December 6, 2004

Elgin marbles would have been well preserved if Elgin had left them in Athens

Posted at 10:28 pm in Elgin Marbles

Despite the claims of many of those who want to retain the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum, the assessment of Anthony Snodgrass of Cambridge University is that the newly cleaned sculptures that remained in Athens are better preserved than those in London.

ABC (Australia)

Elgin Marbles dispute takes new twist
Rossella Lorenzi
Discovery News
Monday, 6 December 2004

The battle over the Elgin Marbles, one of the oldest international cultural disputes, has taken another turn as a distinguished Cambridge scholar says the sculptures would have been just fine if Lord Elgin had left them in Athens.

Following a sophisticated 11-year conservation program in Athens, the 14 slabs that Lord Elgin did not manage to remove are now showing surprisingly bright original details.

“They are in better shape than anything in London. We now know exactly what Lord Elgin ‘saved’ them from: one has only to go to Athens and see for oneself,” said Anthony Snodgrass, emeritus professor of classical archaeology at the University of Cambridge.

Indeed, the 17 figures and 56 panels Lord Elgin chiselled off in 1801 from a giant frieze that once decorated ancient Athens’ most sacred shrine, the Parthenon, bear dramatic signs of the British Museum’s heavy-handed cleaning scandal in the 1930s.

The fearless horsemen, sprightly youths, lounging deities, belligerent centaurs and expressive horses were cruelly scraped and scrubbed with chisels and wire brushes in an attempt to make them whiter than white, an aesthetic admired by museum goers.

Despite the 1930s cleaning, the British Museum has always maintained that the museum is the best possible place for the marbles to be on display.

“The British Museum is a truly universal museum of humanity, accessible to five million visitors from around the world every year entirely free of entry charge,” said Neil MacGregor, the museum’s director.

“The Parthenon Marbles have been central to the museum’s collections, and to its purpose, for almost 200 years. Only here can the worldwide significance of the sculptures be fully grasped.”

He added that centuries of damage have meant that “the Parthenon is a ruin” and that only 50% of the original sculptures survive today.

“They can now only be an incomplete collection of fragments,” MacGregor said.

First glimpse at slabs Elgin left behind

Until now, no one had been able to have a close view of the slabs Lord Elgin did not remove as they were too high up on the Parthenon.

When they were taken down in 1993, a thick layer of soot made it almost impossible to distinguish anything.

Now, after a double-laser cleaning program, the marble pieces show an abundance of details, such as chisel marks and veins on the horses’ bellies.

According to Snodgrass, who has chaired the British Committee for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles since 2002, the difference between the British Museum’s marbles and the Greek ones is clear to anyone who compares them.

“The Athens pieces have more detail preserved, and are more like what their makers intended,” Snodgrass said.

He noted that the much-debated natural-stained patina is still present in the newly restored Greek marbles, while it is totally gone in the British Museum’s pieces.

Scattered throughout Europe

Carved by Phidias in the 5th century BC, the Parthenon sculptures are scattered throughout several European museums, including the Louvre in Paris. But the bulk of the marbles are kept in London’s British Museum.

Greece contends Lord Elgin, British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, stolen them in 1801. Britain claims Lord Elgin had permission from the ruling Turkish authorities to take them.

Greece has been demanding the return of the Elgin Marbles since the country’s independence from Turkey in 1829.

It is now building a new Acropolis Museum, which is due to be completed by 2006. The museum will include a Parthenon Hall, which will remain empty until the marbles have been returned.

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