Volunteers needed to explore Atlantis

Helike, Atlantis
Want to spend next summer excavating the lost ruins of Atlantis? Well, you can! There are only two catches–it may not be Atlantis, and you won’t get to ride in a UFO.

Wide-eyed crystal clutchers need not apply. This is real science and is far more interesting than New Age fantasy.

Archaeologists excavating the once-lost ancient city of Helike in Greece, are looking for volunteers this summer. The city is located in the Peloponnese, the peninsula in southwestern Greece that’s home to Corinth and Sparta. Inhabited from the Bronze Age onwards, it was thought lost after a massive earthquake in the winter of 373/372 B.C. supposedly sloughed it into the sea. All that was left were a few vague stories and the occasional statue trawled up in fishermen’s nets.

Helike, AtlantisSome scholars theorize Helike’s demise may have led to the legend of Atlantis, the famous lost kingdom that also sank into the sea. Others claim a more likely inspiration for Atlantis was Thera, also known as Santorini, an Aegean island that experienced a massive volcanic explosion in the mid second millennium BC that blew away most of its land and may have disrupted the nearby Minoan civilization.

In 2000 and 2001, a Greek team found Helike and discovered that it hadn’t sunk into the sea, but rather got submerged under an inland lagoon that later silted over. Not nearly as romantic, but nostalgia’s loss is our gain. Evidence of over three thousand years of habitation have been found. Intriguingly, excavators found a settlement dating to c.2600-2300 BC that may also have been submerged after an earthquake.

The city was dedicated to Poseidon Helikonios, god of the sea and the earthquakes. The citizens even put the god on their coinage. Considering that their entire city was destroyed by an earthquake and water, it appears their faith was misplaced.

Volunteers are needed for this summer’s excavations. You don’t need any prior experience and you’ll be trained in archaeological tasks like excavation, mapping, and lab work. If you’d rather dig somewhere else, there are hundreds of archaeological excavations around the world needing your help this summer. This list of links will get your started in your search.

Photos courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Check the Helike Project website for more photos of this amazing site.

The Athens War Museum

Athens War Museum
This is a Heckler & Koch MP5 9mm submachine gun with gold plated parts. It was given by the Defense Minister of Kuwait to former Greek Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou, probably as a thank you for his nation’s help in liberating Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm. It’s one of a case of Papandreou’s personal weapons on display at the Athens War Museum.

Greece has a long and proud military history stretching all the way back to when hoplites met Persian invaders and chariots were the latest thing in military technology. This museum starts right at the beginning and goes up to the modern day. While the section on Classical Greece is large and well detailed, I’d seen this sort of thing in other museums. The other periods of history were much more interesting to me.

One hall is devoted to the armies of the Byzantine Empire. Unfortunately all the weapons here are reproductions, but there are some detailed dioramas of fortresses and troop formations that show just how advanced the Byzantines were. They even had “Greek Fire”, an early form of napalm that played havoc with the sailing ships of the time.

The largest amount of space is devoted to Greece’s two wars of liberation-first against the Ottoman Empire starting in 1821 and again against Nazi Germany during World War Two. This is when the Greeks really showed their fighting spirit-outnumbered, outgunned, and under occupation, they nevertheless fought against the superpowers of their day and eventually won.

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The images from World War Two are especially sobering. The Nazis systematically plundered Greece and many people starved to death. The partisans kept fighting, though, using captured weapons or those smuggled in by the Allies. They even devised homemade ones, including a gun hidden in a cane. Elderly Greeks say the current economic meltdown will never make Greece suffer as much as the Nazis did, but they do worry about the younger generation that has never had to face serious hardship.

There’s also a section on the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913, complete with uniforms, equipment, and walls full of detailed paintings and photographs. Greece managed to double its size in these conflicts and reduce the threat of the Ottoman Empire ever retaking the region. It was during this time that the Greek Air Force got started. Hanging outside the museum is a reproduction of the Daedalus, one of those early planes that looks more like an oversized kite. As flimsy as it is, it flew into history when it went on a reconnaissance mission on December 5, 1912, the first day of the Balkan Wars. The Ottomans sent up a plane the same day. These two missions are tied for second place in the history of military aviation. The year before, an Italian pilot dropped bombs over the Ottoman province of Tripolitania, modern Libya.

The basement is full of curiosities such as African weapons, and outside are several tanks and artillery pieces. The ground floor has a variety of weapons from all over Europe.

My only two criticisms are that the lighting on the glass cases made it difficult to take photos without them being obscured by reflections, and that sometimes the labels were too vague, with some cases being marked with signs such as “swords, 19th century.” Still, it’s a must-see for any fan of military history or anyone who wants to know just what the Greeks had to endure to earn their independence.

As I got my jacket from the coat check, I browsed through the books they had for sale at the counter. I pointed to a title on the Balkan Wars.

“How much is this?”

“Sorry,” the man behind the counter said, shaking his head. “They’re only for sale to veterans.”

“Why’s that?”

“We’re almost out and we don’t have any money to print more.”

I must have looked disappointed because he rummaged around in his desk and brought out a pamphlet about the museum.

“Here,” he said, handing it to me. “You can have this for free.”

“Oh, thanks.”

The soldier manning the ticket counter hurried over and handed me a DVD.

“This is a documentary about Greece’s struggle against the Nazis. You can have this too, and take this map,” he said, handing me a reproduction of a 17th century map of Greece that I’m going to hang on my son’s wall.

“Glad you liked the museum,” the soldier said.

The Greek economy may be in a shambles, but Greek hospitality and patriotism are doing just fine.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Our Past in Peril, Greek tourism faces the economic crisis.

Coming up next: Sparta!

New series: Our past in peril, Greek tourism faces the economic crisis

Greek tourism, Greek
This is a sculpture of a fallen Greek warrior from the temple of Aphaia on the Greek island of Aigina. Made in the 5th century BC, it’s an important example of Early Classical Greek art. This was a time when Greek artists began imitating life with realistic poses and expressions.

We owe so much to the ancient Greeks–our ideas of art, architecture, democracy, philosophy, theater, and a lot more. When Greece was conquered by the Romans three centuries after this sculpture was made, Greek culture actually flourished, finding new outlets in the receptive and expanding Roman Empire. Horace once said: Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit (Captive Greece took captive her rude conqueror). The suffering yet proud face on this fallen warrior reflects Greek history–cycles of tragedy and triumph.

Suffering yet proud. That’s the impression I get of Greece these days. An economy in shambles, general strikes, people being forced to give up their children. At the same time, an increasing number of Greeks are going back to the land and sea to revitalize the traditional cornerstones of the Greek economy. Meanwhile, Greeks from all walks of life are taking to the streets to protest cutbacks that threaten their livelihood.

The cutbacks threaten our past too. Not the Greek past, our past, because Western civilization is based to a large extent on Greek civilization. Regular general strikes against the austerity measures imposed by the IMF mean that seeing the physical remains of our heritage has become a game of chance. A minister’s suggestion to lease the Acropolis and other ancient sites was treated with scorn one week, and approved the next. Three important paintings, including one by Picasso, were stolen from the Athens National Gallery because cutbacks had left only one guard on duty. And it can get far, far worse. Allowing Greece to fall would be like burning an attic full of family heirlooms and photo albums.

For the next week I’ll be in Greece interviewing museum curators, archaeologists, and regular Greeks about the problems facing our collective past. How are the strikes inhibiting access to museums and sights? How much are staff cuts reducing opening hours and the nation’s ability to conserve and restore our heritage? I’ll also be seeing, strikes permitting, some of the nation’s greatest monuments such as the Acropolis and Agora, as well as lesser-known treasures such as Mistra, briefly the capital of the Roman Empire, and the Crusader castle of Villehardouin.

Unfortunately, this sculpture will not be among them. It’s now the property of the Staatliche Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek in Munich, Germany. The same country whose banks currently own the second largest share of Greek national debt after France. The statue of the fallen Greek was taken by a German baron in 1811 when Greece was under the control of a different foreign power–the Ottoman Empire.

Next in the series: Athens nightlife: desperate pensioners on the hustle!

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Castles in Greece in danger

castles, castle, Greece, MethoniWhen people think of castles, they usually think of those in Western Europe such as Spain, France, and Germany. Eastern Europe, however, has just as many if not more.

Greece has some of the best, like the castle of Methoni photographed here by Wolfram Sinapius. Having been fought over by the Byzantines, Venetians, Crusaders, Ottomans, and many others, it seems every island and hilltop has its own medieval fortification. Many changed hands several times. The Methoni castle dates to ancient times and in the Middle Ages the Venetians built atop the old foundations. The conquering Byzantines and Ottomans added their own elements.

Now those castles are in danger, according to an article in the Greek Reporter. Time and neglect are taking their toll. Some are on remote clifftops or islands and hard to get to, so while they are at least spared the vandalism so common in other historical sites, they can’t be properly maintained or studied. Now Greek archaeologists are trying to raise awareness of Greek castles and hopefully get them better cared for. This will be a difficult task with the country’s financial crisis.

One castle at least will be preserved. It was recently announced that the Pylos Fortress will become home to the city archaeological museum. This will bring in more visitors and help raise funds to maintain the site.

Siwa Oasis: site of Alexander the Great and a holiday feast

On Thanksgiving Day Heath Cox, his family and a friend headed to the Siwa Oasis for a long weekend and to cook a turkey in a sand dune. He left this detail in the comment feature of a “What did you head this Thanksgiving?” post. Intrigued, I looked up the place. I already knew it is in Egypt since he mentioned this.

If you are going to Egypt, I’d say the Siwa Oasis is one place to put on your must see places list. Sure, take in the pyramids, but don’t stop there. According to Egypt Voyager.com, the oasis is the place Alexander the Great went to in order to meet up with the Oracle at Aghurmi, the site of the Temple of the Oracle of Amun. The Oracle pronounced Alexander a god. This must have given Alexander the umph he needed to continue his conquests. Off he went to take over the Middle East.

There are other oases in the area besides Siwa, but Siwa is the place to find a thriving cultural center. I lit up when I read you can buy baskets that are typical of this area here. I collect baskets. Those of you who are fond of silver jewelry, it looks like this is the place for you.

If you do go here, bring a turkey. According to Heath Cox, drive 10 miles out of Siwa to a sand dune, dig a big hole, put coals in it with a stuffed, foil-covered turkey, add more coals, cover it up and when the steam escapes, the turkey is done. (Okay, I hope that’s when it’s done.) Sounds yummy.