Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Should Greek archaeological sites be privatised?

The stadion of Nemea, Greece. Copyright: Wikipedia.
Last week while surfing the internet I stumbled upon an interesting interview with Dr Stephen Miller, professor emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley and director of the Nemea excavations in Greece. The interview concerned an open letter written by Dr Miller to the general public. Although I wasn’t able to locate the letter itself, it was pretty easy to discern its contents by reading the interview and other related online articles.

In his letter Dr Miller discussed the potential layoff of seven of the ten guards working at Nemea's site due to Greece’s government plans regarding the streamlining of the Greek civil service. (The streamlining of the Greek civil service is of course necessary because of Greece’s financial situation.) Not only would this leave the archaeological site more vulnerable to looting, but it would mean that as a result of the lack of security the site and the nearby museum would have to be closed to the public during weekends.

However, Dr Miller had two reasons for writing his letter. The first, and more obvious one, is to attract the attention of the media and ensure that the museum and site stay open. The other, this one not so obvious, was to lay the foundation for his proposal for the privatization of Greek archaeological sites. Dr Miller’s idea is that private companies could purchase an archaeological site from the Greek government, construct a museum near the site (and maybe a hotel, restaurant, gift shop, etc.), and take over the responsibility for storing and conserving the site’s artefacts. Those companies would earn money from the site by selling tickets, etc.

I’m not quite sure how I feel about this proposal. I can imagine how his idea would work for popular sites like Knossos in Crete (and I just had a disturbing vision of the site with a large billboard in front of it saying “Knossos is maintained by Burger King” and a drive-in next to it with the employees wearing cheap mock-ups of Minoan outfits).  But what about the sites that are not so well-known to the public? What’s the attraction for companies to invest in small archaeological sites and local museums? Maintaining archaeological sites and museums, hiring guards and curators and conservators would cost those companies a lot of money. Would it even be profitable for them? And if not, then why would private companies take the risk?

This leads me to my final and foremost concern. If we allow private companies to financially exploit archaeological sites and artefacts, what kind of impact would this have on the preservation of these sites and artefacts?

What are your thoughts?



  1. Interestingly enough, Dr. Miller is no longer the director of excavations at Nemea, and I don't believe has been for a while. It is currently run by a professor that I used to work for, Dr. Kim Shelton. If you have concerns, I'm sure she would be very willing to answer them, as she also runs excavations at another very large Greek site, Mycenae, in addition to the Nemean excavations. She is also very involved in local participation in the restoration of the Temple of Zeus at Nemea. The following is the website for the Nemea Center, if anyone is interested:

    1. Thank you for the link and the update! I wasn't aware that Dr. Miller had resigned as the director of the excavation. I just assumed that he still held the position because of the recent dates of the articles I had read. Anyway, my concerns relate to Miller's suggestion that Greek archaeological sites should be privatised. So nothing that Kim Shelton would be able to answer.

  2. Very interesting post and comment!
    I do sympathise with Iris' concerns - even if not applied to this context in particular. But first of all, I would be concerned about the values that would govern these private archaeological sites and museums. How would they decide what to be preserved, for example? And who would regulate their actions? Somehow these thoughts seem scarier than the 'burger king billboard'!


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