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Raiders of the lost archeology grants

The Finance Ministry has pulled funding for 30 international projects

The move puts Spain's hard-earned prestige in peril, say academics

The remains of a Jesuit mission next to Lake Tana in Ethiopia. Ampliar foto
The remains of a Jesuit mission next to Lake Tana in Ethiopia. COMPLUTENSE UNIVERSITY

T he Finance Ministry does not care about remains - not even when these remains explain key elements relating to the origin of humankind, or about fishing techniques in Pompeii before the city was buried in lava in AD 79, or about the Maya civilization in Guatemala. The ministry is holding back subsidies that the state secretary for culture had already approved for 30 research groups from Spanish universities with international archeology projects. Its basis for the decision is that the universities in question are located in regions where the local governments are failing to meet deficit targets.

The move represents a slap in the face for the regional governments from the state, but one that is stinging archeologists first and doing nothing to help that vague yet vital concept known as "the Spain brand."

"It doesn't say a lot about a country's trustworthiness, and it has very negative effects on the prestige of Spanish science, which through great effort had managed to get on equal footing with scientists from the countries around us," laments Joan Sanmartí, head of a team from Barcelona University that conducts research at the archeological site of Althiburos, in Tunisia.

In the last few years, Spanish archeology has wrested some attractive sites from the traditional great powers such as Germany, Britain, France and the United States. Its hard work explains why desirable spots such as Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, where humanity left evidence of its evolution in successive sediment layers, are in the hands of Spanish researchers. But prestige can be slow when you invest in it, and ephemeral when you use it up.

Denying the money has very negative effects on the prestige of Spanish science"

"Being deprived of the grant [of 10,000 euros] means the campaign will be conducted with minimum resources and puts the whole project in danger," says Rafael Hidalgo, head of a team from Pablo de Olavide University in Seville that is digging at Villa Adriana, an Italian World Heritage Site. The spot of one of the major landmarks of Roman heritage, and even though archeologists have been working here since the 16th century, until now it had never been opened to Spanish researchers.

In the 2012 grant application process, the state secretary for culture analyzed 64 applications and approved 45 projects by universities, non-profit organizations and the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), for a total 730,000 euros in subsidy money. The winners were informed of the provisional decision, which in previous years had become final soon thereafter.

The problem is that, since April 27 of last year, the Budget Stability and Financial Sustainability Law allows the Finance Ministry to block public grants to regions that fail to meet their deficit targets. As a result, this year only 15 projects out of the 45 approved ultimately got the green light from the ministry - 10 state-sponsored ones and five from national non-profits. The 30 projects from universities, which would have received a total of 494,500 euros, were all shot down.

A Finance Ministry spokesman told EL PAÍS this week that each case gets assessed individually before a "no" is decided. "It is done with rational criteria; there is no single standard."

This year only 15 projects out of 45 got the Finance Ministry green light"

Yet the spokesperson did not answer the question of what criteria were used to deny the 30 public grants to archeology projects. The teams have lost money they were already expecting to get and, in some cases, had already spent. Now, the state secretary for culture is trying to reverse a decision that seems pretty much irreversible.

"The ministry understands and shares the universities' concern," said a spokeswoman for the culture department. "We are working in tandem with the Finance Ministry to find ways to resolve this situation."

The truth is the loss of state funding for ongoing digs abroad represents a threat to several highly relevant projects, such as the one led by María Eugenia Aubet, professor of prehistory at Pompeu Fabra University, in Lebanon. Since 1997 Aubet has been working at the Phoenician necropolis of Tiro-Al Bass, where her team has uncovered 400 tombs dating from the ninth to the seventh centuries BC.

"For the first time, in 2013 we had obtained a permit from the Lebanese Culture Ministry to dig in the actual city of Tiro, despite strong pressure from the French and the Germans to get their hands on that site. Both the Spanish Embassy in Beirut and the Lebanese Culture Ministry gave us their support. Right now I don't know how to face reality and apologize to the Lebanese authorities," she explains.

A discovery in the Qubbet el-Hawa necropolis close to Aswan in Egypt.
A discovery in the Qubbet el-Hawa necropolis close to Aswan in Egypt. UNIVERSITY OF JAÉN

EL PAÍS got in touch with the heads of the 30 groups who were denied the money via email. Twenty-four of them wrote back in similarly shocked tones - they had never before been denied a grant that had previously been approved. They also expressed uncertainty about the future.

"There are commitments we made that we will no longer be able to keep, and we will thus become an unreliable university when it comes to joint projects with other research groups," complains Rafael Mora, of Barcelona's Autónoma University, who heads a project researching hunter-gatherer societies in Ethiopia's Rift Valley. The project had initially been granted 15,000 euros. Now, says Mora, it could be that the Addis Ababa Museum will no longer be interested in working with them. "None of the projected work can take place now."

A team led by Manuel Domínguez-Rodrigo, a professor at Madrid's Complutense, is digging in Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. It is a place teams fight to occupy. Spain joined the archeological race late, and if the budget cuts continue, it will be bowing out early.

"Our team is in control of the most important archeological sites in Africa pertaining to human evolution. If we cannot go there in 2013, we run the risk of seeing these coveted sites fall in other hands," says the professor, who is working with support from the University of Alcalá de Henares.

Now I don't know how to face reality and apologize to the Lebanese authorities"

In order to ensure continuity, the team was there on the ground as soon as it was informed of the provisional authorization for 32,000 euros. "Since our institution and region met deficit requirements, we took the money that Alcalá University advanced us so we could carry on with our work last summer."

It so happens that the Finance Ministry did not consider regional deficit figures from 2012 (which are still not definitive) but from 2011, when nearly all the regions were over the mark. It is widely expected that most regional governments will, in fact, meet their 2012 targets, save a few exceptions such as Catalonia.

"It is a decision that penalizes university research using regional deficit as an excuse and ignoring the constitutional principle of autonomy for the universities," says Pedro Castro-Martínez, a professor at Barcelona's Autónoma. His project, which dates back to 2005, focuses on the communities in the area of La Puntilla mountains, near the famous city of Nazca in Peru, home of the famous geoglyphs known as the Nazca Lines. There are American, Japanese, German, Italian and French teams there as well, nearly always with more resources than themselves.

"Given the complexity of organizing a campaign of archeological digs in Peru, we had already launched the working plan and had been planning our campaign since November," he explains. "Now we have had to put it on hold and we came off looking decidedly bad. Besides that, the discontinuity of the project affords a very negative image of Spanish science and archeology projects abroad." As well as the purely scientific aspects, the loss of the 20,000-euro grant has also meant the cancelation of a development project in this poor area of Peru.

We will now be an unreliable university when it comes to joint projects"

It is ironic that a project in Guatemala called La Blanca, led by Cristina Vidal, a professor at Valencia University, received the Best Practices in Site Preservation Award from the prestigious Boston-based Archaeological Institute of America, and yet was denied 32,000 euros by the Spanish government because the Valencian region is over its deficit target.

"The freezing of funds is a blow to a project that, besides researching Maya archeology and underscoring its rich cultural heritage, is also conducting development work in villages around La Blanca," says Vidal.

Digs usually have a "father" and a "mother." The Spanish teams on the ground are often assisted by local institutions. This is the case with a project underway at the Qubbet el-Hawa necropolis in Aswan, where Alejandro Jiménez's team works with the Egyptian government's Supreme Council of Antiquities. Explaining to one's partner about the reasons for a year's suspension of funds cannot be easy.

The Spanish teams working in Italy with regional universities know all about it. "Unfortunately, some expenses had already been effected, since we were confident that the provisional grant would become final shortly, as it had in previous years," explains Darío Bernal, director of a joint project between the universities of Cádiz and Ca'Foscari of Venice involving fishing techniques in Pompeii. "Now we have to take on those expenses through other channels in the middle of a complex economic situation that is smothering researchers at the national level."

Since 1999, each year, the state has offered cultural grants for archeology projects abroad through the Cultural Heritage Institute of Spain. The total amount has changed with the years, from 204,400 euros in the first five years to a high of one million euros in 2011. That is when the downward slide began. Last year it was 730,000 euros, and the budget for 2013 is 430,000 euros, which will presumably be shared out among groups that happen to be based in regions that meet the requirements of Finance Minister Cristóbal Montoro.

In a December 2012 letter to Jesús Prieto, director general of Fine Arts and Cultural Assets, an archeology professor named Juan M. Campos, who leads a project in Tétouan (Morocco), explained the gravity of such decisions: "You are already very familiar with the program Proyectos Arqueológicos en el Exterior (Archeological Projects Abroad), which brings our nation high visibility abroad and encourages bilateral relations with the project recipients, which in some cases are developing countries, with beneficial results for local development [...] On the other hand, it is necessary to mention these projects' high performance in the international arena and the ensuing prestige for our nation. A stoppage of the program, even a provisional one, would be tremendously pernicious since sometimes bilateral relations and the pace of work and relations are not entirely easy to build back."