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Interview by Lalela Chryssanthopoulou – Greek Business File: June, July, August issue
How can archaeological sites become functional and friendly to the general public, assuming an educational, social and cultural role? It is a question that Professor Petros Th emelis strives to answer, through his work –from 1986 until today- as director of the excavation project of the Archaeological Society in ancient Messene. In this interview with Greek Business File, Prof. Themelis analyzes the new trends in the management of cultural goods, the role of the private sector and elaborates on the unique characteristics of the archaeological site of Messene, highlighting it as a model of the study and management of a monumental ensemble.
How can emblematic archaeological sites like Ancient Messene contribute more to economic development?
New trends are being developed internationally to make archaeological sites functional and friendly to the general public, to engage in dialogue with the public, thus assuming an educational, social and cultural role. It is now generally accepted that monuments of all ages and archaeological sites are more eff ective ly protected when they are part of citizens’ lives, when they become poles of attraction and factors of economic development. The consumer from a passive receiver becomes a comodifier of the product he or she is being asked to consume. Driving forces in the development of the economy of culture and creativity is the use of new technology and the desire of citizens to gain experience and emotions. This is where “excavation tourism”, which is common practice in other parts of the world, is unfortunately misunderstood in our country. In the distant shining past of the Messenian capital, crowds filled the theater, the market place, the Asclepius’ sanctuary, the gymnasium, the stadium, and the palaestra to see, hear, shop, discuss, entertain and think. Crowds are fl ocking there today from all over the world for the same general reasons. The monuments of the restored ancient city in the present day again house creations, events and artifacts of superior aesthetics, thus assuming an important role.
What are the new trends in the management of cultural goods and what is the role of private initiatives?
The new international perspective and practice in the fi eld of the protection of cultural goods, which are in their natural environment or housed in museums and collections, is directly related to what we call the management of these goods. The new perspective requires a review of all the products and services currently provided by the state, and the search for more efficient methods for distributing them with a substantial contribution of private initiative. It requires a change in the centralized way in which the state is dealing with things in the fi eld of culture. There are important areas in the management of cultural heritage, which are not only national but also global, emergent sectors which through private initiative can be developed.
How is the Society of Messenian Archaeological Studies helping to raise the profile of Ancient Messene?
The characteristics of the archaeological site of Messene highlight it as a model of study and implementation of the objectives and the method of management of a monumental ensemble. The preservation and restoration of the city’s sacred and civic monuments combined with the enhancement and landscaping of the archaeological park have provided significant potential for “sustainable” development throughout the prefecture of Messenia. According to the new international development example, the knowledge and technology economy combines with the economy of culture and creativity. The challenge for our country is to shift the current policy of cultural management from a static to dynamic approach, to the production of new forms, and this is one of the objectives of the Society of Messenian Archaeological Studies, which I have the honor of chairing.
You have said in the past that you support “prudent self-administration” of ar chaeological sites, so that they can ex ploit the revenues they generate. Which sort of model do you envision?
Archaeological sites must ensure their sustainability without government subsidies, operate autonomously, and selfmanage their revenues with the aim of increasing them, becoming competitive, providing services responding to the expectations of a demanding audience. The view that archaeologists in the state services are the only responsible managers of the country’s archaeological wealth is wrong. Archaeologists, citizens, service chiefs, community leaders, regional governors, local government
representatives in general and others must move to the fi eld of collective responsibility, co-responsibility for the protection of public cultural goods. Ancient Messene, as a model of an ancient Doric city, is a precious cultural capital with developmental dimensions linked to the “leisure economy”. The archaeological site of ancient Messene with the gradual increase in visitor numbers, the use of the theatrical buildings, the sale of archaeological guides, commemorative items and various artifacts, copies of
ancient works or modern creations, the rental of refreshment shops and restaurants can all contribute essentially to the economy of the region. The director of the site (not older than 50 years), will be elected for a renewable fi ve-year term after an open competition based on experience, on scientific qualifications and management knowledge. Ancient Messene is gradually being established as a place of artistic events, and as a place of education in excavation techniques, the preservation and restoration of monuments (mobile and immovable), and also it hosts exhibitions of contemporary art works. Culture, like health, education or defense, is a national priority issue. The elements of cultural heritage must play their role in the modern world as essential elements in shaping national identity and social cohesion.
Which is the value of Ancient Messene and its position historically, according to the archaeological findings?
Ancient Messene is an exemplary organized, land-based federal state which extended to cover the boundaries of the modern prefecture of Messenia. It was established with program planning in 369 BC by the famous Theban General Epaminondas, who
defeated Sparta in 371 BC in Lefktra of Boeotia, and it existed uninterruptedly until late antiquity, early Byzantine and Byzantine periods. It is an architectural and residential unit in harmony with the pristine Mediterranean natural environment that embraces it. It is located in the western Peloponnese facing the Ionian and the Adriatic Sea, maintaining close commercial and cultural contacts with the Italian Peninsula, from where it also accepted settlers. Messenia’s agricultural wealth, “good to plough, good to plant,” in the words of the poet Tyrtaeus (7th C. BC), had been the principal goal of Sparta’s policy of conquest. All data relating to independent Messenia and its capital Messene after 369 BC reveal a conservative society, economically self-suffi cient, with a timocratic form of government and an economy based primarily on farming. Agricultural wealth, a family’s landed property, was the foundation of economic life and the prerequisite for the male members of Messenian society to take up public offi ce. The long pax Romana had distinguished Messene as a city with a high level of social and economic status.
What have we learned from the sanctuary of Isis, one of the more recent, and most impressive, discoveries of the site?
The sanctuary of the goddess Isis has come to light south of the theater where Pausanias saw it in the 2nd century AD. It is a large building complex that includes a Π-shaped underground vaulted portico (crypto-portico) connected with a complex of more than ten underground chambers of impressive dimensions. Their function is related to initiation rituals. The initiates after catechism had to sink into the shallow waters of the underground chambers as part of a ceremonial act that symbolized Osiris’ death by drowning in the waters of the Nile and his rebirth. The priest walked by holding a vase in which he symbolically gathered the floating limbs of Osiris. Isis, as a mater dolorosa who feeds her child Horus or as Isis Pelagia protector of the sailors, was passionately loved by the inhabitants of late antiquity and gave many of her protective powers and hypostases to the new religion, Christianity.