The Parthenon Marbles
Last Update: August 17, 2023
aka "Elgin Marbles"
The controversial Parthenon Marbles are a large selection of antiquities taken by Lord Thomas Bruce, the Seventh Earl of Elgin, from Greece and shipped to Britain between 1801 and 1812. The pieces were sold by him to the British Museum in London in 1816.
Tourists and archeologists have removed pieces from the Acropolis over the centuries (tourists have often carried off small marble splinters and pebbles scattered over the Acropolis mount, an act which is now illegal). In the past, French and British antiquity specialists and hobbyists, along with art dealers and smugglers, have competed aggressively in taking pieces out of Greece and into museums (or private collections) in their respective countries. In the past these forces have sought to make their home capitols the "center of the art world" which meant acquiring as much original Greek art (versus Roman copies) as possible, since the Greek artists of the ancient world are continually lauded as the best and most advanced in skill.
What began as a limited amount of removal as Greece was opened up to European visitors in the 1700-1800's, the activity picked up speed and eventually became a more heated contest, with a great deal of money (or potential money) involved. The most famous removal is the taking of the Parthenon Marbles from the Acropolis, a group of pieces often called the "Elgin Marbles," sections of the Parthenon shipped to England between 1801 and 1812 by Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin.
Elgin took claim to approximately half of the then surviving statuary at the Acropolis through an arrangement with the Ottomans. Elgin was 32 years old and a British representative to Constantinople at a perfect moment in time because the Sultan had just reclaimed a large part of Ottoman land and influence due to the defeat of Napoleon's forces in Egypt by the British. When Elgin sought an Ottoman "firman" (a royal permit) to investigate the Acropolis, and this was issued. Previously, Elgin had been barred from going up onto the Acropolis with his art team which he had hired to record through drawings and measurements the structures of the famous mount.
Elgin claimed he was spurred toward his removal of pieces because he observed how the statuary was being continually damaged. He cited that sometimes the poorly paid Turkish troops burned up pieces in an effort to gain lime, that they piled up fragments, along with statuary, to make fortification walls, and took down structures atop the Acropolis to remove the interior lead connecting pieces so they could be melted down into bullets. Elgin also recounted that various tourists from Europe were breaking off pieces (especially noses) on statuary at various sites in Greece to take home as souvenirs, and as the scale of visitors increased the vandalism was also increasing.
Elgin's efforts to move the objects which he had crated back to Britain had to circumvent a number of problems (besides the Dizdar and the occasional protests of Athenians who had little power to stop what was happening). One ship loaded with pieces sank (the crates were eventually raised and sent along their way in a different ship)*. Elgin had to contrive favors from British military craft to carry boxes onward to Britain, this at a time when Britain and France were in a continual state of conflict on the Mediterranean. Some crates went to Malta and stayed there for years, and boxes that reached Britain were stored in various places, including Elgin's friend's homes.
There are accounts of contemporary opposition to what Elgin was doing. When his men removed a Caryatid from the porch of the Erechtheion, Greeks in Athens rioted, and this may be why the other five figures were not also likewise taken. Even men working for Elgin had second-thoughts about what they were doing, and in particular the Italian painter Giovanni Battista Lusieri, who was employed as a supervisor by Elgin, characterized it as a "barbarism." Lusieri later lived in Athens, near the Acropolis, until his death in 1821.
Lord Byron, the famous British poet who was particularly interested in Greece (and died in Missolonghi in 1824, having come to join the Greeks in the revolution against the Turks), mocked Elgin's efforts in his poem Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, published in four sections between 1812 - 1818. In the poem, Elgin is characterized as a plunderer upon Hellas, that he is the "...last, the worst..."
Elgin had been driven nearly to bankruptcy by his project of removing the marbles to England, had spent nearly 60,000 pounds in the process, and had suffered public humiliation through a divorce from his wife and also after being captured and imprisoned by Napoleon (the circumstances of his later parole forced him to quit the House of Lords). He had also experienced facial disfigurement during his long tour abroad, with his nose suffering particular disintegration (some attributed this to syphilis, though another likely explanation could be extreme skin rosacea accelerated by the strong Mediterranean sun).
In 1806 Elgin finally reached England, gathered the boxed pieces (Elgin originally had some 200 boxes shipped out of Greece) from friends and storage places, and in 1807 began to exhibit them in Glouster House at the corner of Park Lane and Piccadilly.
Elgin's collection was consequently sold to the British government ten years later. Some books say Elgin sought 70,000 pounds, others say 50,000, in 1807, for his collection. All that the British government offered was 30,000, which Elgin refused. In 1816 the government then offered 35,000, and Elgin said yes.
In 1835 the new Greek government, with the mainland now free of Ottoman rule, made its first request for the return of the marbles. The British Museum (itself modeled on a Greek building, the temple at Priene) refused, but offered plaster reproductions instead. The requests have continued for the next 188 years.
Ownership arguments over the Parthenon Marbles are relatively simple. The British Museum argument is that the pieces were moved through cooperation with the governing legal authority at the time. The counter argument is that the Parthenon Marbles are uniquely Greek objects which belong to the Greek people, and an occupying force of foreign Ottoman Turks did not have a legitimate moral/legal right to sell or give away Greek objects.
Some have suggested the "firman" Elgin obtained which gave him permission in his removal activities did not actually exist. Historical knowledge of the firman (a royal permit from the Sultan) comes to us only in translation and there is no known original document. Even if the firman did exist, the reported contents of the firman does not give permission to take away the statuary and other pieces atop the Acropolis (though it did provide permission to dig up pieces elsewhere in Athens and to take them).
Most historians, however, believe this firman was indeed issued to Elgin, citing contemporary supporting evidence for its existence. Narratives of what happened next say that Elgin and his team used the firman and "stretched" it to first to take down a single metope along the south collonnade at the Parthenon, and then they followed that with taking down more until half were removed. The Turkish official (called "Dizdar," a fortress commander) protested and it is reported (by the British traveler Edward Daniel Clarke) that the Dizdar burst into tears when Elgin's workmen failed to remove a metope correctly and it came crashing down, breaking into splinters.
*Elgin Marble pieces found in waters near Agios Nikolaos - story at Protothema [Greek], January 31, 2021
Pediments - these sculpted figures were at either end (north-east and south-east) of the Parthenon and inside the raised triangular roofing space. This area combined with the metope area below is referred to as the "tablature."
Metopes - Sculpted figures set apart from one another on rectangular slabs separated by a triple lined block called a "triglyph."
Frieze - The Frieze is a continuous long series of figures. They were directly behind the metopes separated from it by air space. There were four friezes at the Parthenon, one each facing north, south, east and west. The frieze sat above an interior set of columns, which lined up behind the metopes. Behind the frieze was the block wall building of the actual temple (and inside that was a whole new set of approx. 46 smaller columns stacked into two floors). When looking at the Parthenon, the exterior columns are actually supporting an exterior section which goes up to support the roof (blown away by Venetian shelling in 1687) and behind that exterior line of columns is an interior line of columns (where the frieze were) , and behind that was the block wall of the temple with a large entrance door.
Resources on the Parthenon Sculptures (Elgin marbles):
The 2009 book "Loot" by Sharon Waxman. Waxman describes the history of the removal of the Parthenon Marbles from Greece.
The Search for Ancient Greece from publisher Harry Abrams, 1992. This book covers the activities of archeologists in Greece over hundreds of years, and provides "an examination of the heart of Western culture."
Employee thefts at UK British Museum raises questions about security of Parthenon Marbles
Story at Protothema [English] – August 17, 2023
Melina Mercouri and the Parthenon Marbles
May 12, 2023: Story at IN GR [Greek]
"You can't borrow what already belongs to you"
January 7, 2023: The Parthenon Marbles - story at EFSYN [Greek]
The international maneuvers over the Parthenon Marbles
January 7, 2023: Story at Kathimerini [Greek]
The items the British Museum seeks in exchange fore the Parthenon marbles
January 5, 2023: Story at IN GR [Greek]
Ministry of the Interior: We do not recognize the British Museum's jurisdiction, possession and ownership of the Parthenon Marbles
January 5, 2023: Story at Athina984 [Greek]
Bloomberg: Parthenon Marbles deal close between UK and Greece
January 3, 2023: Story at Bloomberg [English]
The "red tape" at the UK British Museum
Aug 7, 2022: Story at Kathimerini [Greek]
"Partnership" plan for Parthenon Marbles not moving forward
Aug 2, 2022: Story at MSN - UK Telegraph [English]
Anniversary of the 1982 announcement by Melina Mercouri for the return of the Parthenon Marbles
July 29, 2022: Story at Greek City Times [English]
Debate over reunification of the Parthenon Marbles is "evolving" at the British Museum
July 17, 2022: Story at Eleftherostypos [Greek]
Greek likely to reject any deal from British Museum for fear of "legal trap"
June 24, 2022: Story at UK Telegraph MSN [English]
3D Printers and the Parthenon Marbles
June 17, 2022: Story at UK Guardian [English]
Greece/UK to begin "formal discussion" about Parthenon Marbles
May 19, 2022: Story at Hyperallergic [English]
Is the UK losing the "Elgin marbless" to Greece
November 19, 2021: Story at UK Telegraph [English]
"The Museum would be denuded if we give back exhibits"
"They're our artworks"
Web site dedicated to the matter of "cultural vandalism"
"Elgin Marbles" pieces found in waters near Agios Nikolaos
Story at Protothema [Greek]
More about the Acropolis
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Page created October 2018 | Updated August 11, 2022