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George Varoufakis (1925-2021)

30/09/2021

Shortly after midnight, on 29th September, George Varoufakis died. He was born in Cairo, Egypt in June 1925 where he finished his high school studies at the Ambetio School. After graduating, he worked at a branch of a Greek bank in Cairo before coming to Athens in 1946 to enrol in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Athens

Shortly before the outbreak of the second Greek civil war (1946-9), he went to the Dean’s Office, representing his students union, to protest against an increase in tuition fees at a time students were facing starvation. On his way out he was arrested by secret police. Refusing to sign the infamous ‘declaration of denouncing communism’, he was imprisoned in Athens and later exiled to the Makronisos prison camp –  a massive, open-air torture chamber. There, on that barren rock, he had the good fortune of surviving alongside poet Giannis Ritsos, actor Manolis Katrakis and author Spyros Linardatos. When Makronisos was shut down, following an international outrage, he was exiled to the island of Ikaria, before finally returning to Athens and the University of Athens, where he met his life partner Eleni Tsaggaraki. Eleni was the first female student in the history of the Department of Chemistry who would later work as a biochemist, would be active in the feminist movement and would be elected for many years municipal councillor (including on term as Deputy Mayor) of Palaio Faliro. George and Eleni had two children – Yanis and Trisevgeni.

After the secret police ensured that one after the other potential employers would steer clear of employing him as a chemical engineer, he managed to land a job in 1954 at Halyvourgiki, the country’s first steel mill – which over the net few years he helped expand into a large-scale modern steel factory. In 1961, he was appointed Director of the Quality Control, a position he cherished, until in 2003 he was appointed Chairman of the Board of Directors of Halyvourgiki, a position he held until January 2020.

From 1959 until almost his life’s end, in parallel with his demanding position at Halyvourgiki, he began systematically to study the erosion of the ancient bronze statues of Kouros and Artemis that are on display at the Archaeological Museum of Piraeus. Those metallurgical and experimental studies developed into a doctoral dissertation which he successfully defended at the University of Athens, which awarded him his doctorate in 1965.

From 1965, and with the collaboration of leading archaeologists, he continued to study ancient metal finds and to publish original works in Greece and abroad. Among them were:

  • The Mycenaean Metal Finds of Perati – in collaboration with professor and member of the Athens Academy Spyros Iakovidis

  • The Steel Spears of the Geometric Era – in collaboration with  academician G. Mylonas

  • The Study of Inscriptions Around the Quality Control of Metals and the Authenticity of the Silver Attic Coins of the 4th century BC – together with Ronald Stroud

  • The Study of the Famous Derveni Crater – in the study of which he collaborated with renowned archaeologist Manolis Andronikos – and which he presented at the British Museum

  • 45 Figurines of the Minoan Era of Crete

  • Raw Materials for the Casting of Figurines in Kythira

In 1979, George Varoufakis submitted a dissertation entitled “Chemical and Metallurgical Research Around 19 Iron Tripods of the Geometric Era”, which resulted in the award of the title of Lecturer and, in 1982, Honorary Associate Professor at the University of Athens.

His research took another important turn when he focused on the steel rods holding the Parthenon and the Erechtheion together; rods that run through  the large marble volumes of the cornice and the base of the temples. That study was published mainly in the Journal of the Historical Metallurgy Society and changed the way archaeologists appreciated the knowledge and skills of ancient technologists. He then researched the iron links of the temple of the Bank of Aegio and Epicurean Apollo in an attempt to assess the evolution of technology from the archaic to the classical era. It was at that time that scientific societies invited him to present his research works abroad, including in Cyprus, at the British Museum in in London, Prague, Zurich, Sicily, the USA, etc.

During the 1980s, and then again in the 1990s, George Varoufakis also served as President of the Greek Standards & Standardisation Authority (ELOT). During that long tenure, ELOT grew in importance, expanding its activities in Greece’s industrial and economic life . When his term ended, he was awarded the title of ELOT’s Honorary President.

In parallel with his tenure at ELOT, in 1988 he was elected president of the Hellenic Archaeometric Society (EAE), which focuses on the scientific study of ancient technology. Combining his tenure at ELOT and EAE, he studied the history of quality control in antiquity. In 1996 he published a relevant book entitled “Ancient Greece and Standards: The History and Control of the Materials Which Left Their Mark on Greek Civilisation” (Aeolos Publications). The book was published also in English, in 1999. In 2005 he published a sequel, a new book entitled “The History of Iron from Homer to Xenophon: The Iron Findings and the Ancient Greek Literature through the Eye of a Metallurgist” (Ellinika Grammata).

When asked by a foreign visitor a few years ago to summarise his life, he replied: “I am a boy from Cairo who was destined to fall in love with life, humanity and science in the prison camp of Macronissos.”

His funeral will take place on Friday morning, October 1st, 2021 at Athens’ Cemetery, at 11am.

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