In near-bankrupt Greece, crisis spurs gold fever

AP News
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Posted: Dec 22, 2011 3:25 AM
In near-bankrupt Greece, crisis spurs gold fever

Not all Greek myths are ancient.

In rural towns and villages, where millennia-old pottery shards and broken classical masonry are sometimes found, shepherds and farmers have similar tales to tell.

They cite the buried golden sow with its seven golden piglets (which made a poor farmer rich), the coin hoards guarded by dragons from the times of Alexander the Great or the Byzantine emperors, the gold plunder squirreled away by long-dead Turkish pashas or fleeing Nazi officers. All it takes, they say, is a lucky thrust of a shovel.

Legends like that have taken on a new life in debt-crippled Greece.

As two years of austerity take a harsh toll _ with shrinking salaries, rising taxes and record unemployment for many _ more and more Greeks are finding solace in tales of buried riches, mostly from the past two centuries of the Mediterranean nation's turbulent history.

"It used to be just a couple of groups of people who all knew each other, now everybody has got worked up," self-described amateur gold hunter George told The Associated Press. "They bring maps, pass on tips, but as usual nobody finds anything. The crisis has spurred many people to seek a windfall."

He asked not to be further identified as what he does is illegal.

The 40-year-old said at least 10 attempts have been made to dig up buried gold over the past few months around Grevena, a farm town of 10,000 in western Macedonia, some 400 kilometers (250 miles) northwest of Athens, the capital. The region saw heavy fighting between occupying German troops and resistance fighters during World War II.

"They even dug through a huge rock mass, believing they would find buried sovereigns parachuted in by the British to the resistance fighting the Germans," he said.

A 49-foot (15-meter) tunnel into a hill just outside Grevena, which still contained a pick and a mask, testifies to the fruitless efforts of five men arrested by police a few days ago.

Authorities said the men, all in their 40s, used farm and construction tools, a generator and hand carts to dig the tunnel, whose entrance they camouflaged with an old rug.

"They said an old man showed them the spot, claiming there was treasure there, but did not specify exactly what they were seeking," Grevena police chief Theophilos Soultis told the AP.

Even in central Thessaloniki, Greece's second-largest city, urban legend has it that construction work on the site of an old Turkish house unearthed chests of gold coins _ prompting truckers driving its soil away to a landfill to sieve through their loads first.

Their labor was to no avail.

Maps of purported treasure spots sell for thousands of euros (dollars) _ but more often than not they are artificially weathered fakes.

One of these maps inspired seven people to sink a 36-foot (11-meter) well into the ground near an abandoned quarry at Pentalofo, 16 miles (25 kilometers) north of Thessaloniki. Despite taking the precaution of working only after dark, they were arrested and face up to five years in prison if convicted of carrying out an illegal excavation.

"We get lots of people searching in our area, because the Germans worked the quarry during the war and many believe they left gold behind," said local deputy mayor Giorgos Lazaridis who oversaw work to fill in the hole.

"There are lots of rumors, some say that gold sovereigns have been found, but nothing can be confirmed," he said, adding that one group obtained a legal permit to dig years ago but found nothing.

A similar project is under way in the hills of Varvara, in the Halkidiki peninsula 70 miles (110 kilometers) east of Thessaloniki. After two false starts, the treasure hunters launched operations again, working off a new tip.

"They're looking for gold that is supposed to be enough to pay off Greece's national debt" of more than euro350 billion ($457 billion), said municipal official Stergios Goutsios, who is monitoring the dig. "They claim it weighs tons and was hidden by a band fighting the Turks in 1860-70, when they were trapped in an ambush."

Such legitimate hunts, which require a slew of official permits, have been carried out all over Greece in recent years, overseen by state archaeologists and police.

"Anyone who thinks they have information on buried treasure has the right to look for it, provided they obey the law," said Giorgos Dimitrainas, an assistant professor of law at the University of Thrace. "Their share of the finds is determined by ministerial decision."

But Greek law contains pitfalls for the unwary, even in the vary rare cases when they strike it rich. In 2003, legitimate treasure seekers unearthed thousands of ancient coins buried near the town of Pella, some 60 miles (100 kilometers) west of Thessaloniki. State officials ruled however that the group had no claim on the treasure as their permit stipulated that they could look for gold, not antiquities.

For Greece's treasure seekers, even that should not be a sufficient deterrent.

"People who look for gold are maniacs, they never give up until they find something," said another self-described former treasure hunter, 34-year-old Panagiotis. "It's like gambling."