Greece Fires Menace Archaeological Ruins

Wildfires that have killed more than 60 people continue to rage across Greece. Jack Davis, director of the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, talks about the threat to archaeological ruins at the site of the original Olympic games and other areas in southern Greece.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

ALEX COHEN, host:

And I'm Alex Cohen. In a few minutes, college textbooks are putting a strain on the family wallet.

CHADWICK: First, more than 60 people have died in the latest outbreak of wildfires in Greece. The devastation has been most severe in southern Greece, where fires threaten archaeological ruins at the site of the original Olympic games.

Archaeologist Jack Davis is director of the American School of Classical Studies in Athens. He joins us by phone from his office there. First, Jack Davis, are any of your archaeological teams in danger?

Mr. JACK DAVIS (American School of Classical Studies, Athens): Well, this is a slow time of the year for archaeological projects in Greece in general. So no, we have no teams operating in the Peloponnese that are in danger. But one of our archaeological colleagues, however, does have a house in the village of Neohori, where some of the damage was greatest and the fires most intense.

CHADWICK: We've heard about the fires approaching the original site of the Olympic games. What other sites are in this region that are important and might be threatened by fire?

Mr. DAVIS: There are literally thousands of sites in southern Greece in the Peloponnesus. In the center of the Greek Peloponnesus, places like Likosura, or the Sanctuary of Zeus on Mt. Lykaion, or the Temple of Apollo at Bassae. All of these are right in the midst of the area that's been hit most severely by fires.

I talked to a colleague this morning who teaches at the University of Athens, and she has a site, a house at the Byzantine city of Mystra near Sparta. It's actually on the outskirts of Sparta, very near the ancient city. And she said last night she and her husband were seriously frightened, that the fires were so close on the mountains around them. But mercifully there was rain this morning, which is very much out of character for this part of Greece. And by the time that we talked again at 9:00 o'clock this morning, the fires were out.

And she did mention that some damage had been done to a Bronze Age site near Sparta called the Menelaion, which was excavated by British archeologists some years ago. And it was identified by them as the home of our King Menelaus of the Trojan War and of his wife Helen of Troy. I don't know the extent of the damage at that site.

CHADWICK: When a fire approaches a Greek temple, these are all - they're marble or limestone in some cases, and I don't imagine that those substances actually burn.

Mr. DAVIS: Well, marble and limestone, of course, both do burn if they're subjected to high enough temperatures. That's the way you make lime plaster. But I think museums are probably more likely to be damaged by fires of this sort. The construction materials are more susceptible to being burned by wildfire than are the stone blocks of a temple.

The real issue is, I think, how intense the heat is and how sustained the heat is. In my experience brushfires of this sort often are - they are very hot, but they tend to burn - the trees burn at a distance away from the surface of the ground. And the heat is not sustained for any real duration of time, so that they can leave the actual surface of the ground or remains that are close to the surface of the ground relatively undamaged.

For some of us who are into the business of archaeological prospection, who do surface archaeological work, sometimes the - if a forest fire has occurred in an area that can actually increase the potential for locating archaeological sites, it can improve the conditions for us.

CHADWICK: You mean you might burn off a little bit of ground cover that's built up over the years and then underneath it suddenly you would discover a ruin?

Mr. DAVIS: Yeah, you've got the point exactly. And for much of the Peloponnesus, there's been so much out-migration since the 19th century that the intensity to which these areas were used for pasturage by sheep and goats is now nothing like what it used to be. So the sheep and the goats are going to serve as natural mechanism for keeping the brush low. And those, you know, nature's lawn mowers are in many, many, many parts of southern Greece just not a factor anymore. They're not just there anymore. So the brush has grown higher and higher through the years and constitutes a natural tinderbox.

CHADWICK: Jack Davis is an archaeologist. He's director of the American School of Classical Studies in Athens. Jack, thank you.

Mr. DAVIS: You're very welcome, Alex. Thank you.

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