It was Christmas of 1977 when Greek archaeologist Manolis Andronikos announced the discovery of the royal tomb of King Philip of Macedonia and father of Alexander the Great in Vergina. Inside the tomb that no modern man had stepped foot before, his team found a golden larnax containing the bones of the King, along with golden panoplies, wreaths, diadems and silver utensils. The news shook the world of Archaeology. It was one of the greatest archaeological discoveries, ever!
And yet, everything was carried out in modesty then. There were no press crews, no reporters, no politicians and Prime Ministers, no pompous announcements, no fanfare. Just the people who did the work that lead to this great discovery.
It took months to unearth all the discoveries, and the archaeologists worked undisturbed by media or politicians. After all, it is the job of scientists to make discoveries and it is the job of the state to protect and preserve the discoveries. Also, there was no police force, no crowds of curious spectators snapping pictures, no hot dog and cotton candy vendors around the site.
In other words, just the opposite of what is happening in the last couple of weeks at the Casta hill archaeological site, after the unearthing of the entrance to an Alexander the Great-Era tomb.
An official source, who has knowledge of the tomb’s excavation progress, claims that the archaeologists and crew cannot do their job as their mobile phones keep ringing and they have to fend off TV cameras and microphones shoved in their faces every day. They receive calls from politicians and journalists who are eager to know when they will go inside the tomb and what they expect to find there. Also, they have to answer speculations, wishes, and wild conspiracy theories. They even have to answer to technical details such as what kind of cameras they use to look inside the tomb without demolishing the protective wall. And all this while the initial excavation is still in progress!
At the same time, crowds of people gather all day long around the site that looks more and more like a community fair. Eager tourists and locals rush to see the media’s new archaeological Disneyland first, while the smoke from the souvlaki and hot dogs grills fills the air. Under the five-meter lion’s imposing gaze, a vendor from nearby village Strymoniko is selling peanuts, a way to survive in crisis-hit Greece.
The discovery of the Amphipolis tomb is not something new. In fact, work on the site goes as far back as 1956, when prominent Greek archaeologist Dimitris Lazaridis started excavations. A few years later, Lazaridis declared that there was an important burial complex inside the hill. Indeed, he found a graveyard from the Iron Age with many coffin-like boxes containing the remains of women, children and men in armor, holding weapons. The discovery of King Philip’s tomb in 1977 by his fellow and good friend Andronikos, prompted Lazaridis to search further for the mysterious tomb that could be somewhere underneath. Lack of funds never allowed the operation to continue, however, by the time of his death in 1985, Lazaridis had discovered at least 70 ancient tombs.
Last year, archaeologists decided to continue the operation in Amphipolis and they dug a lot deeper to find the tomb’s 60-meter round precinct. Around the mound, an impressive 500-meter marble wall gave head of the excavation project Katerina Peristeri and her crew ample reason to believe that something very important lies inside the mound. Still, the discovery received no publicity outside the Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports. Not to mention that, according to area residents, the site was not guarded and reports of stolen artifacts have surfaced.
Farmers and residents of the nearby village of Nea Amphipolis are not new to such discoveries and their value. Many of them consider themselves amateur archaeologists and according to “Kathimerini” newspaper, most of the area residents are hunchbacks from too much digging. It was a joke, of course, but not without a grain of truth, since Amphipolis had been considered the Eldorado of antiquities smugglers for years. During the 1950s and 1960s, precious archaeological discoveries were sold openly in street markets. Today, villagers claim that the reason they did not report the antiquities they found to the authorities, is that the state offers peanuts compared to the reward they could make in the black market. Also, they don’t deny that the lucrative illicit trade of antiquities has not stopped completely.
In nearby Mesolakia village, president of the community Sakis Zournatzis says that more than 2,000 visitors passed through in the last few days. Residents with land in the area are calculating the expropriation compensations they will receive, while others plan to start new businesses, opening cafes, t-shirt and souvenir shops.
It seems that it is not just the people of the area who capitalize on the major archaeological discovery in Amphipolis. Prime Minister Antonis Samaras visited the archaeological site and talked to the cameras saying how important the discovery is on many levels. He noted that Greece has a rich history and that “us Greeks are very proud of our cultural heritage.”
The media rushed to magnify the importance of the discovery, adding more pomp to the spectacle. At the same time, archaeologists added more suspense, telling the media that by the end of August the mystery will be solved. Different sources working on the project and government officials started leaking information on possible dates that the big mystery will be uncovered. They turned Amphipolis into a TV series where each episode ends at a crucial moment with a “to be continued” on the screen. One wonders what is the reason for all this pomp?
Amphipolis: The Greek Government Savior
The shaky New Democracy and PASOK coalition government has been accused of using the Amphipolis tomb as a distraction. August found millions of Greeks disgruntled once more because of the villainous raid on their income in the form of the new property tax (ENFIA). Hundreds of thousands of homeowners found that they have to pay a lot more for their properties than they did the previous years. In some cases, the owner of a piece of land in a mountainous area has to pay tax equivalent to that of an apartment in Manhattan. The Ministry of Finance admitted that there were many errors made in the calculation of property taxes. And to add insult to injury, the errors were attributed to factors like the retirement of experienced employees who used to calculate taxes or the fact that the law came to the Ministry written in English.
The Casta tomb (or Amphipolis tomb as is widely known) is a good circus for the Greek government and its friends in the Greek media. Unfortunately, there is no bread to go with it. In fact, it seems that the bread is stolen from Greek people or exchanged for more circuses. Maybe by saying that us Greeks are proud of our heritage, the Prime Minister implied that we shouldn’t mind paying exorbitant taxes to live in our country. Tantalizing people’s minds with glories of the past in order to forget present nightmares has often been an effective tool in the hands of Greek politicians. Especially when the future looks bleak as it is now.
And the mystery of who and what is inside the tomb continues. Every day there is a new estimate as to when the archaeologists will get inside the chamber. Meanwhile, the property tax issues, the problematic election of the new Greek President, the “red” house loans, the new pension cuts and trimmed salaries seem to be conveniently swept under the carpet provided by the tomb.
One wonders if the unknown yet occupants of the Amphipolis tomb and the headless sphinxes that guard them will have to pay the new property tax in the end.
To be continued…