GREECE: Digging up dirt and finding more ruins

Greece is a country full of ruins. The story goes that wherever you dig you are more than likely to hit on an ancient site. In Athens, there are currently more than 15 foreign archaeological schools, from countries all over the globe, which are carrying out archaeological activities under licence from the Greek authorities. Greece may be a nightmare for modern developers but for many researchers, it provides an unbroken chain back to the beginning of our human existence.

The whole country is dotted with archaeological sites, from Delphi to Olympia and from Sparta to Corinth. On the mainland and the islands are hundreds of archaeological sites, some open to visitors, others not as yet completed and perhaps many more buried under the earth never to be discovered or see the light of day.

The country is divided into 54 ephorates or departments under the Ministry of Culture, each responsible for archaeological activity, excavation, assessment, imprinting and research in their area, from the prehistoric to the recent Hellenistic times, or nearly 40,000 years BC to 100 BC. In addition there are 27 ephorates responsible for the Byzantine times, 330AD to 1400AD, and an unspecified number of ephorates responsible for modern monuments.

No sooner does a construction project start than it has to stop because some ancient site has been discovered in the foundations; the archaeological service and its experts have to move in and assess its importance. That usually means a delay from a few weeks or months to several years. If thought to be important enough, it is expropriated by the Ministry of Culture and the new development abandoned.

The Metropolitan Railway (Metro) in Athens took twice the time to build because the excavators hit on archaeological sites. Lines had to be redesigned and stations moved further away from where they were originally intended. During the tunnel digging, it is believed some ancient treasures were destroyed to prevent delays in the work although a substantial amount of ancient artefacts were saved and are now on display in tasteful armour-plated glass cases in the concourses of the stations where they were found.

So why is Greece such an archaeological hot-spot? It combines the physical evidence of the ancient sites with the myths and the legends that are associated with them. As the story goes, Zeus, the father of the gods, wanted to find where the centre of the earth was and one day sent out two eagles to fly in different directions. The eagles met at Delphi and that was designated the centre, or the omphalus of the world.

Now, Greece finds itself at the centre of archaeological research. George Steinhauer, director of the 26th ephorate in Piraeus, told University World News that, "Greece, with the exception of Italy perhaps, provides the most complete and comprehensive imprint of a civilisation which we can see and study in its entirety".

"Moreover, the foreign archaeological schools here in Greece have the opportunity to educate their students who can see the whole of the ancient Greek civilisation in close quarters and carry out their studies and their research in a realistic environment," Steinhauer said.

Institutions such as the British Archaeological School, the American School of Classical Studies and the Ecole Française d'Athenes have been in Greece for decades. They retain strong links with universities and cultural organisations in their own countries and their primary mission is to promote Hellenic studies in all aspects and covering all periods from the palaeolithic to the present.

Young researchers Connor Trainor and Heinrich Hall, from Ireland and Germany respectively, feel that the triptych of ancient sites, libraries and museums compose the most important reason why Greece is in such high demand among archaeologists and scholars.

Trainor, who is doing a PhD with the Irish Institute of Archaeology, on monsters and art in the Iron Age (1000-700 BC) thinks Greece possesses the best libraries in the world in terms of classical texts. Hall, who has been visiting Greece and specifically Crete for the last 10 years studying the Neolithic period (7000-3000 BC) agrees that the Greek libraries, museums and ancient sites make a unique blend for the study of human culture and development.