The Elgin Marbles

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The Elgin Marbles
At the beginning of the of the 19th century, agents of Lord Thomas Elgin removed, loads of ancient sculpture of fifth-century BC sculpture from the Parthenon, which stood on the Acropolis hill in the centre of Athens. Blocks of marble were violently removed and sawed to decrease their weight. The Parthenon sculpture included frieze and sculpture that once ran all round the building, and stood high up above its columns. These actions were controversial from the very beginning. Lord Byron attacked Elgin as soon as the marbles were shown in London. Since then, there has been a never-ending international debate about Elgin's removal of the sculptures, and whether they should be returned to Athens. We do not know if Elgin's actions were legal at the time. He had obtained a ‘firman’ (permission) from the Turkish authorities then in control of Athens, to work on the Acropolis.
We do not know exactly Elgin's motives. Some people say that he wanted to decorate his mansion with them, and others that he was concerned to rescue them. This is rather doubtful.. The question however is whether such monuments belong to a country ot to the whole world. And what does that mean in practice? When Elgin’s men removed the sculptures, the monument was already in bad shape. From the fifth century BC to the 17th century AD, it had been in continuous use. It was built as a Greek temple, was later converted to a church and finally it was turned into a mosque. The Acropolis houses besides the Parthenon, the temple of Victory, the Propylea and the Erechtheum with the six Cariads.
However its luck changed in 1687 when a Venetian cannonball hit the Parthenon mosque - temporarily in use as a gunpowder store. The blast shattered the roof and the interior of the monument.
On the one hand, the local population was using it as a convenient quarry for building material and on the other hand travellers from northern Europe helped themselves to anything they could pocket and Elgin completed the looting. Whatever his motives were, his agents inevitably inflicted further damage on the fragile ruins.
When Elgin removed the marbles, Athens was a small shanty town of 3,000 people, surrounding the Acropolis. All kinds of remains were scattered in the area from all periods of time.
This changed dramatically in the 1830s, after the Greek War of Independence. Athens was chosen as the capital city. Everything that did not belong to the 'great' period of the fifth century BC was removed. The hill was stripped to bedrock, with just the classical monuments preserved or reconstructed, to serve as a symbol of the new nation's heroic past.
Meanwhile in London, acquiring the sculptures had bankrupted Elgin, and in 1816 he decided to sell them to the government. The sculptures have been lodged in the British Museum ever since.
Over the last 200 years they have come to 'belong' in the British Museum and this sparkled a never ending controversy with Athens.
In the British Museum, the Elgin Marbles gain from being seen next to Assyrian or Egyptian sculpture, at the same time as they lose from not being 'at home in Greece'. This is what causes the irresolvable conflict.
. The museum has recently offered to return the reliefs as a loan, but the offer was rejected by the Greek government. Greek archaeologists have accused the British museum of causing damage to the marbles during a restoration with wire brushes.
There is a powerful case for suggesting that the Parthenon could be better appreciated if it could be seen close to the sculptures that once adorned it in the newly built Acropolis museum. On the other hand, it is undeniable that part of the fame and significance of the Parthenon rests on its wide Diaspora throughout the western world.
The likelihood is that we will be debating these issues for many years to come. The Greeks insist on the reunification of the Parthenon marbles, some limbs of which are shared between the two museums. The question remains. Who is the legitimate owner, the creator or the robber who has used illegal tricks to take possession of these treasures? The issue is repeated throughout the world. Rich countries with no real ancestral past have used their abundant resources to enrich their museums with stolen treasures from Assyria, Egypt, Greece, Latin America and Asia. It is a common practice for the great museums of the world to buy illegally excavated treasures, and after hiding them for 15 to 20 years, to display them to the public, who never ask where they have come from or how. This is the crux of the matter, and the rest is mere philology to cover this international scandal with.