The renewed Parthenon (Elgin) Marbles debate

The debate over whether the British Museum should return the Parthenon Marbles to Greece is picking up steam in the wake of recent successful antiquities repatriation campaigns, and the opening of the new, state of the art Acropolis Museum.

The new museum eliminates one of the British Museum’s primary excuses for keeping the frieze sculptures removed by Lord Elgin in the first decade of the 19th century, ie, that they can preserve them better in London than the Greeks can in Athens.

Not that that contention was particularly valid even before the new museum opened, mind you.

The British Museum has a lot to answer for in terms of damage done to the marbles in various disastrous “cleanings” using tools like brass brushes and industrial abrasives which scoured off the precious traces of original paint and removed an estimated 1/8 of an inch of the marble surface.

The frieze sculptures that remained on the Parthenon, on the other hand, may have been caked in soot and pollution for thousands of years, but when they were taken down and restored in 1993, the careful double laser treatment revealed details like veins on the horses’ bellies and original chisel marks long gone from Elgin’s poor butchered ones.

So anyway, the new museum isn’t just a hint. The Greeks are out-and-out demanding that the frieze sculptures in England be returned to Athens to join their brothers and sisters.

An animated short directed by famed Greek-born auteur Costa-Gavras showing the damage done to the Parthenon over the centuries plays in the museum, making its return agenda very clear indeed.

The film caused some controversy because of a few seconds of footage in which figures in black are seen knocking chunks of marble off the frieze and replacing them with a cross. Although it’s a known fact that Christians used Parthenon marble for construction and destroyed pagan imagery to convert the structure into a church, the Greek Orthodox Church got mad and those 12 seconds of the film were cut.

Then everyone else got mad, including Costa-Gavras, so the footage was put back in after “clarifying” that the figures in black weren’t meant to be actual priests but just representatives of the people whodunit. (Pretty much all the figures in the short are black shadowy looking things anyway, so it was an obvious point, imo. Guilty conscience much?)

Now the entire short is on YouTube, and it’s astonishing to me that anyone could give a rat’s ass about the Christian destruction aspect given the rousing Elgin-and-Britain-bashing finale. The whole video is compelling, but the focus is definitely on Elgin’s removal of the frieze.

The only voice-over begins at the 4:30 mark, and it’s a recitation of excerpts from Lord Byron’s “The Curse of Minerva,” which he wrote in Athens in 1811, while Elgin was almost but not quite finished despoiling the place. (He removed the last of his marbles in 1812.)

Watch the whole thing because it’s awesome:


HARDCORE, RIGHT?! Here’s the full text from the video:

“Mortal!”—’twas thus [Athena] spake — “that blush of shame
Proclaims thee Briton, once a noble name;
First of the mighty, foremost of the free,
Now honoured ‘less’ by all, and ‘least’ by me:
Chief of thy foes shall Pallas still be found.
Seek’st thou the cause of loathing!—look around.
Lo! here, despite of war and wasting fire,
I saw successive Tyrannies expire;
‘Scaped from the ravage of the Turk and Goth,
Thy country sends a spoiler worse than both.
Survey this vacant, violated fane;
Recount the relics torn that yet remain:
‘These’ Cecrops placed, ‘this’ Pericles adorned,
What more I owe let Gratitude attest—
Know, Alaric and Elgin did the rest.
That all may learn from whence the plunderer came,
The insulted wall sustains his hated name:
Be ever hailed with equal honour here
The Gothic monarch and the Pictish peer:
Arms gave the first his right, the last had none,
But basely stole what less barbarians won.
So when the Lion quits his fell repast,
Next prowls the Wolf, the filthy Jackal last:

Some calm spectator, as he takes his view,
In silent indignation mixed with grief,
Admires the plunder, but abhors the thief.

That’s playing in the museum, y’all, and even with all the press over the religion controversy, nobody once mentioned this dramatic fuck you to Britain. Color my mind blown.

For a handy and entertaining presentation of the issues in the Elgin debate, see James Cuno (director of the Art Institute of Chicago and proponent of “universal museums” getting to keep all the stuff they stole/conquered/bought from thieves) and Christopher Hitchens (journalist and long-time advocate for the return of the Parthenon marbles) go at it on PBS.

20 thoughts on “The renewed Parthenon (Elgin) Marbles debate

  1. Well… I have no argument regarding Thomas Bruce’s villainy, however what is being done now by the Greeks is disingenuous. They want the tourist dollars at this point. And the on;ly possible other motivation applicable here is national pride… ah… hubris.

    The Greeks of today, as your article so well documented, are christians. The Parthanon, and those sculptures, are NOT. It is NOT a part of the Greek heritage as Greece is today, it is a part of a geek heritage that was worshipful of something they no longer appear to understand. (I’d probably make this argument once the Delian league came into existence, too.. 😆 )

    Anyway, at first I cared where the carvings resided and thought it a crime they are in London. But now, given the disdain, ignorance, and pure cynicism (this is about tourism profit and getting more Euros) both parties have for the spiritual meaning of the carvings, and how they relate to the passions of being a human being, I sort of wish all the carvings would head back to Greece but fall overboard in a freak storm granted by Poseidon. It would lend a certain interesting twist to the competition he has with Athena.

    The passions these “gods” and “goddesses” represented are still with us, only they go unrecognized.

    The irony here is that the driving passion for this controversy is greed, which, fascinatingly, has no representation in the Greek pantheon of human passions, worldly, and celestial concerns. There is no god associated with this, it is uniquely human.

    The national pride, or hubris involved here is, on the other hand, a well studied concept by the ancient Greeks. Perhaps there lies any insight into what Apollo might deem justice to this situation. I doubt it involves the Furies which are being invoked by both parties, rather immaturely.

    Who are the rightful owners? Those who cleave to: “Know thyself, and follow the god.”

    1. I don’t think you can support such a broad generalization regarding the Greeks’ desire to have the Parthenon Marbles returned. The Greek people as a whole aren’t likely to make any money from a united frieze and the government has spent more money on the restoration of the Parthenon and building of the museum than it’s likely to earn any time soon.

      Besides, they get plenty of tourist dollars from the Acropolis as it right now. The new museum has already sold a quarter of a million tickets in the first month of its being open. After an initial curiosity surge, I seriously doubt there would be a dramatic increase in income should the Marbles be returned.

      As for national pride, that is hardly synonymous with hubris. Hubris is overweaning pride, placing yourself above fate and the Gods, which inevitably leads to the destruction of you and pretty much everyone you love.

      Taking pride in your heritage is not hubris. Nor does one have to be identical to one’s ancestors in order to respect their works and feel an intense connection to them.

      I don’t even know what to say about your ugly destructive sentiment. Do you regret the Parthenon itself wasn’t leveled during one of the world wars? If the Greeks’ motivations are so undeserving that it’s better for the Marbles to be destroyed than returned, then why should they keep anything at all of their heritage? Why not just demolish everything from Thessaloniki to Crete?

    2. I totally agree with Mr Shafer, and think that the Marbles should just be given to me. All them others are just greedy.

  2. How is falling into the ocean destruction?

    How is wishing a poetic rest out of mortal hands for religious objects of great importance tantamount to wishing destruction upon a sacred place or wishing to take away what is near to the Greeks right now?

    1. The ocean is not kind to artifacts. Burial at sea is not protecting religious object of great importance; it’s abandoning it to the elements.

      I don’t worship Jupiter or the deified Julius but that’s no reason to hope that the Roman forum sinks into the marsh it used to be. If the Marbles hold religious value to you, then you should seek to protect and respect them, not leave them to the mercy of ocean currents, erosion and barnacles.

  3. It’s my understanding that the marbles were purchased fair and square. If Elgin did not have the right permits then surely someone should have noticed at the time that someone was stealing huge chunks of rocks – its not like picking someone’s pocket – it was a big undertaking to remove the stones and then he had to ship them out by ship. The marbles have been in Britain longer than Greece has existed. It is important to know the history fully to appreciate this fact fully – The greeks were so nationalistic they invited a Bavarian to be their first king! Athens was pretty much deserted at the time Elgin was there – not the capital we see today (thanks to the german king). we could learn something from the greek government in how to return other peoples property (see what they stole from their king).
    Peter refers to the Delian league – yes much of this was made up from cities in what is now modern day turkey. Athens stole the money from the treasury of the delian league in order to fund the building of the parthenon – a fact that Greece conveniently forgets today.
    So I think the Marbles should be given to Turkey, not least because the Turks could then use it as a bargaining chip against Greece who would likely oppose their entry to the EU

    1. “Fair and square” is relative, obviously. The firman from the Ottoman Sultan granting Elgin permission to remove the frieze has never actually been produced.

      Even Elgin himself when he was trying to convince the British parliament to buy the marbles couldn’t produce the firman. He claimed it was in the Ottoman archives. It was a friend of his who presented a “translation” to parliament.

      All we have now is an Italian translation of the English translation, evidence that by any reasonable standard is extremely weak.

      As for people noticing at the time, it was a huge controversy. That’s why he had to persuade parliament, because everyone knew the circumstances of the acquisition were shadowy at best.

      As for the anti-nationalistic hair-splitting, I don’t find such arguments persuasive. Italy has only been a single nation state since 1870. That doesn’t mean they don’t have a shared cultural heritage that is of enormous value to them, no matter how many different peoples invaded them, ruled them, owned them over the years. The same goes for Greece.

  4. well, by the same logic, ALL objects in all museums the world over, that are not dug up/produced in that same country, should be “returned” to their place of origin. why stop at the elgin marbles and the parthenon? Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, China, Mexico, Peru…….. all should be given back “their” stuff, and we can largely shut down most of the western museum, since they will empty out and stop the education they bring to countless number of people on the richness of human civilization, who later become tourists, grant givers, benefactors and the like, who help preserve all these places and object.

    NO SIR. art and archaeology belongs to ALL mankind. he who can preserve, display and popularize them, should keep them. Greece is full of great greak things. elgin does a lot better advertisement for the ancient greek art, remaining in london than going into a hole in the ground (the new museum at acropolish) in athens, which is already awash with everything, INCLUDING the parthenon itself.

    this is from the artistic and pragmatic points of view. from the nationalistic point of view, however, everything that was ever greek should be repatriated to greece, as things from other countries should be repatriated to theirs, shut down the western museums and call the whole thing off.

  5. you all obviously have no clue what happened to the marbled once they were sent to the British museum. all of the original paint was scraped off along with several layers of marble.the ones in greece have survived much better.(less palliation in greece) :p

  6. @ clarence, (this is for future readers:

    It is my understanding that the vast majority of historical objects in “western” museums are only on “loan.” Egyptian mummies in American museums? None of those museums actually OWNS any of those historical Egyptian artifacts. Egypt does. And Egypt can demand those artifacts to be returned at any time (or at least, when the contract for the loan is up. Usually, Egypt will grant an extension.)

    (Egypt here can be replaced with any nation….from Peru to China.)

    So that point is moot.

    As for these marbles, those friezes should be returned to their original home. It doesn’t matter if the original structure of the Parthenon was renovated/rebuilt for different purposes over the years. These marbles still originated in Greece, and in Greece they belong.

  7. To suggest that all museums would close is a good argument for not returning stolen artwork. The tourist revenue from visitors wishing to view the Elgin marbles at the London museum must be almost equal to the Hellas debt to Germany. Why not return them to Turkey and finish the European bulling of Greeks off. I was living in Athens when with arms tied the people of Greece were offered entry into the euro and it must have been similar to when Elgin stole these great works. The people could not speak out against international pressure. Corrupt politicians made backhand deals wile the people suffered the loss of their heritage. Start now return all artwork stolen from the countries you colonized. Keep your museums open with replicas and documentary footage of there return. Educate visitors to the value of art and artist working for what they believed in. Thank the people from the countries you have stolen from and make your apologies. There is no place in this modern world for profit from exploitation. Art always shines truth on deception. Sacha Nunn British by birth.

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