A load of rubbish


Any archaeologist will tell you that rubbish is a great source of information. The more of it, the better. How else would we have a hope of understanding what makes societies tick if they didn’t leave the detritus of their daily lives lying about the place? We know from digging through our own landfills and battling the paparazzi and the identity thieves to go through household rubbish bins that we humans are unreliable witnesses of what we consume, and how much of it. Nothing speaks more directly than actual rubbish.

Unfortunately, what it is telling us at this precise time stinks.

As the result of a nationwide strike by municipal sanitation workers, the rubbish is piling up on the street corners across Greece.

As one newspaper report pointed out this is hardly the first time the bin men have summoned up their command of the smelly stuff to protest over their working conditions. Over the last forty years, they have taken this particularly potent form of industrial action over a dozen times (and this is not counting more frequent local protests and work stoppages which can last for months), the result of successive governments’ reluctance to address the chronic misallocation of resources in local government. Over the years, it had been common practice to keep the number of permanent local authority employees low and supplement them with seasonal contractors. The fixed-term contracts were then routinely converted to permanent positions as a way of bestowing political patronage. This latest strike was sparked by a ruling by Greece’s Court of Audit, which declared such contract conversions unconstitutional, contradicting ministerial assurances to the workers, who number 6,000 in total, that a healthy portion of them would be hired through the “traditional” channels.


The archaeologist of the future might conclude that there is something ritualistic about this periodic build-up of domestic waste within the urban space, this cyclical departure from the routine purification of the demos of its rubbish and its deposition outside the city walls. There is certainly some form of non-verbal communication evident in the accumulation of putrid piles of the stuff, a material call and response that never seems to reach resolution.

Given the time of year, it is not just the bad odour and the potential health hazards that are creating distress. As news crews station themselves by the most spectacular accumulations, we are also starting to hear the seasonal cry of “What will the tourists think?”

Well, the foreign media are always quick to seize on an exotic photo opportunity, especially when it can used to enliven a boilerplate “anti-austerity protest” story. But we now know that even celebrity visitors cruising by our remote beauty spots in their superyachts can’t get away from the rubbish. Unrelated to the strikes, Willow (alliterative offspring of Hollywood actor Will) Smith sent this holiday snap from the Ionian islands to the world on her Instagram.

Fortunately, other foreign visitors were less perturbed. The EU’s Environment Commissioner showed a gift for timing, paying a scheduled visit to the Athens just as the strike was coming to a head, with rubbish high on the agenda. Hosting him, the head of the regional authority of Attica dutifully recited the latest European statistics which show that Greece sends a disappointing 81% of its waste to landfill, compared to a European average of 31%. She could easily have added that Greece has racked up tens of millions of Euros in fines for breaking EU regulations on waste management over the years by allowing dozens of illegal landfills to continue operating, while only the financial crisis has had a serious impact on reducing the amount of waste sent to them – a reduction of up to a third according to one recent estimate.

According to the Greek state news agency, the Commissioner praised the the new waste management strategy designed to encourage recycling, leaving us to ponder whether to admire his steadfast focus on the big picture – or to question whether he ever left the airport.

IMAGES: Photo by Eleftherios Ellis, AFP/Getty Images via The Guardian; infographic from Kathimerini.

A load of rubbish

Your meta-post-truth 2016


The year 2016 was so “post-” (or “meta-“, to insist on the Greek) that it is closing quite literally with the very last Last Christmas*. As an end-of-year salute we proudly present the 10 most read blog posts of 2016 on Dateline: Atlantis, recalling some of its weirdest moments from a Greek perspective.

#10: In April we eavesdropped on the IMF in Athens: 7 takeaways from that Wikileaks IMF transcript

#9: In March we read the media images of refugees in Greece: This is not a refugee camp

#8: In February we compiled some choice quotes by Greek politicians on the refugee crisis: My big fat Greek refugee crisis quiz

#7: On April 1st we advertised the cruise from hell (and my own personal favourite): Live your (urban) myth in Greece

#6: In December we secretly transcribed the congratulatory call between Alexis Tsipras and PEOTUS Donald Trump – an in our post-truth world some readers believed us: You’re hired.

#5: In April we got a crash course on contemporary Greek culture by watching an Easter toy shop ad: Jumbo nation

#4: In May we looked back on the material culture of the Greek beach bar from the distant future: “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)

#3: In February we got frustrated with the Greek culture of victimhood and its naÏve foreign enablers: The good, the bad and the ugly – travels in Greek hyperreality

#2: In April a papal visit prompted us to issue a brief explainer on the Orthodox-Catholic schism for beginners: Get your Schism on!

#1: In April, a grisly find prompted some timely ruminations on the perils of democracy: Fear and loathing in Athens

Now gird your loins and sharpen your wits for 2017. Rumour has it that Pangloss and Polyanna are preparing to co-author a coping guide (foreword by F. Fukuyama). It must be true, ’cause I read it on Facebook.

* One suspects quite the opposite.

IMAGE: Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, right panel, detail (painted between 1490-1510).

Your meta-post-truth 2016

Stories about the Olive, part II: the urban olive

img_20141107_130704856Despite being a sprawling city of over three million inhabitants with more than its fair share of congestion and pollution, Athens has a strong sense of season. Its hills are capped with green spaces, and fruit trees are planted at intervals along its pavements and median strips. Roughly 2,200 kilometres of pavement are lined with around 80,000 trees, the majority of which are fruit-bearing, including Seville oranges, mulberries, and, yes, olives.

The olive is, of course, the sacred tree of Athens according to the city’s ancient foundation myth. When the goddess Athena and her uncle Poseidon were vying to become the city’s patron deity, her gift of an olive tree won hands-down over his less practical offering of a salt water spring. When Athens first became the capital of the modern Greek state in the mid-19th century it was largely pasture, and the planting of fruit trees was part of a planned project to transform it into a European urban centre in the course of the 20th century. The varieties were chosen mainly for their minimal watering needs.

The tradition continues. In the last couple of years, the construction arm of the Greek railway company ERGOSE S.A. expropriated and cleared a number of olive groves in the countryside as part of expansion works on its network. Thousands of trees were auctioned off, but a few of the more ancient specimens were saved for replanting in Athens. Trees with an estimated age of 1,500 years were donated to local authorities and planted in key locations, including the historic buildings of Athens University in the city centre, the glass sheet statue of the runner marking the final stretch of the Athens Marathon route, and the grounds of the Ministry of Defence.


The latest addition to the city’s gardens, the park surrounding the Stavros Niarchos cultural centre in Faliron, also centres around native drought-resistant species and includes olives surrounded by herb gardens. Among the photographs documenting the project is a stunning image of a mature olive tree being lowered into the ground by a crane. The photo is taken from ground level looking up at the descending root ball, which eclipses the sun with a surreal Magritte-like quality (the image can be seen in this video presentation around the 1:06 mark).

Athenians have a close relationship with the fruit trees in their city. On dark winter evenings, it is not uncommon to see lone figures using self-fashioned reaching sticks to pick the oranges, which are known in Greek as nerátzia. The bitter variety was chosen by the city authorities specifically to deter picking and eating, but boiled down with sugar it is well-known that their peel makes excellent marmalade and preserves (or “spoon sweets” to use the somewhat inelegant English translation). In November, when the olives ripen, some engage in more open foraging. They come equipped with olive netting, which they lay on the pavement, and sticks, with which they beat the branches to bring the fruit down.


You will hear a variety of reactions to these urban foraging activities. Some disapprove of them, objecting that the trees are the property of local authorities who pay to prune and maintain them, and that the foragers are in effect free-riding at their fellow taxpayers’ expense. Others thank the pickers for clearing what would otherwise fall and create a skidding hazard and a nuisance on the pavement, muttering that this should also be done by the local authority. Others still, express a degree of pity for those they assume are forced to scavenge for what is considered, in the case of olives, a dietary staple. Finally, many are concerned about the level of pollution in fruit grown at close proximity to traffic; however tests have shown that the soil does not absorb as many toxic pollutants as is often assumed, and that a thorough washing will rid the fruit of any airborne pollution.

Most urban Greeks have very recent roots in the countryside and can look forward to receiving a few tins of oil “from the village”, or even harvesting and pressing their own as part of an autumnal expedition back to their roots (or their holiday home). This link with the countryside and its produce has become even more vital to city dwelling families during the financial crisis. When the average Greek consumes over 12 litres of olive oil each year, access to “free” oil not only saves money but in most cases improves the quality of food on the table. For this reason, the urban olives probably haven’t been exploited as much as they perhaps could be, and it still takes a degree of audacity to shake down the neighbourhood trees.

The reality of urban foraging is probably more varied. The author has certainly partaken in a spot of recreational olive picking and curing in the local park (despite finding the actual taste of olives revolting, I am assured that the result was far superior to what you can buy in most northern European delis). Most urban olive-pickers are lone operators, picking from a single tree, but we have on occasion seen groups of men with pickup trucks gathering sacks of olives from trees in the university campus, presumably to put to more commercial use, perhaps at an out-of-town olive press.

“Boutique hand picked, home cured, single estate olives” from the local park.

In recent years, the pressure created by the financial crisis and the rise of interest in volunteering activities has inspired a couple of local authorities to get creative and put the neglected resources in their ownership to good use. The municipality of Glyfada in the southern suburbs has been harvesting the olives from its trees for the past three years. In 2015 it produced 800 litres of good quality olive oil in conjunction with an educational initiative in local schools. Aghia Parakevi in the north of Athens called on local volunteers to participate in its harvest, and the oil produced was used in the municipal soup kitchen.

Athena’s gift to the city keeps on giving.


IMAGES: urban olive tree in fruit, photo by Koutofrangos; 1,500 year old olive tree transplanted to central Athens by ERGOSE S.A., photo via kathimerini.gr; urban olive-picking, photo by Koutofrangos; our modest olive harvest, in preparation for curing in brine, photo by Koutofrangos.

Stories about the Olive, part II: the urban olive

The Zea Conspiracy


I recently tried to take a break from the snark, cynicism and political intrigue that normally fuel this blog by sketching out a proposal for an essay combining two of my other interests: ancient stuff and food. A whimsical yet informative look at the revival of ancient foods, I thought, a good news story about rediscovering the past in the crisis, peppered with incidental historical detail and toothsome gastronomic tips.

But would “they” let me? The hell they would!

When I say “they” I am referring not to the voices in my head, but to my tirelessly inventive friends, the conspiracy theorists. I had forgotten Rule Number One: no topic, no matter how benign or obscure, is conspiracy-proof. Especially in Greece.

If you have visited a Greek health food shop recently, or any of the new generation of “traditional” delis, you will have been struck by the incredible array of dried pasta, a lot of it made in Greece from various obscure rustic grains. And if you happen to have read any literature on the origins of agriculture, some of these grains will sound familiar: δίκοκκο σιτάρι (Triticum dicoccum); spelt (Triticum spelta) often labelled by its German name, dinkel; and the more classical-sounding “Zea”. A veritable cornucopia of archaeobotanical samples seems to have taken over the shelves overnight, despite the hefty price tag that many of them command.

I was curious as to what had spurred this new market, particularly given that it coincides with a dramatic contraction in the average household’s spending power. So, naively I typed “ζέα καλλιέργεια” (“zea cultivation”) into Google. I was expecting to find official web pages from the Ministry of Agriculture about subsidy schemes, perhaps some farming publications discussing yield and soil types, and maybe a few food blogs of the “knit your own yoghurt” variety.

Instead I was confronted by a whole slew of articles with titles like “Zea, a well-made fairytale”, “What is zea and why it was banned in Greece”, “Bread from ZEA flour – READ the WHOLE TRUTH”. The random capitalisation signals it loud and clear: there is a TRUTH about zea that THEY don’t want you to know. The comments sections played host to some fairly disturbing flame wars, too – easily a match for an anti-vaccine bulletin board or a bitcoin forum.  So much passion and anger for a humble little grain!

Without much effort, I traced the source of the conspiracy stories. “The Historic Swindle” (Ο ΙΣΤΟΡΙΚΟΣ ΕΜΠΑΙΓΜΟΣ) by one General George G. Aïfantes, published in 2010 in archaïzing katharevousa Greek (the linguistic affectation of choice of the reactionary), now sadly out of print, is a classic of its genre. To cut a long and meandering story short, the book is an explication of how the great world powers conspired to destroy Greece over a century ago, with clearly telegraphed topical parallels to more recent events.

I will let the author explain in his words, translated verbatim below for the extensive passages quoted on various websites like this one (epilepsy warning!), with the original punctuation:

«Οί αρχαίοι δέν έτρωγαν ψωμί άπό σιτάρι. Τό σιτάρι τό είχαν ώς τροφή τών ζώων καί τό (ονόμαζαν πυρρό. Έτρωγαν μόνον ψωμί άπό Ζειά ή Κριθάρι καί έν ανάγκη μόνον από κριθάρι ανάμεικτο με Σιτάρι. Ό Μέγας Αλέξανδρος έτρεφε την στρατιάν του μόνο μέ Ζειά, διά νά είναι οι άνδρες του υγιείς και πνευματικά ανεπτυγμένοι. Αν οι αρχαίοι Έλληνες έτρωγαν ψωμί άπό σιτάρι δέν θά είχαν τόσο ύψηλήν πνευματικήν άνάπτυξιν.»

“The ancients did not eat bread from wheat. Wheat they used as animal feed and they named it πυρρό. They ate only bread from Zeia or barley, and only in emergencies from barley mixed with Wheat. Alexander the Great fed his army only on Zeia, in order that his men be healthy and mentally developed. Had the ancient Greeks eaten bread from wheat they would not have such a high level of intellectual development.”

«Μόλις οι κοσμοκράτορες έδιάβασαν αυτήν τήν έκθεσιν τής επιτροπής, δίδουν εντολή το 1928 νά αναιρεθή αμέσως ή καλλιέργεια Ζειά στην Ελλάδα, και μόνον στην Ελλάδα. Διά νά μειώσουν μέ το σιτάρι τήν πνευματικήν άνάπτυξιν των Ελλήνων, μειώνοντας τήν άντίληψίν τους και οργανώνοντας ταπεινήν έκπαίδευσιν των παιδιών τους καί διδάσκοντας τις πολιτικές τους εις τά σχολεία και πολιτικοποιούντες τα εις τά κόμματα που αυτοί ελέγχουν απόλυτα, για νά ποδηγετήσουν πλήρως εις πρώτον χρόνον τους Έλληνας. Ενώ τώρα αναμειγνύοντας τους μέ αλλοδαπούς, θέλουν νά τους εξαφανίσουν τελείως.»

“As soon as the world rulers read this report of the committee, they issued an order in 1928 to cease immediately the cultivation of Zeia in Greece, and in Greece only. So as to reduce with wheat the intellectual development of the Greeks, reducing their understanding and organising debased education for their children and teaching them their politics in the schools and organising them into political parties that they controlled absolutely, so as to control the Greeks in the shortest time. Whereas now mixing them with foreigners, they want to eradicate them completely.”

«Ναι άλλα πώς θά τό επιτύχουν αυτό;Αμέσως δίδουν έντολήν είς τόν τέκνον των τον Βενιζέλο νά έπιστρέψη στην Ελλάδα καί νά εξαφάνιση τήν Ζειά. Οπότε βλέπουμε τόν Βενιζέλο νά έπιστρέφη στην Ελλάδα μετά άπό 8 χρόνια αυτοε­ξορίας του, νά άνασκουμπώνεται και νά ορμά σάν λέων κατά τής Ζειάς. Μέσα σέ 60 χρόνια μόνον ήλλοίωσαν τήν πνευματικήν ύπεροχήν του σκέπτεσθαι τών Ελλήνων, τους έκαναν αδιάφορους, άβουλους, μέ μετρίαν αντίληψιν και φιλάσθενους καί τώρα μέ τους αλλοδαπούς επιδιώκουν τόν πλήρη εξαφανισμό τής φυλής των, ένώ συγχρόνως ξοδεύουν δισεκατομμύρια δολλάρια οι φιλεύσπλαχνοι διά νά μην εξαφανισθούν οί οχιές, κόμπρες, πάντα καί άλλα ζώα καί ερπετά.»

“Yes but how will they achieve this? Immediately they issue an order to their child Venizelos to return to Greece and eradicate Zeia. So we see Venizelos returning to Greece after 8 years’ self-exile, rolling up his sleeves and setting upon Zeia like a lion. Within a mere 60 years they corrupted the intellectual superiority of Greek thought, they made Greeks indifferent, timid, with mediocre understanding and sickly and now with the foreigners they are intending the complete eradication of their race, while simultaneously the benevolent are spending billions of dollars to prevent the disappearance of vipers, cobras and all other animals and reptiles.”

«Προς το τέλος του 1928 ο “Εθνάρχης” μας Βενιζέλος, προφανώς μετά από κάποια εντολή, με της Αμύνης τα Παιδιά, τυφλά εις τον νουν και την κρίσιν και διψασμένα το πώς να ευχαριστήσουν καλλίτερα τον αρχηγόν των εκήρυξαν τον πόλεμον κατά της Ζειάς και εφορμήσαντες ακαταμάχητοι, ενίκησαν νίκην λαμπράν και εις βραχύτατον χρόνον 4 ετών δεν υπήρχε εις την Ελλάδα ούτε ένα σπυρί Ζειάς για σπόρο. Είπαν εις τον λαό ότι η Ζειά είναι ζωοτροφή, δι αυτό τα λεξικά την γράφουν έκτοτε ζωοτροφή και ότι είναι βλαβερή στην υγεία. Αυτό το πρόβαλαν έντονα τα Μ.Μ.Ε. και σε 4 χρόνια εξηφανίσθη η Ζειά.»

Towards the end of 1928 our “Ethnarch” [sic] Venizelos, clearly acting on instruction, with his “boys in Defence” [an ironic reference to a pro-Venizelos anti-royalist song of the time], blind of mind and judgement and thirsting for how to best please their leader declared war on Zeia and charging forth invincible, won a glorious battle and in a brief 4 years there was not left in Greece a single grain of Zeia for planting. They told the people that Zeia is animal feed, and for this reasons since that time the dictionaries have it as animal feed and write that it is harmful to health. This was promoted strenuously in the Mass Media, and within 4 years Zeia had disappeared.”

The General goes on to say that Venizelos also expunged any reference of Zea from Greek dictionaries, and that his friends made a killing importing wheat into Greece on the back of the Zea ban. But that is not all. He also gives a vivid description of how gluten is used by “the establishment” to breed compliant slaves to the system. “Here comes the science!” as Jennifer Aniston used to say in the those shampoo ads – look away now if you know anything about molecular biology:

«Η γλουτένη του σιταριού καταστρέφει την υγείαν, το πνεύμα, την μεγαλοφυίαν, τον πολιτισμόν της ανθρωπότητος, διότι ως ισχυρή κόλλα επικολλάται εις τα τοιχώματα όλων των αγγείων πού διέρχεται, πεπτικούς σωλήνες, έντερα, φλέβες, αρτηρίες κ.λπ. Ένεκα τούτου παρακωλύει την σωστήν πέψιν, τις κενώσεις και την κυκλοφορίαν του αίματος, με τις αντίστοιχες επιβαρύνσεις εις την υγείαν.» 

“Wheat gluten destroys the health, the spirit, the genius and civilisation of mankind, because as a strong glue it fixes itself to the walls of all vessels that it passes through, digestive tracts, guts, veins, arteries etc. Because of this it prevents proper digestion, excretion, blood circulation, with the corresponding detriments to health.”

«Εις τον εγκέφαλον ως πρωτεΐνη στηρίξεως κολλά ισχυρά τις πρωτεΐνες της μνήμης με αποτέλεσμα, ότι παραστάσεις και ιδέες εβίωσεν το παιδί εις την ηλικίαν 3-7 ετών, οσο λανθασμένες και αν είναι, οσο πιο δυνατές και ξεκάθαρες αποδείξεις περί πλάνης του και αν του παρουσιάσεις αργότερα, δεν πρόκειται ως ενήλικας να απορρίψη τις αποθηκευμένες μνήμες και δοξασίες του, περί θεού, πολιτικής, κ.λπ.»

“In the brain as a structural protein it fixes solidly the proteins of memory with the result that, whatever attestations and ideas the child experienced at the age of 3-7 years, however mistaken they may be, however powerful and clear proof of their fallacy you present later, it will not as an adult reject its stored memories and beliefs about god, politics, etc.”

«Δι’ αυτό ακριβώς οι θρησκείες, οι Δικτάτορες, οι έξουσιασταί μας με διάφορα τεχνάσματα και ωραία λόγια προσπαθούν να ποδηγετήσουν τα παιδιά απο μικρή ηλικία και εσοφίστηκαν τα κατηχητικά και τις πολιτικές νεολαίες. Οι Δικτάτορες και οι τραπεζίτες εισήγαγον την πολιτικήν εις τα σχολεία με πρόφασιν, δήθεν, την προπαρασκευήν ενήμερων πολιτών, ενώ στην ουσία εκπαιδεύουν τυφλούς δούλους του τραπεζικού συστήματος.»

“This is exactly why religions, Dictators, our masters with various ploys and beautiful words attempt to manipulate our children from a young age, and devised Sunday schools and political youth movements. The Dictators and banker introduced politics into schools with the pretext of, ostensibly, producing informed citizens, but in reality they are training blind slaves of the banking system.”

«Όποιος απο εσάς πιστεύει εις την ανεξάρτητον σκέψιν των ανθρώπων, ας αγωνισθή δια την κατάργησιν του συνδικαλισμού εις ολα τα σχολεία, πλην των πανεπιστημίων. Επομένως η γλουτένη του σιταριού είναι και η τροχοπέδη της εξελίξεως και του πολιτισμού. Ταυτοχρόνως, τροχοπεδεί και την ελευθέραν σκέψιν και πνευματικήν άνοδον του άνθρωπου και τον καθιστά δούλον του ιερατείου, του κατεστημένου, διότι αγωνίζεται και θυσιάζεται δια αξίας που του ενέπνευσαν τα οργανωμένα συμφέροντα και όχι η φύσις. Είναι όλοι οι αγώνες του εναντίον των φυσικών νόμων. Αντίθετα η πρωτεΐνη στηρίξεως της Ζειάς (πληθυντικός Ζειαΐ) διασπάται απο τα ένζυμα και αφομοιώνεται σαν καλή τροφή απο τον οργανισμό.»

“Whoever among you believes in the independent thought of people, must struggle for the abolition of unionisation in all schools, with the exception of universities. Therefore wheat gluten is a brake on development and civilisation. Simultaneously it acts as a brake on the free thought and spiritual elevation of man and makes him a slave to the priesthood, to the establishment, because he fights and sacrifices himself for values that were inspired in him by organised interests and not by nature. All of his struggles are against the laws of nature. In contrast, the structural protein of Zeia (plural Zeiai) is broken up by the enzymes and absorbed as a good food by the body.”

No doubt the General found an eager readership in the intersection between those the 75 percent of our countrymen who apparently believe that the financial crisis was engineered by conspiracy against Greece by outside forces, the one in three who are convinced that “we are being sprayed”, and the uncounted hypochondriacs who buy water purification kits off TV informercials while speed-dialling the astrology hotline. The Zea conspiracy certainly found traction on the Greek fringe nationalist internet and its affiliated TV stations, where the General appeared regularly as a pundit. For what could be more patriotic than reviving the (alleged) food of Alexander’s troops that was (allegedly) banned by the Great Powers, and that (supposedly) boosts not just your bodily functions but also your IQ so that you can make Greece great again?


The critics are equally vehement: Zea is a scam invented by profiteering farmers. It isn’t certified, and much of it is probably imported from Germany, fraudulently “Hellenised”, and inflated in price. It is nothing but the latest snake-oil put on the market to rip off gullible Greeks. It is bringing in GMOs by the back door. All references to zea attributed to ancient texts are invented or distorted. We are being sold grain that our ancestors barely saw fit for animal feed.

After consuming this rich fare, going back to writing about how “comeback grains” do offer some modest health benefits “as part of a balanced diet”, and how they may give farmers a new income stream, feels like swapping a big juicy double gyro wrap “with everything” for a virtuous bowl of all-organic, 100% vegan, gluten-free gruel. It’s a tough call. But at the end of the day, there is no sinister Zea abolition act in the parliamentary record, just the first modern food testing and standardisation regime, introduced in Greece 1928 (no matter how you choose to label it when you upload it to the internet). Nor does the accumulated knowledge of classical literature and archaeology support the General’s assertions that a crop called “Zea” was a staple of the ancient Greek diet and that wheat was not. As for the “science”, it belongs firmly in inverted commas along with Grain Brain, Wheat Belly and whatever other tome your orthorexic friend is is beating you about the head with this week. Eating whole grains will give you a healthier gut, and you may actually like the taste, but it won’t transform you into Pythagoras or Alexander the Great overnight. It certainly won’t restore Smyrna to Greece, or bring back the monarchy. “Buying Greek” may help local farmers, but it won’t make anyone rich, and it won’t end the financial crisis. All of the grains labelled “Zea” are ancestral wheat varieties that contain some gluten. But gluten isn’t poison for most people, nor is it part of a sinister government plot to keep us fat’n’stupid – and if it is, it is doomed. Your honour, I present as evidence millennia of bread-eating western progress, improved well-being and increasing lifespans.

To give credit where credit’s due, neither the obsession with food purity nor the anxiety over government control are uniquely Greek. “Survival seed banks” guaranteeing non-GMO, non-hybrid, “open pollinated”, “patriot” seeds untouched by government, the WTO and big agribusiness, packed in bomb-proof containers, are now a cottage industry in the US, competing for the custom of “preppers” making their plans for the end of days. To the question “Are governments attempting to stop citizens from growing their own food?” the answer for some is always “yes, the U.S. government now claims the power to simply march onto your farm with guns drawn and demand all your crops, seeds, livestock and farm equipment.”


Thankfully we’re not there (yet)!

IMAGES: The Goddess Demeter with her Eleusinian attributes, wheat, serpents and poppies (go on, ask me about the poppies!) via patheos.com; crop duster by Charles O’Rear via Wikipedia.org; emergency seed bank via texasready.net.


The Zea Conspiracy

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 ethnos.gr, ilamia.gr, voriaevia.blogspot.com

The best cure?

“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 greekarchitechts.gr).

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 greekarchitects.gr).

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 athenssocialatlas.gr).

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 sentragoal.gr).

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 protothema.gr).

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)

Where the wild things are


In 2013 the Greek conservation charity Arcturos returned a controversial €5,000 donation made by the neo-Nazi party Χρυσή Αυγή (Golden Dawn). Golden Dawn had attempted to capitalise on their charitable activity, advertising the fact that their founder was an “animal lover” – presumably not in the sense that they claim Pakistani immigrants “love” their goats, but in the manly, shirt-off in the woods, bonding-and-defending-the-Lebensraum-shooting-at-road-signs sense. Arcturos founder Yiannis Boutaris responded that no amount of money would be enough to “launder” the reputation of the party whom he described as Nazis and killers (he added for good measure that he would happily accept a donation from the Greek Communist Party). Barely a month later, a couple of dozen members including the leadership of Golden Dawn were arrested and charged with being the latter, if not the former.

Whatever Golden Dawn’s motivation, this recent photo demonstrates that they reacted to rejection with typical good grace, respect and above all… love. And they memorialised it with the visual equivalent of kicking a puppy.

Being something of a professional cynic, I was prepared to be sceptical about Arcturos, with its slick anthropomorphic branding, its stylish merchandise and its painfully cute videos of rescued bear cubs. But on our recent visit to the bear sanctuary that Arcturos set up over twenty years ago outside the village of Nypmphaion, in the mountains above lake Kastoria in northern Greece, we were impressed by their efforts. We were given a brief, informative and refreshingly unsentimental tour by a volunteer. The sanctuary houses bears that have been rescued from captivity, either as dancing bears (a common form of entertainment throughout the Balkans, outlawed since the 1960s) or from zoos, or have been hurt in motorway accidents or shootings. The bears in the sanctuary are maintained purely for public awareness purposes, we were told – the only other rational alternative would be euthanasia, since they lack the life skills to survive in the wild or raise cubs. This is certainly not a zoo, and you may or may not see bears on the mountainside when you visit (we definitely saw one and caught a fleeting glimpse of another).

The sanctuary though is only the tip of the iceberg. The charity’s efforts are mainly focussed on studying and protecting the wild population of bears, wolves and other endangered and protected species in the Greek countryside, as well as preserving the Greek sheepdog breed. Their innovations include the devising protective measures for farmers who would otherwise come into conflict with the bears (electric fencing for beehives, effective insurance cover for farmers among others), and intervening to reduce deaths and habitat fragmentation caused by the new high speed road network in the area. Arcturos is only the most public face of an active local conservation effort that is finally starting to reverse the catastrophic population decline of the last century.

In a country which, let’s face it, does not have the best tradition of environmental consciousness or volunteering, it is good to see a cause like conservation entering the mainstream and appearing (even momentarily and controversially) on the political radar. So, thank you, Golden Dawn, for the gift of publicity, and thank you again for the reminder.

Image: photo by Atlantis Host, December 2015.

Where the wild things are