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EducationGuardian.co.uk    21 July 2004

Elgin Marbles: fact or fiction?

So many theories abound about the controversial Elgin Marbles, scholars claim it's hard to separate fact from fiction. Here, archaeologist Dr Dorothy King dispels the myths.

Wednesday July 21, 2004

Much has been written in the last few years about the Parthenon Sculptures, better known as the Elgin Marbles, named after Lord Elgin who brought the marbles to Britain. Unfortunately, most of the "facts" doing the rounds are propaganda disseminated by those who would like to see the Elgin Marbles returned to Greece.

Although a new book by Robert Bowie Johnson, Jr. claims that the Parthenon depicts the book of Genesis, including Noah and his flood, this theory has not been widely accepted, and the Israeli government have not used it as the basis to claim the Parthenon for the State of Israel. At least not yet. The general consensus is that the Parthenon and its sculptures were designed by Pheidias, and funded by the city-state of Athens in the fifth century BC.

So, to clarify, here is the correct version of the Marbles and their history, without the revisions that have been attached to them over the years.

"The Athenian Akropolis ... was, from the late fifth century BC onwards: the monumental symbol of Hellenic civilization." Historian Nigel Spivey.

The Athenian Acropolis was important only to the Athenians, not to other Greek states. Some sanctuaries, such as Delphi and Olympia were Pan-Hellenic, meaning that they were important to all Greek states, but the Acropolis was not. Although almost every building in antiquity was 'sacred' - plays, for example, were put on as part of the cult of Dionysus - the Parthenon was not used to house the cult of Athena until the fourth century BC, when the Erechtheion was too dilapidated to do so any more.

The Parthenon was built as a giant treasury come bank, to house the riches of Athens, rather than as a temple. This is reflected by the fact that there are only a handful of ancient references to the building.

"The monuments of the Acropolis at Athens, in particular, occupied a very special place in the heart of the Greeks [in Elgin's day]" British Committee for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles.

It must be nice to be able to rewrite history with so much fantasy and hindsight. The Parthenon was important to the Byzantine Greeks not because of its' past, but because it had been converted into their cathedral. By Elgin's day it had become a mosque and been destroyed in an explosion. The ancient glory of the Parthenon interested Western travellers, but few Athenians.

"Blind are the eyes that do not shed tears while seeing, O, Greece beloved, your sacred objects plundered by profane English hands that have again wounded your aching bosom and snatched your gods, gods that hate England's abominable north climate." Byron, Childe Harold.

Dear old Byron is often cited to show that Elgin was condemned in his own day for bringing the Parthenon marbles back to London. Byron was not considered the most reliable source in his own day, and went into exile because of his terrible reputation.

Most scholars, on both sides of the argument, agree that had Elgin not brought the Marbles back to London, they would have been badly damaged in Athens, and possibly destroyed. Byron, who liked being rude about Elgin because he did not like Scots, did not think the Marbles should have been brought to London because he had a Romantic notion of ruins. He did not want the Marbles preserved, but rather wished them to disintegrate in the ruins of the Parthenon, for this would have been more Romantic for him.

"More damage was done to the Parthenon in 1801-2 than in the previous 2,200 years" Melina Mercouri, former Culture Minister of Greece (The Times, 15.1.83).

In fact the Parthenon Elgin saw, was not as well preserved as the Parthenon visitors see in Athens today; the latter is a result of several reconstructions of the building by the Greek Archaeological Service. The Parthenon Elgin saw was a ruin. It had been converted first into a Greek church, when much of the sculpture was deliberately defaced, then into a mosque.

In 1687, during the Last Crusade, it was a munitions store; it exploded and the building's wall came tumbling down. Approximately half the sculpture that survived all these disasters was then lost, chopped up and used as building stone, or as souvenirs.

"Elgin took sculpture from Turkish-occupied Athens by a combination of bribery, duplicity and sheer force majeure." (Nigel Spivey), through "bribery and corruption of Officials" (Melina Mercouri). "Elgin did not act legally in stripping the Parthenon of its sculptures." (British Committee for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles.)

Just as in Homeric Greece, the Ottoman Empire had a tradition of hospitality and of gift-giving. Elgin gave the Sultan and his circle lavish gifts, and the Sultan and his circle gave the Elgins and their embassy lavish gifts in return. This was the custom. The Elgins became favourites of the Sultan because Elgin was the representative of Britain, and the British had helped drive the French out of Ottoman Egypt.

The Sultan gave Elgin a Byzantine sarcophagus from his own Mosque and the few old stones - for that is how he saw the Parthenon sculptures - that Elgin wanted from Athens were mere trifles to him. He issued a firman, a copy of which is preserved, which was an Imperial decree, there being no higher law at the time than the wishes of the Sultan. Yes, Elgin did give many gifts to the authorities in Athens to speed work along. These gifts are often described as 'bribes', although the modern interpretation is inadequate. They were more akin to tips, unless one considers leaving a tip to the waiter in a restaurant a bribe.

(Q.  Did the Sultan as leader of the Turkish occupiers have the right to give the marbles to Elgin? i.e. did he have legal ownership of the marbles? If not, then they must still belong to Greece).

"There is no question that his original intent was ... to decorate his own baronial residence in Fife." Nigel Spivey.

This rather curious statement contradicts every single source that exists, though that is rarely an impediment to Restitutionists. Elgin originally intended to make casts and drawings of ancient remains to help furnish examples for the decoration of Broomhall, his seat.

Once he intended to bring the Parthenon Marbles back to London, he was always clear that he wanted them to be housed in the British Museum. He even sold them to the Museum for less than his expenses bringing them back had been, declining many higher offers, from Napoleon amongst other.

Melina Mercouri pointed out that "After independence was gained, one of the first Acts passed by the Greek government was for the protection and preservation of national monuments."

Unfortunately the Greeks did not act on the Act, for the sculptures on the Acropolis continued to deteriorate when in the hands of an Independent Greek State. Comparison of the Caryatid from the Erechtheion brought back by Elgin, and those that remained in Athens make this clear; the carving on the London figure is still crisp, whilst the surface of those in Athens have deteriorated to such an extent that they can no longer be exposed to air, but rather have to be kept in a gas-filled box.

Apparently, it is highly racist to suggest that the present inhabitants of Greece are not the direct descendants of the Pericles, again according to Mrs Mercouri. It might be pedantic to point out that historically Pericles did not have any descendants, but also useful to point out that many migrations have occurred in the last two and half millennia, as well as intermarriage and decimation of peoples by acts of God.

It would be ridiculous to try to claim that Fred Bloggs of Chester-le-Street was a direct descendant of the Celts, or that George W. Bush was of the Sioux, and it is equally ridiculous to try to claim that the modern Athenian carries the blood of Pericles and of fifth century Athenians in his veins.

The Byzantine emperors saw themselves as heirs to the Romans not the Greeks, and the Greeks in what is now the modern state of Greece only began to claim descent from the Ancient Greeks when they realised that it would help their cause, winning Western support, during their War of Independence.

" ... the time has come for these Marbles to come home to the blue skies of Attica, to their rightful place, where they form a structural and functional part of a unique entity." Melina Mercouri.

"The Parthenon Sculptures form a work of art that makes sense only as a whole" according to Marbles Reunited.

"The Parthenon without the marbles is like a smile with a missing tooth" added Neil Kinnock, not a man known for his winning smile.

These quotes, and others like them, give the misleading impression that the sculptures in Athens and those in London would be brought together to form a whole with the building for which they were created. Restitutionists like to imply that the sculptures would be put back on the Parthenon.

If this were possible it would be a very interesting proposition, but alas it will never happen. The Parthenon sculptures can never be put back on the Parthenon because Athens is a very polluted city and acid rain would dissolve their surfaces. Archaeologists in fact regularly ask for the very opposite to happen; they ask that the Greek Archaeological service remove the last remaining sculptures from the building.

Of course if pressed, the Greeks will agree that the marbles, if returned to Athens, would be housed in a museum there, just as they are housed in a museum in London.

"... The sculptures showed clear traces of colour that the scraping destroyed." British Committee for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles.

"The surfaces of the sculptures had been left largely untouched since ancient times" but, at the British Museum, they were "crudely scraped to reveal their raw marble subsurface". This act of barbarism was followed by an "institutional cover up", according to William St Clair. He refers to a cleaning in the 1930s that removed the brown sludge from the Elgin Marbles.

A conference on the condition of the Parthenon Marbles was held in December 1999; most agreed that the cleaning was harsh, but a method popular at the time, a method which the Greek Archaeological Service continued to use for several decades, and which the Italians still consider acceptable. Heaping scandal upon scandal, "the museum abruptly cancelled the plans to publish the proceedings" according the William St Clair, who clearly has not noticed that all papers submitted by participants are freely available on the museum's website.

Although publication in a book would have been an option, it was not possible in this case as many Greek participants did not wish to submit copies of the papers they had presented at the conference.

One fear expressed by curators is that if the Elgin Marbles were returned, this would create a precedent, with other countries claiming that art was illegally acquired and should be returned to them. But "the precedent argument is unusually silly. For one thing, the Greeks do not want anything else "back"." According to Christopher Hitchens.

It is good to hear that Mr Hitchens has the omnipotence to guarantee the actions of all future Greek governments. The Restitutionists claim that the Parthenon sculptures are unique, but they only want those in London back; not those in Paris, Italy, the Vatican, Germany, Denmark - or at least they have so far failed to ask for those. Various Greek governments have however asked for the return of the Victory of Samothrace from the Louvre, the Bassae frieze from the British Museum, and assorted other works of art, which are all also presumably 'unique'.

"They [the Parthenon sculptures] are a tribute to the democratic philosophy." Melina Mercouri.

The Parthenon was built to house the tribute Athens gathered from its Empire. Although Athens herself was Democratic, as long as you were a male landowner, its empire was not. States that tried to leave the Athenian fold were sacked, and Pericles was an early and enthusiastic fan of crucifying ones enemies.

Although Democracy is a Greek word, so is hypocrisy. Since the Greeks make such a fuss of how the British Museum displays and has cared for the Elgin Marbles, one can assume that they themselves have done a better job. But then again it's always silly to assume. Although there are many wonderful museums in Athens where their half of the Parthenon sculptures could be housed, for the last decade the majority of these have been in an inaccessible basement store room, which scholars and tourists alike are denied access to.

Some of the sculptures remain on the building, where they are being eaten away by acid rain. Other were removed as late as 1993, but still have not been restored. A few blocks of the frieze are on display, and some of the pedimental figures sit forlornly in gas filled box - they were removed in 1977, by which point they had become too delicate to have contact with air.

Despite this the remains of the frieze were not taken down until 1993. So, if some Greek fairy godmother could wave a magic wand and send the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum back to Athens tomorrow, they could not even be displayed next to the Athens Parthenon sculptures.

The Athens pieces are in such bad condition that if the two were ever displayed next to each other, it would cause considerable embarrassment to the Greeks, and seriously bring into question their custodianship of what they themselves describe as their greatest cultural treasures.

The British Committee for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles rather disingenuously claims that ownership of the Marbles is no longer an issue, and that the Greeks only want a loan. This does not however mean that the Greeks accept British ownership, as the last Culture Minister made clear.

The loan requested is also a permanent one, which seems to defy any rational interpretation of the word "loan". If we wanted to call in this loan and bring our Marbles back to London do we honestly believe the Greek government would pack them up and ship them back to us? And if they didn't, what could we possibly do about it? Send in the SAS in a dawn raid to bring them home?

The Elgin Marbles are quite happily housed in the British Museum, which saved them from destruction in the first place, and which has cared for them admirably ever since. When the Greeks can demonstrate that they too have done an admirable job of caring for the Marbles in Athens then, perhaps, we can discuss a loan.


All very well to discuss the history & occupation of Greece, etc. BUT, the real question is:

Does the Parthenon (and it's marbles) belong to Greece and the Greek people?

Or, put it another way:

Does Stonehenge belong to Britain and the British people?

The answer is surely self evident....