The Parthenon: the Case of the Controversial "Elgin Marbles"
Updated: Mar 25
"The Parthenon is the one building in the world which may be assessed as absolutely right." -- Classicist A.W. Lawrence
the Parthenon temple on the Acropolis of Athens
The "Elgin Marbles" are the most famous exhibit in the British Museum in London England. The marbles are beautiful friezes and sculptures that once adorned the Parthenon on the Acropolis of Athens, built between 447 and 438 B.C. But how did the Parthenon lose its marbles?
The man responsible for their divorce from Athens was Lord Elgin, a British Ambassador. In the midst of Ottoman upheaval, he procured a dodgy and ambiguous permit to excavate and export Parthenon frieze relics from Greece to England. But did he rescue them or abuse his power and seize them by conquest?
It's become a 200 year old controversy. Greece has repeatedly asked for the return of the Elgin Marbles. But to no avail. The British Museum claims they have legal title. How did it come to pass that Greece's most precious artifacts are in London? Who really owns the Elgin marbles?
Since my last visit to the Parthenon, this issue has plagued me. I decided to try to unravel the mystery.
the Acropolis viewed from the Hill of Muses
The Parthenon in Athens
The Parthenon is a marble temple dedicated to the goddess Athena. It's located on the Acropolis of ancient Athens. The Parthenon was built between 447 B.C. and 432 B.C. and was the center of religious life. At the time, Athens was at its zenith during the age of Pericles.
The Parthenon was decorated with the finest art of its day, conceived and carved by master sculptor Phidias. The east and west pediments had magnificent friezes (decorative horizontal bands), which depicted an Athenian religious process. They were meant to be a continuous narrative of the Athenian gods.
The problem? The marble decorations have long been removed -- stolen, looted, damaged, and marred by pollution. Approximately half of the Parthenon marbles are in London at the British Museum and half are in Athens at the Acropolis Museum.
Hera and Zeus on a section of the Parthenon frieze at the British Museum in London
The Bombing of the Parthenon
For centuries, the Parthenon reigned as one of the most emblematic monuments of the ancient classical world. But it was the victim of an ongoing conflict between Venice and the occupying Ottoman Empire. Turkish forces hid gunpowder in the Parthenon, using it as an arsenal. They believed Venice wouldn't bomb such a historic monument.
They were wrong. On September 26, 1687, the Venetians detonated the gunpowder. The Parthenon burned for 2 days and lay in ruins. To make matters worse, the Venetian general, Francesco Morosini, looted the Parthenon, removing many intact statues and artifacts.
The Parthenon lay in ruins until the 19th century when an interest in classical antiquities peaked. Napoleon sent his minions to scour the Parthenon. Other excavators arrived.
Lord Elgin of Britain, the man who exported Parthenon marbles back to Britain
Lord Elgin's Excavations at the Parthenon
Enter Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin. He was the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. In 1799, he hired a team to head to the Parthenon, at first with the intent to make drawings for posterity and obtain some "antiques" for his Scottish manor home. Elgin obtained a permit of sorts, called a "firman."
A firman was an official decree from the Ottoman Empire. Elgin's firman survives only in an Italian translation. The original has disappeared from the public record. This document wasn't signed by the sultan. It was likely granted by a low level official in deference to Elgin's position.
Under the English translation of the Italian translation, Elgin was given permission to draw, paint, excavate, and make molds at the Parthenon. He was not to be "hindered from taking away any pieces of stone with inscriptions or figures." Elgin generously interpreted the permit to give him the right to carry off any artifacts on or attached to the site.
This was a common enough practice at the time, though today it would definitely be classified as illegal plundering. But even back then, people objected. Lord Byron attacked Elgin's actions as sacrilegious, writing a satirical poem about Elgin called The Curse of Minerva.
Elgin's partisans say he was acting with noble intent. He rescued the marbles from the Turks and spirited them away to safety, ensuring the marbles weren't lost to posterity. The Turks, Elgin claimed, had even ground down priceless statues to make mortar. And that may be true.
Elgin Marbles, from the east pediment -- in the Duveen Gallery of the Britsh Museum
Elgin used his own money, quite a bit of it, to export the heavy relics. But he wasn't purely acquisitive. He had artisans make detailed plaster casts of artworks he left behind. These casts are extremely valuable, revealing pediment details that were subsequently lost to pollution in Athens.
What are the Elgin Marbles?
Elgin took a lot of marble with him -- 247 feet of frieze, 15 metopes, and 17 sculptures from the pediment of the Parthenon. He also carried off objects from other buildings on the Acropolis: the Erechtheion, the Propylaia, and the Temple of Athena Nike. Collectively, these objects are referred to as the "Elgin Marbles," thought the British Museum formally calls them the "Parthenon Sculptures."
The excavation bankrupted Elgin. Desperate and going through a divorce, in 1816, he sold his precious loot to the British government for £350,000. A hearing was held, which found that the marbles were legally acquired. The collection was vested in the trustees of the British Museum in perpetuity under British law. The museum trustees are sworn to defend and preserve the collection.
The Elgin Marbles were eventually installed in the Duveen Gallery of the British Museum. There, they are freely accessible and have had a major influence on generations of artists and scholars.
Shortly after Elgin carried them away, Greece became an independent nation. The Parthenon was a symbol of Greek identity. Greece has repeatedly asked for the return of the Elgin Marbles. But they remain in London.
section of a frieze from the Elgin Marbles inside the British Museum in London
two figures thought to be Demeter and Persephone from the east Parthenon pediment, at the British Museum
The New Athens Museum
Elgin didn't abscond with everything. He couldn't. So there were many statues and relics left behind. For years, they were stored in a ramshackle museum in Athens. But, in 2009, Athens opened a gorgeous new museum, the Acropolis Museum.
Designed by French-Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi, it's a $200 million state of the art rebuttal to the British Museum's claim that Athens had nowhere to properly store and display the Elgin Marbles. The NYT called the Acropolis Museum “one of the highest-profile cultural projects undertaken in Europe in this decade.”
The Acropolis Museum recreated the Parthenon friezes for display. Pieces that Elgin left behind are combined with casts of what’s on display in London. Through the wraparound windows, you can even spy the Parthenon ruins. The clash between the weathered originals and white plaster copies makes a not-so-subtle pitch for the return of the "sister" Elgin Marbles.
the Acropolis Museum in Athens
Parthenon frieze at the Acropolis Museum
Debate Over Ownership of the Elgin Marbles
In a standoff, the British Museum says they acquired them fairly and Greece maintains they were looted. There are legal, ethical, historical factors at play. What are the arguments of each side? Did Elgin cheat at marbles?
The British Museum Side
The British Museum claims legal title to the marbles, having purchased them from Elgin, who had a permit. It claims that, without Elgin, the marbles wouldn't even exist. They would have been looted or destroyed by either the Turks or raiders and trophy hunters. In this way, the British Museum skirts over and rationalizes Elgin's unethical and overreaching conduct.
atrium of the British Museum
The British Museum also disputes Greece's claim that the Elgin Marbles are a symbol of Greece. The museum asserts that the marbles are part of a larger interconnected narrative -- that they represent western democracy and are an emblem of western European civilization.
No nation, the argument goes, has a "claim" on antiquity. In fact, the British Museum thinks their encyclopedic-like setting is the most "unique" of the two, providing a public benefit from a worldwide collection.
What could be better, it claims, than to have a universal symbol shown in a universal museum dedicated to understanding art owned by all of humanity. Especially when that museum is free. And how much connection is there between a pagan ancient Greece and the modern day Greek state, anyway?
And, it asserts that perhaps it's better that the Parthenon marbles are in two places -- to be seen by more people and appreciated in two different contexts (one world cultures and one Greek). The British Museum is, in fact, vastly more popular than the Acropolis Museum.
The British Museum naturally also worries about floodgates. If the Elgin Marbles are returned, what about the rest of the art in the British Museum and elsewhere? Would everything have to be repatriated? What about the Nike of Samothrace and Venus de Milo in the Louvre Museum?
the casts of the six Caryatid statues, which replaced the originals in 1979, when they were moved to the old Acropolis Museum to keep them from being damaged any further by atmospheric pollution
The Brith Museum has rejected formal requests to return the Elgin Marbles or submit the issue to international arbitration. The museum has been unwilling to permit a loan without an explicit acknowledgment of its ownership from Greece. This makes sense. Who loans their property to someone who doesn't recognize title and intends to keep it permanently?
The Greek Side
The Greeks claim that Elgin exceeded the authority given to him by the ambiguous permit and that the British Museum is a "a murky prison."
They claim that since the Ottomans were occupiers not owners of the Parthenon, any permit from them is necessarily invalid. And a "permit" from a low ranking occupying official has no validity, especially as a basis for ownership of such a valuable article.
the original Caryatids in the Acropolis Museum
The Greeks also claim that Lord Elgin was no magnanimous hero. They call him a common vandal who damaged the Parthenon by "sawing" and "ripping" off relics. They also assert that the British Museum damaged the honey coloring of the Elgin Marbles through overzealous cleaning with metal brushes. The British Museum covered up the damage for almost 60 years, but now admit its error.
Essentially, Greece makes an ethical and moral argument. They want the pieces of the Parthenon frieze to be reunified so that it can be seen as a harmonious aesthetic whole, with the Parthenon ruins as the backdrop. Right now, the body of Isis is in London while her head is in Athens. Part of the torso of Poseidon is in London and part is in Athens. It does seem illogical on its face.
The Parthenon Marbles. Photo Source: @British Museum
Verdict: Return the Elgin Marbles to Greece
Both sides sit in frozen retrenchment. To me, they both stand on shaky ground and counterpoints to every argument can be made. On balance, however, I think the marbles should be returned to Greece, their common sense rightful owner.
As a legal matter, the British Museum would win in court. The Ottomans explicitly gave permission to Elgin to carry away the valuable goods, during the age of empire. It was likely a diplomatic gesture. The British Museum can hardly be blamed for that. Thus, the museum may rightly claim that it has no legal or moral obligation to Greece.
But, in truth, the actual legality of its acquisition isn't so clear cut. The wording of the translated firman is ambiguous. The original document is long gone, perhaps purposefully disappeared. The existing translation appears restricted to "pieces of stone" one might find while excavating.
The firman doesn't specifically authorize denuding an ancient building, hauling away actual statuary, or sawing it off. It seems clear the Elgin went a little crazy, when there was no objection to his actions. So, the British Museum's underlying documentary authority isn't strong.
my daughter on our last visit to the Parthenon
If the documentary authority is iffy, then the validity of the British Museum's purchase is iffy. It could have purchased the Elgin Marbles with a defective title -- a point it refuses to concede.
Despite this, Greece has never sued. Now, it's just too late. There are statute of limitations laws for bringing lawsuits, of course. Such a law sets the maximum time a party has to initiate legal proceedings from the date of an alleged offense.
Greece has been aware of a possibly illegal removal for over two centuries now. So the statute of limitations has long expired. The Elgin matter just happened too long ago.
But there's legality and then there's morality. In terms of the moral arguments, Greece has the edge. For starters, the British Museum's ripple effect argument seems overwrought.
Would a gracious return of the Elgin Marbles for the sole purpose of reunifying the Parthenon sculptures really be interpreted as "precedent" for all of the world's stolen art? Italy, Germany, and the Vatican have all given Greece back pieces of the Parthenon pediment. (Though there are still Parthenon sculptures in museums in Paris, Vienna, Munich, Wurzburg, and Copenhagen.)
Instead of being viewed as Nazi-type plunder, the Elgin Marbles could be treated as a special, narrow case of repatriation -- which they are. The marbles were meant to be a single piece of art on a single breathtaking building.
Marble metope from the Parthenon. This metope is from the eastern half of the south side of the temple.
When you visit the Acropolis Museum, it's hard not to yearn for the amputated pieces to be reunited as a whole. A beautiful artifact is more than just the sum of its parts.
A lot of damage has been done to the Parthenon over the years by past empires.
Both Elgin and the Turks damaged the Parthenon by sawing off the marbles. The British Museum damaged the marbles during restoration. Greece damaged the Parthenon through botched restorations and uninhibited air pollution. Even the Nazis flew a flag there.
Still, by clinging to its marbles, the British Museum looks culturally nationalistic and paternalistic, not the bastion of world culture it claims to be. What if half of Stonehenge had been carted away? This is one desecration that can actually be righted by repatriation of the Elgin marbles to the place of their genesis.
The marbles don't need to remain decontextualized and disembodied artifacts, living apart in two separate museums. The marbles are physically integral to the Parthenon itself, and better off reunited in their natural place. The British Museum could make accurate casts and send them back to Greece fairly easily.
The British Museum has said they'll "never" lose their marbles. But the tide and pressure of history may say different.