Athens, Greece - The broken display cases at Greece's Museum of Olympia, the site where the first Olympic Games were held thousands of years ago, have stunned members of the Archaeological Service who have been registering a stream of missing cultural artefacts.
Despina Koutsoumpa, president of the Association of Greek Archaeologists (SEA), says treasure dating back to the Classical, Hellenistic and Byzantine periods has disappeared from the museum, including "a golden ring stamp, copper sculptures from the eighth century BC, coins and clay vases".
The burglaries in the National and Municipal Galleries during February, as well as the armed robbery at the Museum in Olympia on March 5, have exposed weaknesses in the protection of cultural heritage sites around the country, made worse by the so-called austerity programme that is slashing all national public service budgets.
To add insult to injury, the Greek minister of culture has decided to cut funding for museum security by 20 per cent. According to a new law, the Greek government is also planning personnel cuts of 30-50 per cent at the ministry of culture.
Massive budget cuts
Furthermore, the law plans to combine various arms of the archaeological services into one in order to "reduce expenses", thereby leaving sectors that need specific protection vulnerable to the massive budget cuts sweeping through each and every realm of Greek society.
SEA mobilised against the cuts with a press conference last month that received substantial international attention and is still attracting messages of support from all over the world.
Koutsoumpa says that the Archaeological Service has never enjoyed an adequate budget anyway. "The ministry never received above one per cent of the national budget, the service always lacked personnel. Whether coming from the national budget or European funds, over 60 per cent of the money was always for wages," she said.
Today 66 administrative departments of antiquities throughout the country handle the workload and law enforcement pertaining to Greece's cultural heritage, including permits for use of land where archaeological treasures are thought to be buried, the organisation and running of archaeological sites and museums, excavations and archaeological surveys, and archaeological scientific research.
The ministry of culture and tourism comprises 7,000 employees, including 950 archaeologists, civil servants, and 2,000 guards and night-guards. Moreover, each year, 3,500 extra employees are hired on short term contracts. In November 2011, ten per cent of the total workforce of the ministry of culture - the most experienced employees (with more than 33 years of experience) - were forced to leave the service and retire, as part of plans to reduce the total number of public sector employees in Greece.
Further personnel cuts would mean that the ministry of culture will be unable to cover even its basic operational functions.
For many decades, the personnel of the Greek Archaeological Service have been working for poor salaries, with limited funding. Net salaries of archaeologists in 2009 ranged from 880 euros ($1,150) a month for newly appointed staff to 1,550 euros ($2,020) for those with more than 35 years in the service.
In 2012, a newly appointed archaeologist receives 670 euros ($876) each month, after taxes and social security contributions, representing "a 35 per cent wage reduction," Koutsoumpa said. In 2011, the budget for the Archaeological Service was 12 million euros ($15.7m) - down 35 per cent from 2010 - and in 2012, it is facing an even more severe slash.
Illicit antiquities market
Apart from protection, the Archaeological Service is also responsible for 210 museums that include collections of pre-historic, classical and Byzantine antiquities; 250 organised archaeological sites; and 19,000 declared archaeological sites and historical monuments. It also runs 366 projects co-funded with the European Union - with a total budget of 498 million euros ($650m).
As the ministry's ability to carry out its mandate of protecting ancient archaeological sites diminishes, so too does the future of various preservation projects.
Nikolas Zirganos, a journalist renowned for his investigation of organised trafficking of antiquities, which resulted in the return of "The Golden Crown of Macedonia" from the Getty Museum, said that cuts in public spending paved the way for a burgeoning illicit antiquities market.
"Organised crime mechanisms are sensitive and react faster than authorities. When a state and its structures are collapsing, as happened in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Soviet Union, traffickers exploit the situation fast. In the midst of social and political crises, those countries all suffered a severe loss of symbols of their cultural heritage."
While the ministry of culture has attempted to downplay the burglaries, characterising them as isolated events, Zirganos believes otherwise.
"I doubt that someone would steal from a museum, take antiquities that are famous and registered and try to sell them alone in the illicit market," he stressed. "These are usually orders from specific rich collectors in Western Europe and the United States."
He mentioned that there has also been an increase of illicit excavations over the last few years, while the police dedicated to fighting illicit antiquities trade are limited in number. "The department of police responsible for fighting illicit antiquities trade has been a committed one. But it is a joke to think that 40 people involved in this department are able to stop a wave of organised trafficking."
A version of this story was first published by Inter Press Service news agency.