bottomless source of unconditional funding to make up for the shortcomings of the public sector. It would be a shame if the emerging tussle between public and private sectors were to condemn such important finds to the darkness of museum store room, so a constructive and innovative approach is needed from both sides. The discovery would also seem to present a unique (if unforeseen and unbudgeted-for) opportunity for the Niarchos Foundation to add a further dimension to its cultural project by promoting a thoroughly modern look into the past. The technologically forward approach which aims to deliver a zero-emissions building would find a natural extension in the scientific approach to the archaeology on the site, while the Foundation’s educational initiatives would harmonise with innovative practices of study and display.

This is a tremendous opportunity to give the public a deeper and perhaps more interactive understanding of the archaeological past and its relevance in the modern world. If in years to come we remember the Faliron cemetery simply as the site of a failed coup, it should be counted a failure.

Image by the Greek Ministry of Culture, via press release from


Fear and loathing in Athens

News for Wombats


One particularly memorable episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus features a series of sketches, starting with “News for Parrots” (“… and now the news for parrots. No parrots were involved in an accident on the M1 today…”) and culminating in the utterly absurd “News for Wombats”. This is what I was reminded of when the Greek public broadcaster ERT launched its “news bulletin for refugees” last week, aimed at the 50,000-odd refugees and migrants stranded in Greece. Other observers took the news far more seriously.

ERT claims to have received several hundred complaints from viewers following the broadcast. Right-wing (and more extreme) commentators were quick to comment on social media using terms like “shame”, “debasement”, “national capitulation” and “muslim colonisation”, and questioning why public funds were spent on it. The outrage reached its peak when a screenshot featuring a female newsreader in a hijab made the rounds of the social media as well as some mainstream news sources. It was eventually exposed as a hoax, in which someone had photoshopped a screenshot of a Saudi news presenter from a BBC report onto the ERT backdrop, but the debunking did not gain nearly as much prominence as the initial outrage. The fake headscarf controversy dovetailed neatly with a real headscarf controversy when an Egyptian student marched with her school in the Greek independence day parade on the 25th March in a hijab. Then some viewers selectively picked out the word “Macedonia” in the spoken Arabic ERT and assumed (wrongly) that the newsreader had used the M-word without its mandated qualifiers – taken to be a sign of a further national debasement. And it all went downhill from there…

What was most noticeable in the public “debate” which ensued is how much ground needs to be covered in very short order, for Greeks to be able to cope culturally with the dawning reality that many of the new arrivals will be around for quite some time.

All of which fuss, however, is not real reason to criticise ERT for its “News for Refugees” initiative – unless you have an agenda. Here I will take at face value the public broadcaster’s initiative to reach beyond its native audience, and instead outline how I think it is failing the refugees and migrants in terms of language, message and medium – in fact, in just about every possible way – and what might be the subtext.

The language

At a very basic level, there is a limitation in terms of the language chosen, namely Arabic. Although the most of the migrants and refugees (according to UNHCR figures) come from majority Arabic speaking countries (Syria and Iraq), they also include a substantial minority of Dari and Farsi speakers from Afghanistan and Iran, as well as Kurdish speakers from across the region and to a lesser extent Urdu (among Pakistanis). Local radio stations, including Athens municipal radio have already been broadcasting in several languages (including Arabic) aimed at visitor and immigrant communities for some years. But leaving that limitation aside, there are more fundamental flaws in the way the ERT project has been conceived and implemented.

The message

I use quotation marks around “news” because the content of the bulletin isn’t exactly news. It sounds (or reads, in my case, as I rely on the Greek subtitles) more like a public service announcement in a dystopian communist regime that has just been struck by a disaster – something like Chernobyl perhaps. It starts by reminding migrants that the borders are closed, and directing them to disband in an orderly manner from makeshift camps like Idomeni and Piraeus and avail themselves of the free bus service to organised accommodation; it asks people to not believe information from non-official sources; it gives information on where to register for relocation and assistance programmes; it lists the regulated prices for bottled water and sandwiches; and it closes with a weather forecast.

The urge to convey this information is understandable – for months, the Greek government has been criticised for allowing disinformation and price gouging to run riot around the migrant camps. However, to the extent that the bulletin reaches its intended audience (more of which below), we might question whether the tone and format will engender trust in people who are in many cases fleeing authoritarian regimes, and who are presumably fed up to the back teeth of being directed by anything with the whiff of official propaganda.

And then there is that title – “News for Refugees” – that lingers on screen, as if to remind the viewer that this is intended for a different class of person, one as distant from normal everyday reality as a parrot or a wombat perhaps…

When ERT addresses the Greek viewing public on the subject of the refugee crisis, its coverage is just as cloying, condescending and sensationalist as any of the private channels. Recently, a man featured on an ERT news report about volunteering as a temporary host for refugee families complained that the report had systematically misrepresented his situation and that of his guests. He detailed how the crew arrived without a translator to interview his guests, and subsequently edited the interviews to remove any reference to the complexity of the refugee crisis and the situation in Syria, the exploitation his guests suffered by Greek taxi drivers, and any personal details that might have served to humanise them in the eyes of the viewer. He accused ERT of trying to fit everything into the “easily digestible schema of beleaguered refugee vs. charitable Greek”.

The medium

Under normal circumstances, one would expect a rudimentary element of audience research before launching a new service, especially one as challenging as this. Even in these circumstances, you don’t need to be a market research genie to quickly conclude that very few (if any) of your intended audience are dedicated TV viewers – for a variety of practical reasons, mainly to do with living on the run. Beyond that, some information can be gleaned for free from the surveys that the UNHCR has been conducting  on recent arrivals in Greece. For example, among Syrians arriving in February, 24% said that they had sourced information on their journey from social media, mobile apps or specialised websites. Only 8% of Afghans arriving over the same period cited these sources. The top source for Syrians were travel companions (43%), friends and family at destination (25%), calling someone ahead on the route (23%) and people smugglers (16%). Afghans had relied overwhelmingly on people smugglers (73%) for information. In neither group does television feature as an information source – presumably because they have not spent their journey in four- and five-star accommodation with satellite TV.

Internet media, rather than conventional phone networks, are what many migrants and refugees use to communicate as they travel – so even as they get their information from a person (traffickers, friends and family) they get it via apps and social media. The smartphones (which have been the focus of resentment by sceptical European observers) act as telephone, mail, bulletin board, navigation aid and location beacon, as they pass through countries where their native language is not spoken.  The people traffickers have in fact been using social media to drum up business for some time. A risk report issued by the European border agency Frontex in 2014 cited examples of Facebook pages touting for business in Turkey and flagged social media as an area of concern for combatting human trafficking. Several media reports have also highlighted the social media strategy of the smugglers, also using platforms like Twitter, WhatsApp and Viber. Local support groups also use Facebook more legitimately to gather and disseminate information in a variety of languages.

This is an on-the-go version of technological “leapfrogging”, where the bush telegraph and the mobile app shake hands, bypassing the old media of newspapers and television. Last week, three people died and several hundred were apprehended by the Macedonian authorities and returned to Greece after following directions circulated in a photocopied leaflet – a very low-tech medium indeed. On Sunday, a few hundred refugees and migrants were attracted back to Idomeni by rumours that the border was about to reopen, apparently spread on Facebook. So, to cut a long story short, a tiny bit of common sense would have told that people living in tents don’t watch TV (unless they are European families on a “camping” holiday with their satellite dish), and a little bit of research would have pointed to existing successful models for “penetrating that hard-to-reach audience”.

The subtext

But then, our public broadcaster seems to have only a passing relationship with, or interest in, their native audience. Very few Greeks get their news from ERT. The Syriza/ANEL government restored the public broadcaster to its original identity (and staffing levels) last year, reversing its forcible closure and restructuring under the Samaras government. However, despite the heavy political significance invested in it, most Greeks who also pay compulsory fee to fund it through their electricity bills, do not watch it. ERT’s evening news bulletin is stuck at the bottom of the ratings – the latest figures show it reaching an audience of 153,000 – or 3.6% share. The channel directors are so unhappy with this state of affairs that they have announced their intention to challenge the ratings, in a move reminiscent of the government’s initiative to regulate polling organisations. In this context it is hard to trust ERT’s own claim that the Arabic news bulletin has had a “great response among Arabic-speaking migrants staying in our country.” It is also hard to assess how many of the “approximately 30,000 viewers” who watched the first bulletin online were the intended audience rather than curious Greeks clicking to be outraged by the scarfed woman saying the M-word.

These are blindingly obvious weaknesses that suggest that the originators of the idea, however well-intentioned they may have been, operate in some kind of state-sponsored media bubble. In the best case they merely missed their target by a wide mile. More likely they had other targets in mind – like flattering a domestic audience with the illusion that the government is doing its humanitarian best to manage a chaotic situation, but that ultimately all we can do is be charitable and not bother ourselves with the messy complexities. Such a smug and self-serving approach, however, will ultimately backfire. The initial reactions suggest that we ignore the nuances at our peril.



News for Wombats

This is not a refugee camp

I can’t see what is going on in Idomeni, the sprawling tent city on the Greek-Macedonian border. Nor can you. It doesn’t matter how many pictures you see in the newspaper and on the evening news, or how diligently you monitor your social media feed. We are inundated with visuals of the refugee crisis, to the point where one could receive a wire photographer’s reel, frame by frame, in real time if one chose to. Even we you try to opt out, newspapers will print them in full colour on the front page (“see p.5 for the report”) and people will retweet them or post them on Facebook with comments like “the picture says it all”. But it doesn’t. We still won’t see a refugee camp, because we will be seeing photos of a refugee camp.

Policy on the refugee crisis has been driven by images. 350,000 people had already crossed the Mediterranean by sea and 2,600 had died in 2015 but it took a photo of a drowned toddler to mobilise national leaders to start confronting the problem. Images are powerful, but there is a simple principle we fail routinely to apply:

This is not going to be a blog post about how photos are posed or faked or fabricated to serve political agendas. Errol Morris who wrote the tweet above is not given to throwaway statements. He is the director of documentaries like The Thin Blue Line (uncovering a miscarriage of justice long before Netflix’s Making a Murderer), Standard Operating Procedure (about those Abu Ghraib photos) and The Unknown Known (in which he slowly and methodically dissected Donald Rumsfeld); as a student he antagonised his way out of Thomas Kuhn’s classes in history of science at Princeton University (him of “paradigm shift” fame). A few years ago he wrote a fascinating book called Believing is Seeing (Observations on the Mysteries of Photography). In it, he researched famous and controversial photographic images to demonstrate how false the sense of objectivity is that they convey, and how easily they lend themselves to distortion – without the aid of photoshop, and often without real intent. All photos, even the most trustworthy ones, from war photography to holiday snaps, are always framed by the photographer and constrained by the circumstances in which they are taken; they never tell the whole story.

In one example, Morris considers a well-known photo showing a Mickey Mouse toy in the ruins of an apartment block in Tyre after an Israeli shelling, which was accused of being fake or staged. He interviews the photographer and together they dissect forensically the circumstances under which the photo was taken, the decisions the photographer took, and the reason why it was seen to be so appealing and so controversial. The photo has an emotional appeal – it suggests that a child may have been made homeless, injured or killed in the shelling – but no such event can be confirmed from the interview. The photographer insists that he only included the toy to convey the fact that the the photo was of a residential area. It was not staged or faked, but the subject matter was chosen and framed, despite the pressurised conditions in the midst of a war zone. Whatever its maker’s original intent, the photo escaped it once it hit the wires. The same image was used to support anti-Israeli arguments (for shelling residential areas without regard for children’s lives) and anti-Hizbollah arguments (for using civilians as human shields), and to argue for the mendacity of the media (by suggesting that and similar photos were staged to support particular agendas). I recommend reading the investigation in full because I can’t do its thoroughness justice here.

The compulsion to produce a meaningful image that will have real impact is what drives their makers to grapple with the practical, moral and emotional challenges involved in crafting them in crisis situations. Here is a statement from one of the leading photographers covering the refugee crisis today: “I believe in the power of the image. It’s time to shock people. It could be a way to prompt people into action.” Could it be though that the image overload is stopping us from seeing?

Now consider a photo closer to home. The image of a man and a woman bathing a newborn baby by the entrance to a tent in muddy terrain was tweeted by photographer Iker Pastor on 6 March with the caption “… And life goes on in #Idomeni”.

When it was published in the press a few days later it was captioned along the lines of “a woman has just given birth to her child in a small and dirty tent”. According to the Daily Mail (12 March), it was The baby born in hell: Tragic migrant mother gives birth in the squalor of Idomeni’s tent city and washes the child in a PUDDLE . On 12 March, the Spanish newspaper El Español published the background story, having interviewed the Basque photographer and tracked down the Syrian family featured in the photo. Pastor himself had not had time to speak with the family, he had just taken the photo on the fly and moved on. It turns out the baby was 20 days old when the picture was taken; by the time they were interviewed they had thankfully been moved to better accommodation. A further article, this time in the German newspaper Bild revealed that the baby had been born on a beach in Turkey after his mother went into labour and had to abandon the boat they had boarded to go to Greece. Perhaps because this background information was published in Spanish and German, it did not make the rounds of the internet as quickly as the photo. Some news websites corrected their online copy (but hey, who goes back to re-read old news?), the TV news did not revisit the story. No one corrected the bit about the baby being washed “in a PUDDLE”, such is the power of suggestion that it caused people to ignore the water bottle clearly visible in the photo.

It made me wonder about the stories behind photos such as these, also depicting children in varying states of distress and discomfort.

The photo of the crying girl (top left) standing in the middle of a busy highway in the rain in a flimsy makeshift poncho was also shared widely on social media. Without context, many assumed the girl was lost and started a campaign to identify her and reunite her with her family. It turned out this was not the case; her isolation was an artefact of the way the photo was framed. The photo of the little boy carrying a bag, also seemingly walking alone along the the highway (top right) was used in many media sources to illustrate a Europol report revealing that 10,000 unaccompanied minors who entered Europe as migrants were missing, and vulnerable to exploitation by criminal networks. A different shot shows him walking as part of a group. The photo of the children in the Idomeni camp holding up signs is clearly staged, and it is unclear who provided the signs in matching handwriting and idiomatic English. Though the situation is new and specific, these images fit easily into the well-established genre of “images of refugees” which has trained our eye to “read” these situations in generic ways and seek generic solutions.

You might object, with some justification, that this pedantic quibbling over details does not alter the fact that a newborn has been living in a tent in a muddy overcrowded field; or that over one third of the approximately 13,000 people camping in the (undeniably real) mud in Idomeni are children, many of whom are ill or at risk of illness; or that children are at risk of trafficking on the migrant routes, and even the ones posing for the cameras are living in miserable conditions. But since the baby photo and its original (faulty) story has taken on a life of its own, it has become a symbol of the heartlessness of Europe and the inhumanity of the Balkan countries who have sealed their borders. The photo has come to stand for Idomeni, and Idomeni to stand for all the refugees stuck in Greece, and those beyond waiting to enter Europe. It might be worth asking what this and photos like it are actually showing, and what they are hiding. Here are some relevant facts that the photos won’t tell you.

Almost two thirds of the estimated total 45,000 refugees and migrants stranded in Greece at the time of writing are not in Idomeni (UNHCR provides daily updates here). Idomeni, along with Piraeus, where migrants arrive by ferry from the islands after crossing from Turkey, are informal camps that have sprung up at natural “choke points” on the route north. They lack facilities because the Greek government does not want to encourage staying there long, if at all (Deputy Immigration Minister Mouzalas stated recently in a TV interview that became notorious for other reasons, “we did not want an official state facility on the border to facilitate and establish that route”). The same was the case with Victoria Square in Athens, which hosted an informal encampment and muster point for people-traffickers, before it was evacuated overnight by police. This “arm’s length” approach is not due to lack of funds or resources or organisation, it is conscious policy choice. Resources are being withheld from Idomeni in the hope that its occupants will abandon it for less contentious locations.

The government is committed to evacuating Idomeni too, but has ruled out using force to do it. This is justified on humanitarian grounds (though police have been used on a small scale on previous occasions), but at the back of their minds must also be the reaction that the French authorities have provoked by forcibly clearing the “jungle” at Calais. The milestone that both the government and the migrants are holding out for is an anticipated EU agreement on managing migrant flows: the migrants are hoping it will result in open borders; the Greek government is banking on their disappointment from the more likely opposite decision, to abandon the camp. Until then, they try and dissuade people from travelling to the border by issuing official entreaties and providing transport to official reception centres, without much success. In Idomeni, the residents would rather believe disinformation encouraging them to break the law with potentially fatal consequences, than be guided by official advice, which in any case appears to be sparse and confusing; three Afghanis drowned trying to cross a swollen stream following a rogue leafletting campaign earlier this week.

There are official hosting facilities for migrants established by the Greek state. Most have been thrown up in the last couple of months, in decommissioned army camps and municipal facilities scattered across the country (a map with the locations and numbers of people hosted can be seen here). Officially, Greece will have 50,000 places in migrant hosting facilities this week (UNHCR reported Greece’s reception capacity at just 11,865 at the beginning of February) and want to encourage migrants to move from the open camps to these sheltered facilities. The authorities were slow to act on this front, and the reason was not just the dire state of public finances; there were policy choices here too (we have documented the Greek national politics of the refugee crisis in previous posts, here, here and here). For a variety of reasons, either because the government did not wish to encourage migrants to stay, or to avoid providing political ammunition to the opposition by appearing to encourage migrants to stay, the local policy impetus was against providing official infrastructure. In addition, the governing Syriza party had been vocal campaigners against immigration detention centres in opposition, and therefore the optics of a camp of any sort went against their political instincts.

We see no photos of the official hosting facilities because as of 29 February the government has barred all media from those sites, ostensibly in response to requests from staff and managers dealing with overcrowded conditions. Less understandable is their reluctance to give access to observers from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. We simply don’t know how well-run these hosting facilities are (conditions in some of the new camps are reported to be very poor, but earlier volunteer visitors to some of the first centres in Athens reported that they were well organised and well provisioned). Migrants often walk out of them to return to Piraeus or Idomeni on foot, blaming their remoteness and lack of facilities, but mainly because they fear missing out on the opportunity to continue their journeys northwards. The result is unbalanced coverage: the unofficial camps where conditions are poor and doomed to worsen are crawling with media and NGO reporters, the official ones might as well not exist. The politics (and particularly the national policies directly relevant to the specific situation at Idomeni) remain hidden, we see only a “humanitarian” crisis for which a distant, faceless “Europe” is to blame.

There is another thing. At this point it does not look likely that the borders will re-open. The fate and well-being of those waiting at Idomeni does not actually depend on the outcome of this EU summit or the ones that will no doubt ensue, as their focus is on the treatment of the migrants that have not yet entered Europe, not the ones that are already in Greece. However, back in September European leaders agreed (reluctantly in some cases) on an internal relocation scheme for 160,000 refugees to be shared between European countries. This scheme is a drop in the bucket compared to the total numbers, but more importantly it has been painfully slow to implement, apparently due to bureaucratic hurdles and local politics (only 569 out of the allocated 66,400 refugees have been relocated from Greece, and only 0.4% of the EU-wide target overall, according to the latest European Commission figures). The relocation scheme could (in theory) provide a safe way out for a significant number of the people stranded in Greece that does not necessitate camping in squalor and risking their lives further, if governments could only be made to honour these existing political commitments. Every time they fail to do so, they chip away at what little trust the migrants have in “official” solutions and push them towards the razor wire and the people traffickers rather than towards a more hygienic stopping place and a safer route. So while it helps in the short term to make donations and send blankets and shoes, it would help more if MPs and local authorities across Europe were held to account by their own constituents (i.e. us) for their inaction.

The art historian John Berger, writing at the peak of the Vietnam war disputed the received wisdom that shocking images spur their viewers to act. In a short essay entitled “Photographs of Agony” he argued that their real effect was to cause a feeling of moral inadequacy and powerlessness. Confronted by a photograph of agony,

“Either he shrugs off this sense of inadequacy as being only too familiar, or else he thinks of performing a kind of penance – of which the purest example would be to make a contribution to OXFAM or UNICEF. In both cases, the issue of the [event] which has caused that moment is effectively depoliticised. The picture becomes evidence of the general human condition. It accuses nobody and everybody.”

It is becoming more and more clear that there is no silver bullet that will “solve” the refugee crisis, and that we will be living with its effects for some time to come (Greek officials are now speaking conservatively of two years but it will probably be much longer). A massive coordinated solution is still required to tackle the problem at source, but the local complexities also need to be appreciated and dealt with to manage what is already happening. The deluge of decontextualised images that pushes us to cry “oh the humanity” and makes us feel impotent before the inhumanity of governments, actually prevents us from “seeing” what is going on, does not encourage nuanced or critical thinking and may be blinding us to actions we can take that lie closer to our reach.

Images: Photo of girl in the rain: Yiannis Behrakis (Reuters); photos of boy on the highway (Eurokinissi); photo of children holding signs (Getty Images).

Since its original publication, this post was improved both factually and substantively by feedback via Twitter from @damomac@fly_dervish and @versendaal, for which I am very grateful.



This is not a refugee camp