Drive to save Akrotiri fres­coes

De­funct con­ser­va­tion lab at fa­mous archaeological site a case study for Greek fail­ings

Kathimerini English - - Focus - BY MAR­GARITA POURNARA

A bare­foot Chi­nese woman with the train of her wed­ding dress trail­ing along the nar­row foot­path struck a posed in front of the caldera and took a selfie. They say a pic­ture is worth a thou­sand words and, in this case, also thou­sands of yuan, con­sid­er­ing the hefty price of trav­el­ing to the Aegean is­land of San­torini all the way from the dis­tant Asian coun­try. How­ever, most vis­i­tors don’t just come for the sun­sets – glo­ri­ous as they may be. They also ex­pect to soak up a bit of an­cient cul­ture, for which Greece is famed, and where bet­ter to find it than the Akrotiri archaeological site? After all, here they can see one of the world’s best-pre­served pre­his­toric set­tle­ments, de­stroyed by a cat­a­clysmic vol­canic erup­tion circa the spring of 1615 BC.

Peo­ple of all ages and na­tion­al­i­ties were queu­ing out­side the en­trance to the archaeological site on a re­cent Sun­day. Ac­cord­ing to early es­ti­mates re­gard­ing the cur­rent sea­son, 2,000-3,000 peo­ple have been vis­it­ing the site ev­ery day. Ticket rev­enues go straight into the cof­fers of the state which then cov­ers op­er­a­tional costs and staff salaries.

How­ever, state fund­ing to the Akrotiri site ba­si­cally stopped four years ago. This means that excavation work only takes place ev­ery now and then th­ese days. Mean­while, the fresco con­ser­va­tion lab­o­ra­tory, which was set up in 1967 by lead­ing ex­perts in­clud­ing the late Tas­sos Mar­gar­itoff, has re­mained shut for most of this year due to lack of fund­ing.

The images in th­ese fres­coes have be­come visual trade­marks that vir­tu­ally ev­ery gift shop and business on San­torini has cap­i­tal­ized on. Poor im­i­ta­tions of th­ese fine art­works de­pict­ing peo­ple, an­i­mals and flow­ers can be seen on plas­tic bags, restau­rant menus and in the form of kitsch sou­venirs. Ar­chae­ol­o­gist Chris­tos Doumas who first set foot in Akrotiri in 1968 knows the area like the back of his hand. He guides us around the site and we ask him whether he thinks that dig­ging here should con­tinue. After all, ar­chae­ol­o­gists have al­ready un­earthed the top parts – and in some cases en­tire floors – of 35 build­ings.

“We must fin­ish work at what is known as ‘Xeste 4,’ the largest and most lux­u­ri­ous build­ing in the Akrotiri set­tle­ment,” Doumas says. Ar­chae­ol­o­gists have un­cov­ered the frag­ments of fres­coes that be­long to a spec­tac­u­lar over-50me­ter-long com­po­si­tion which adorned the walls on ei­ther side of the stair­case at the en­trance to the build­ing de­pict­ing life-size male fig­ures as­cend­ing the steps in pro­ces­sion. “More re­search has to be made at the point where ar­chae­ol­o­gists found the golden goat idol,” he says.

Dozens of fres­coes that have been re­stored are pro­tected there be­tween sty­ro­foam sheets. “Mice love sty­ro­foam. Who can guar­an­tee that the place will not be in­vaded by ro­dents if there are no peo­ple left to work here?” Doumas says.

The au­thor­i­ties may have turned their back on Akrotiri, but lo­cals are aware of its huge sig­nif­i­cance – not only as a tourist at­trac­tion but also as part of San­torini’s her­itage, just like the is­land’s unique mor­phol­ogy.

The peo­ple of San­torini, tourism pro­fes­sion­als as well as or­di­nary cit­i­zens, support the So­ci­ety for the Pro­mo­tion of Stud­ies on Pre­his­toric Thera. A large num­ber of peo­ple at­tended an event or­ga­nized last month un­der the aus­pices of the mu­nic­i­pal­ity, fea­tur­ing mu­sic, food as well as a silent auc­tion and lot­tery. The aim was to col­lect money to re­sume the op­er­a­tions of the lab, even if that meant with fewer staff. The event was or­ga­nized by chef Gior­gos Hatzi­gian­nakis with the help of the Es­tia cul­tural cen­ter, the San­torini of the Past cul­tural vil­lage and La Ponta tsam­bouna (Greek bag­pipe) work­shop. About 25,000 euros were col­lected that day.

Mean­while, sev­eral Greek artists de­signed a se­ries of beau­ti­ful sou­venirs in­spired by Akrotiri, in­clud­ing bags, book­marks, mini fres­coes and clay fig­urines. The cost was cov­ered by the So­ci­ety for the Pro­mo­tion of Stud­ies on Pre­his­toric Thera, which re­quested per­mis­sion from the Archaeological Re­ceipts Fund (TAPA) to make the items avail­able at the now empty mu­seum shop in Akrotiri. TAPA turned down the idea.

The so­ci­ety’s sou­venirs have been made avail­able at a makeshift stand near the site and or­ga­niz­ers say they have been mak­ing 500 euros per day on av­er­age.

Mean­while, the of­fi­cial Akrotiri gift shop makes an av­er­age of just 17 euros a day.

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