A new feature in Greek politics: Archaeology

A new feature in Greek politics: Archaeology

I have just returned from a holiday to my home country, where the horror of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) seems remote and where people have been immersed in a heated debate over the historical past and contemporary politics.

A few of you may have heard the name of Amphipolis. But for the Greeks, this once-famous ancient port known for its gold and silver resources has become more than just a ruined ancient city in the center of Greek Macedonia. For Greeks, still struggling to cope with impossible economic hardship and an uncertain future, it has become the utopian land of their grandiose ancient past, which produced world heroes like Alexander the Great. After all, it was from the port of Amphipolis that the fleet of the ancient Macedonian king launched its conquests.

There was a strong reason why most Greeks were brought into a perpetual dream-like state and temporarily put aside their real life problems. 

During this summer’s excavations at a burial mound near Amphipolis, Greek archaeologists made a spectacular discovery: a majestic tomb they claimed belonged to the ancient Macedonian era and perhaps to an important person from the ancient royal court. They even dated it to the last quarter of the 4th century B.C., around the time of Alexander’s death.

The excavation works had been continuing for some time, and the site had been already known. In 2012, a massive circular wall of nearly 500 meters discovered around the mound was enough of an indication that something important was to come out. But few details were provided for the media. At any rate, that year there was an avalanche of political developments: Two successive general elections, two bail-out agreements and a desperate race to save Greece’s place in the EU were enough excitement for the Greek public.

Two years later, though, the picture looks different. The coalition government that eventually resulted from those elections has managed to survive, claiming it has even “turned the corner” and won credibility abroad. But it is facing tough opposition from its main opponents, the radical Leftists, and it may be unable to survive if it cannot gather enough votes in Parliament next February to elect the successor of the current President. Failure to do so will result in general elections, according to the Constitution.   

How does all this play into the Tomb of Amphipolis?

When, one hot day in August, the Greek prime minister and his wife, a team of dignitaries and media representatives turned up at the excavation site and were photographed in front of the two freshly unearthed magnificent sphinxes, few doubted that contemporary politics would disturb the mystical privacy of this ancient relic.

“The land of Macedonia continues to move and surprise us, revealing ... its unique treasures ... of which all Greeks are very proud,” Prime Minister Antonis Samaras said. His words were meant to reach the deeper chord of the Greek psyche and boost the morale of a demoralized public. After all, his personal popularity remains high and he is known for his “patriotic fervor.” These may impress a confused voter, perhaps.

But this mysterious tomb is taking its revenge. After revealing a majestic entrance guarded by two large sphinxes and a pair of huge female statues, it has not yet produced more datable evidence. No pottery, no bones, no metallic finds. Already, rival archaeologists are arguing about whether it is Greek or Roman. And if some eager patriots were quick to label the grave as that of Alexander the Great, they now must wait longer to be vindicated or disappointed.

Time in archaeology rolls at a slower pace, and cannot be sped up, even for an early elections calendar.