(Helena Smith’s article appeared in the Guardian, 1/31; A member of Prof Lambrinoudakis’ team showing a picture of farmer Christos Zafiris, the site’s former owner, on the spot where the Little Theatre of Epidavros was discovered. Photograph: Helena Smith/The Guardian; (below) Excavations at the Little Epidavros Theatre. Photograph: Vassilis Lambrinoudakis.)

New passion for reviving country’s monuments is returning Little Theatre of Epidavros to heart of community.)

For nearly two millennia, the Little Theatre of Epidavros lay underground. Its engraved seats, concentric and tiered, belonged to a world of roots; in this case the roots of an olive grove owned by Christos Zafiris, a local farmer. “They say that had it not been for pigs digging at the soil, we might never have known of its existence,” says Prof Vassilis Lambrinoudakis. “Until the appearance of the stones in 1970, the theatre was a secret hidden under the earth for 18 centuries.”

The classical archaeologist, renowned for his work at Athens University, has spent more than four decades ensuring the chance find would not go to waste. Excavations have not disappointed. Inscriptions discovered at the site, on the slopes of a peninsula overlooking the sea, have shed light on the history of those who may have commissioned the theatre. Evidence of multiple phases of construction, starting in the mid-fourth century BC, have further illuminated the ancient city of Epidavros that once surrounded the architectural gem.

For those who flock to the resurrected theatre’s festival every July, the venue, roughly 95 miles south-west of Athens, rivals its slightly younger but much more famous sister, the 12,000-seat ancient playhouse barely 10 miles away long regarded as Greece’s best theatre acoustically and aesthetically.

 “It’s among our top 10 20th century finds,” says Lambrinoudakis, a sprightly octogenarian pointing to the Little Theatre’s upper tiers. “More than any other remnant of the past, ancient theatres speak to us. They contain a message of life that modern society has a thirst to share. It is our duty to bring them alive.”

In a country as culturally rich as Greece, ancient arenas, like other antiquities, are no stranger to abandonment and decay. Overstretched budgets, an unwieldy bureaucracy and public oversight have all been blamed for ruins falling victim to the ravages of neglect and time. But officials are now on a mission to revive the monuments. And, with the aid of private sponsorship and EU funds, headway is being made.

South of little Epidavros, restoration work on the 17,000-seat ancient theatre of Sparta was launched last year. In Larissa, reconstruction of central Greece’s biggest open-air ancient theatre is on course to be completed. As excavations have progressed, authorities have reported thousands of inscriptions and hundreds of sculptures being unearthed.

Farther north, in Epirus, one of Europe’s poorest regions, plans are afoot to make five ancient Greek theatres the centrepiece of a 214-mile cultural route taking in 2,500 years of history. The EU will provide 80% of the €24m the project is slated to cost.

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