Looting Memory in Corinthian Greece
Story and photos by David Lee Drotar

A trip through the ancient lands of the Corinthian Gulf of Greece means uncovering layers of history and thousands of years of looting, of antiquities and memories.


Brazen thugs once shattered the perpetual youth of the nude twin warriors who stood before me at the Archaeological Museum of Corinth. Their severed heads reattached and broken limbs reassembled, they stood guard once again on an earthquake-proof pedestal and embodied the ancient Greek ideal of physical beauty.

Yet it almost didn’t happen. In the spring of 2010, authorities had seized the broken parts of the unique statues from antiquity smugglers at the nearby village of Klenia. Known as “Kouroi,” the plural form of the Greek word “Kouros” meaning a male youth, especially of noble rank, the word has come to mean the statues themselves. I stood on tiptoes and peered into the two limestone boxes set beneath the stone warriors.

“Yes, those are the actual bones of the boys.” Our museum guide anticipated my question before I even asked. “No pictures of this exhibit, please.”

The boys, I thought. Images forbidden. There was almost a possessive, even parental, tone regarding the masterpieces. Indeed, dental analysis of the remains showed that the young men were no more than 35 years old when they died around 550 B.C., possibly in battle between powerful Corinth and one of the other constantly warring city-states around the Corinthian Gulf region.

The twins would have been well-known at the time and their remains were placed into two sarcophagi at a prominent point in the landscape. Carved into the finest marble, the frozen youthfulness of the tragic figures overlooked the rest of the extensive cemetery. But there is no eternity for empires and eventually civilizations topple, as did the statues. The earth encapsulates collective memory, waiting for the day when it might be unwittingly released under a farmer’s plow blade or a heavy rainstorm.

Greek Antiquities Spread Near and Far

The gods of time are fickle, however, and history can be sold to the highest bidder. The looters had broken the Kouroi into parts as they dragged them out of the ground. I saw the repaired gashes across one warrior’s chest, the other’s nose scraped off as if battle scarred.

Ironically, the uncompromising Greek regulations designed to protect the country’s heritage and prevent antiquity smuggling may do just the opposite. The land is littered with the remnants of previous cities and cultures. Modern housing sits atop veritable treasure. An old silver coin may pop up in a homeowner’s spring garden as commonly as a Greek salad on a dinner table. There’s a good probability that the excavation required for a new building’s foundation might unearth an antiquity.

By law, such findings must be reported to the Ministry of Culture. This action would trigger an archaeological study, putting a halt to the building process. If the study confirms a significant discovery, the compensation to the landowner falls far short of actual value and may even deprive the owner of his building site. Therefore, there is less motivation to report findings or to undertake projects at all. This is a problem for a struggling economy that needs investment in large infrastructure and private sector projects but ultimately depends on tourism and historical preservation.

The heartbreaking result of previously unchecked cultural looting on a larger scale is evident by simply looking up at the Acropolis in Athens. More than two thirds of the magnificent, carved marble frieze once encircling the Parthenon now resides in England, France, Italy, Germany and Austria, while the balance of the ravaged blocks sit under cover inside the Acropolis museum.

Greece bridge

Throughout my journey around the placid Corinthian waters, I passed through the co-mingled layers of time and history. Next to the crumbling ruins of an Ottoman castle, we boarded a ferry and passed under the gleaming Rio-Antirrio suspension bridge finished just in time for the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. Figuratively digging through the Ottoman, Byzantine, Roman, Persian and ancient Greek civilizations, I saw each culture stealing, building, destroying, adapting from the others.

Greece waters

Along the way, I noticed that portrayals of Zeus, the archetypal Greek deity and king of the gods, started as an old, bearded man. Interestingly, as history progressed he became more youthful and virile in an idealized human sense. It was this youthful depiction of Zeus that I saw in the port town of Aigio. The figure in the flawless statue wore a medallion to protect against evil. But there was no secret amulet ever devised that could restrain those who were determined to loot memory.

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