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Greece: Antiquities Safer in the Ground

After an antiquities theft ring was rounded up and stolen items recovered, exasperated officials are reburying treasures to keep them safe.
By Chana Ya'ar
First Publish: 3/4/2012, 2:30 PM

Stolen antiquities
Stolen antiquities
Israel Antiquities Authority

After a weekend in which an antiquities theft ring was rounded up and thousands of stolen items recovered, exasperated officials have decided to rebury the treasures to keep them safe.

Greek police arrested a gang of 35 thieves Saturday night, and recovered literally thousands of stolen items in the process. Reportedly one of the members of the gang alone had in his possession 4,000 ancient coins. 

Some of the booty had been stolen from antiquities sites, a phenomenon that is sometimes also seen in the State of Israel although vigorously battled by the Israel Antiquities Authority, which along with Israel's Nature and Parks Authority works to prevent such thefts.

Others were traced to the robbery of the Greek Museum in Olympia on February 17.

Approximately 76 objects d'art were stolen in the armed robbery, including bronze, pottery and gold items, and a 3,200-year-old gold ring. The theft came on the heels of a similar robbery in January at the National Gallery in Athens that resulted in the loss of two paintings, a Picasso and a Mondrian.

The European Union and the International Monetary Fund have forced Greece into major spending cuts in return for loans to help it recover from a massive debt crisis, the worst the country has faced in decades.

Those cuts have been responsible for the breakdown in security, according to Illicit Cultural Property blogger Derek Fincham, an assistant professor at South Texas College of Law. He cited Yiannis Mavrikopoulos, head of the culture ministry museum and site guards' union, who said the cutbacks imposed by the  EU and IMF had forced nearly half of the museum and cultural heritage staff to take early retirement, leaving inadequate security to guard the antiquities.

Greece meanwhile announced Friday that it would stop excavating some antiquities, and intends to rebury some items that have already been uncovered. “Mother Earth is the best protector of our antiquities,” Thessaloniki's Aristotelio University archaeology professor Michalis Tiverios told the Ta Nea daily newspaper.

“Let us leave our antiquities in the soil, to be found by archaeologists in 10,000 CE, when Greeks and their politicians will perhaps show more respect to their history,” he said.

It is unclear what effect such an action will have on the country's tourism industry, since much of the attraction of Greece is connected to its ancient history and to its display of the wealth of antiquities discovered beneath its soil.