STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Now the greatest source of national pride in Greece is its ancient past. The government has traditionally supported archaeological digs and research, but more recent news has interfered with that. Since its debt crisis started in 2010, Greece's government has cut the Culture Ministry's budget in half, and as a result Greek archaeologists are scrambling to find private funding. But there's a problem. Strict laws say the state must own the antiquities. Joanna Kakissis reports.
JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: About seven years ago, just as Greece was falling into its worst recession in half a century, Xeni Arapogianni made an important discovery in a forest of olive trees above the southern city of Kalamata.
XENI ARAPOGIANNI: (Through translator) It was an ancient healing center, but one that has not been recorded in any ancient or modern source. It's an entirely new discovery, and it tells us a lot about the ancient city that it came from.
KAKISSIS: That city, Ancient Thouria, was notable enough to be referenced by Homer. Yet Arapogianni, who has excavated in Greece for more than 37 years, is struggling to finance her work.
ARAPOGIANNI: (Through translator) We don't have any support from the state or from the Greek Archaeological Society, so we have to get all of our support from private sources.
KAKISSIS: Those sources include a tobacco heiress and local donors from Kalamata. Arapogianni, who was forced into early retirement in 2011 because of austerity measures, works without pay. It's been hard to find sponsors who have also been hit hard by the recession, but Arapogianni says she's looking a few miles north to a place called Ancient Messene for inspiration. The Theban general Epameinondas founded Ancient Messene in 369 B.C. after defeating the Spartans.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHAEOLOGICAL DIG)
KAKISSIS: And an archaeologist named Petros Themelis began excavating here in 1986, almost exclusively with private money. Ancient Messene is now one of the most popular sites in Greece.
PETROS THEMELIS: As far as I'm alive, this will be a private affair, a private project. The system I follow, the fundraising is all private.
KAKISSIS: He gives me a tour of the hilly, 400-acre site in a tiny red, electric vehicle.
THEMELIS: Now we shall go near to the theater and then to see the early Christian basilica.
KAKISSIS: We stop at a giant Doric stadium where the young soldiers of Messene were educated.
How much would you say it costs to excavate and restore that stadium?
THEMELIS: Oh, my God - about two-and-a-half million Euros or something like that.
KAKISSIS: That's more than $3 million. Half came from the European Union, but the rest came from bank foundations and ship owners.
THEMELIS: They came here during the summer, and they visit me here. I guide them there; they are very enthusiastic. They like my job, and then I can send them an application for money to excavate or to restore.
KAKISSIS: Themelis is also working with a resort to host tourists as archaeologist for a day.
(SOUNDBITE OF WOMAN SINGING)
KAKISSIS: And he rents out the ancient theatre here for events such as the staging of "The Woman Of Zakynthos" by the Greek writer Dionysios Solomos.
KAKISSIS: After the play, one of the visitors, olive oil exporter Giorgos Dinardakis, says he'd like to see private companies managing some of the country's 19,000 archaeological sites, but he says most Greeks don't trust the private sector.
GIORGOS DINARDAKIS: (Through translator) Because they think a private company would hike up prices on admission or allow inappropriate activities or generally disrespect the antiquities in favor of profit.
KAKISSIS: That's also the line of the Central Archaeological Council of Greece, which enforces the country's tough laws on antiquities and national ownership. But Themelis says resources are scarce and the counsels should loosen restrictions on private involvement.
THEMELIS: I think it's the only way for these huge sites to give and have profit from our state, and if the site of Messene managed to live with its own money, then the rest of it can go to some other sites that suffer, that are very poor.
KAKISSIS: About 18 miles south near Ancient Thouria, Xeni Arapogianni and I drive to one of those troubled sites together with an aging olive farmer. We stop near a row of what looked like giant underground stone vaults.
ARAPOGIANNI: (Foreign language spoken).
KAKISSIS: These are tombs, she says - tombs of the noble men of Ancient Mycenae.
KAKISSIS: Archaeologists discovered the 16 tombs, which date to 1,400 B.C., more than 20 years ago. Arapogianni was the last person to excavate here in 2005. The farmer still owns the land.
ARAPOGIANNI: (Foreign language spoken).
KAKISSIS: I ask her why the state hasn't purchased the land after all these years. Because there isn't any money, she says. That's why. Now the tombs are abandoned, and the olive farmer is the only one guarding them. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis.
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