September 19, 2006

Heidelberg fragment return & possible implications

Posted at 12:41 pm in Elgin Marbles

Athens News looks at the details of the return of the Heidelberg fragment of the Parthenon frieze. This is the most in depth coverage of the handover in the English Language press so far.

Athens News

No. 13199
Parthenon fragment returns home
Handed over to Greece by Heidelberg University, the small marble pieceraises hopes for the repatriation of the Marbles collection kept at the British Museum in London

A PALM-SIZED marble fragment detached from the Parthenon was handed over to Greece on September 4 by the Heidelberg University’s Museum of Antiquities. The small piece, measuring 8 by 12 centimetres, is the first section from the 2,500-year-old monument to return to its place of origin after an absence of almost 150 years. The highly symbolic gesture has raised the Greek government’s hopes over the long – and for decades fruitless – campaign for the repatriation of the Parthenon Marbles displayed at the British Museum in London.

“This is a new page in a previously deadlocked debate concerning the return of the entirety of the Parthenon sculptures from museums abroad,” said Culture Minister George Voulgarakis on September 5, presenting the recovered piece to the press at the old Acropolis Museum. “Though the best known example of a foreign institution holding on to Parthenon antiquities is that of the British Museum – the so-called Elgin Marbles were removed by Lord Elgin in the early 19th century – fragments from the 5th-century BC temple, dedicated to goddess of wisdom Athena and regarded as the peak of ancient Greek architecture, are kept in the Louvre, the Vatican as well as smaller museums in Palermo, Vienna, Copenhagen, Munich and Wurzburg.”

Voulgarakis said that the prestigious German university has taken the first step in the promotion of the reunification of the Marbles, “acknowledging that there was no scientific, legal or moral footing for retaining their possession”. “The Parthenon Marbles have just about started to return home,” he said a day before in his speech during an official ceremony in Heidelberg for the fragment’s handing over to Greece.

The Heidelberg sculpture belongs to block VIII in the lower right corner of the Parthenon frieze’s north section. It depicts in relief the foot of a chiton-clad leaf-bearer (thalloforos), who along with two guitar-playing figures in long robes and sandals joins the religious Panathenaic procession represented on the 160-metre strip of marble slabs. “In modern times the sculpture was given a rectangular shape, its reverse side was smoothed out and the word ‘Parthenon’ in Greek was engraved on it,” Alcestis Choremi, director of the Acropolis Ephorate, told the Athens News. She added: “Most likely, the sculpture ended up in Heidelberg’s collection through a traveller who took the piece back in Germany around 1871 as a souvenir. In 1948 it was identified as part of the Parthenon by archaeologist German Hafner.”

Acknowledging that the Heidelberg fragment is far less significant than the Parthenon collection displayed at the British Museum, University of Crete professor Petros Themelis, who is also a member of the Acropolis Committee and the Central Archaeological Council, regards the sculpture’s return as a symbolic gesture underlined by the item’s minuscule size. “But it was a smart move on the part of the government and a good start for further requests,” he said.

The fragment’s return is owed to a great extent to Angelos Delivorrias, Benaki Museum director and president of the Hellenic Committee for the Return of the Parthenon Marbles, who first requested the piece’s return two years ago. “This is a move of colossal symbolic significance,” Delivorrias told the Athens News. “Heidelberg University is one of the oldest academic institutions abroad with a tradition in European Studies,” he said. “This is the first official recognition of the longstanding request for the return and reunification of the Parthenon sculptures. It is the monument itself that demands the return and not just the country.” The monument’s integrity has been one of the major arguments for the return, and Delivorrias sees the repatriation crusade launched by former culture minister Melina Mercouri in 1982 as “not an easy affair, but not a lost one either”.

Voulgarakis pointed out that the Greek request for the Marbles’ return has grown into a global matter that goes beyond national borders. “It is not an issue of national pride,” he said. “The case of the Parthenon is unique and does not set a precedent for other museums and collections. The reunification of the sculptures is a debt to history.”

Though Greece lost the bid to bring the Marbles back in time for the 2004 Olympic Games, demands are more pressing now in view of the completion of the new Acropolis Museum, which is due next year.

An entire hall at the 129 million euro museum designed by French-Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi and strategically situated at the foot of the Acropolis has been reserved for the Parthenon Marbles. “In anticipation of the sculptures’ return, display cases will remain empty,” said Voulgarakis. Stepping up its efforts to reclaim the Parthenon’s sculptures, the ministry’s policy is to start with smaller pieces held in museums abroad. For every piece returned, Greece plans to offer another antiquity in a goodwill gesture.

A Roman head will be offered to Heidelberg in return for the Parthenon chunk. “By Greek law this offer has the form of a temporary five-year loan which may be renewed once the loan period expires,” Themelis told the Athens News. Negotiations continue over the return of a 35×34 centimetre fragment from the Parthenon’s eastern side, in the collections of the Salinas Regional Archaeological Museum in Palermo since 1820, which depicts in relief the foot of goddess Peitho. Greece and Italy reached a dead-end in 2002 when a significant bronze helmet from Olympia – dedicated to the Temple of Zeus by Hiero, Tyrant of Syracuse – was proposed in the exchange for Sicily’s Parthenon fragment. “At this point we are discussing the offer of another artefact in the place of the helmet,” said Choremi.

The announcement on the Heidelberg fragment on August 23 came a day after the J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles signed over to Greece ownership of a 6th-century BC marble votive relief from the island of Thassos and a 4th-century BC carved tombstone from near Thebes. The private museum is considering the return of another two antiquities in its collections – a gold wreath and a marble statue which, according to Greek authorities, had been exported illegally.

In the spirit of reclaiming the country’s plundered heritage, a multimedia exhibition co-organised by the McDonald Institute of Cambridge University and the 37th Ephorate of antiquities at the new Benaki Museum on Pireos Street, questions the ethics of the international art trade. Hosted at the National Archaeological Museum of Cyprus before its Athens opening on September 11, History Lost takes the viewer from the sacking of the Baghdad Archaeological Museum and the destruction of statues in Cambodia to the illegal sale of Greek antiquities by US auction houses. On display are examples from Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Turkey, Iraq and Afghanistan, countries which have begun in the last few years to reclaim antiquities illegally exported and sold abroad. Screenings of documentaries from around the world and interactive games raise awareness about the looting and trade of world heritage.

ATHENS NEWS , 08/09/2006, page: A29
Article code: C13199A291

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)

Possibly related articles

RSS feed for comments on this post · TrackBack URL

Leave a Comment

We want to hear your views. Be as critical or controversial as you like, but please don't get personal or offensive. Remember this is for feedback and constructive discussion!
Comments may be edited or removed if they do not meet these guidelines. Repeat offenders will be blocked from posting further comments. Any comment deemed libellous by Elginism's editors will be removed.
The commenting system uses some automatic spam detection and occasionally comments do not appear instantly - please do not repost comments if they do not show up straight away