The devastating effects of illegal excavations in Greece

The long-term, and often intense, looting of objects from Greek soil, has resulted in a dramatic loss of knowledge. Below is a sampling of the intellectual consequences of the demand for antiquities for the illicit antiquities market; from nearly all eras of Greek history, from the Early Bronze Age to the Hellenistic, we are left with sites, sculptural types and whole cultural eras which have been rendered mute.

Our knowledge of the culture of the prehistoric Cycladic islands of Greece, dating to the 3rd millennium BC, has been immeasurably diminished by widespread looting. 90% of the objects from this culture come from contexts without archaeological provenience and it is estimated that 85% of Early Cycladic sites have been looted. “They were everywhere. On moonlight nights they were digging everywhere…. We don’t know of any existing cemetery that has not been touched.” (Christos Domas, as quoted by Gill and Chippendale 1993.)

Gill, D W J and C Chippindale 1993 “Material and intellectual consequences of esteem for Cycladic figures.” American Journal of Archaeology 97: 601-59, doi:10.2307/506716.

The bronze age site of Tsoungiza, in the Nemea valley of the Peloponnese, was active for much of the Bronze Age. During the latter part of this period, the Late Helladic (the second half of the 2nd millennium BC), the population swelled and a large group of tombs were dug in an adjacent hillside and housed rich burial material. In the 1980s half of the tombs were looted and the materials made their way to the antiquities market. The opportunity to fully understand the relationship between a substantial Late Helladic settlement and its burial rituals was lost. Katie Demakopoulou & Nicoleta Divari-Valakou, 1997, The Aidonia Treasure. Athens: Ministry of Culture, Archaeological Receipts Fund, 31pp

In May of 2010 two men were arrested in the Peloponnese loading two looted sculptures onto a truck, planning to take them out of Greece for sale. The statues, twin Archaic Kouroi statues, dating to the late 6th century BC, are exceedingly rare. Only one other example of twin Kouros statues exist, found during the archaeological excavations at the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi and illustrating the mythical brothers Kleobis and Biton. Where were these sculptures found and whom they represent? The statues of Kleobis and Biton symbolized Classical Greek idealization of youth and honor; what was the meaning of these sculptures? We will never know.

Tanagra figurines, dating to the 4th to 3rd century BC, are some of the most “collectable” objects of Greek antiquity. These small terracotta sculptures have been plundered out of almost a thousand Hellenistic tombs around the Beotian town of Vratsi and are often sold alongside scores of forgeries in order to meet market demand. The cemetery of this large Hellenistic town is essentially gone and the town itself has been largely destroyed by the modern town of Vratsi. We will never know the meanings or inspirations for these enigmatic pieces.

—Senta German