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High quality of the marbles that Elgin left behind

The British Museum argued that by taking the marbles off the Parthenon, Elgin was acting as a preservationist, saving them from certain destruction. The good condition of the marbles that he left behind on the Parthenon suggest otherwise however.

From:
The Times (London) [1]

November 25, 2004
Sharp relief of the marbles Elgin left behind
By Dalya Alberge, Arts Correspondent

AN EMINENT Cambridge scholar who is campaigning for the return of the Elgin Marbles to Greece has produced evidence to challenge long-standing claims that they were saved by being brought to Britain.

Anthony Snodgrass, Laurence Professor Emeritus of Classical Archaeology at Cambridge University, said that the British Museum’s Marbles now pale against those which Elgin did not manage to remove from Greece. Original details that are absent from the British Museum’s creamy-white sculptures are now visible for the first time in the warm brown Greek figures that have emerged after an 11-year conservation programme in Athens.

Professor Snodgrass, who has chaired the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles since 2002, said he was astonished by the extent of the original detail in the Athens sculptures. Looking at a depiction of two horsemen in Athens, one of fourteen slabs that Elgin did not remove, he pointed to chisel marks and traces of colour in the crevices and folds of drapery, along with anatomical details such as veins on the horses’ bellies. These are all missing from the London sculptures, he said, noting that a millimetre ofthe surface skin, the patina, was lost during the cleaning scandal of the 1930s. Professor Snodgrass said: “The famous slab of two horsemen in the British Museum is very like the Athens one. Put them side by side and they make a striking comparison. Can we please stop having these extravagant claims about Elgin saving the sculptures? The west frieze is in better shape than anything in London, we can now see.”

Until now, no one had been able to have a close view of the fourteen Greek slabs. They were too high up on the Parthenon. When they were taken down in 1993, they were covered in such a thick layer of soot that little could be seen.

They have undergone a complex conservation programme that involved a double-laser technique which removed the soot and pollution without disturbing the patina. Professor Snodgrass said “The patina is still there in the Athens ones.There is also a sharpness in the Athens slabs.”

The 7th Earl of Elgin became British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in 1799. He secured permission from the Turks to remove Greek antiquities, fearing their destruction in the conflict between the Greeks and the Turks. Greece refuses to recognise this as a legal transaction. It is building an Acropolis Museum crowned with a gallery called the Parthenon Hall, which will remain empty until the Marbles have been returned. The museum is due to be completed in 2006.

A spokesman for the British Museum said: “The removal of the (Athens) frieze was a historic step in preventing further damage due to almost 200 years of continued weathering, pollution and acid rain. Comparison now between the originals in Athens and casts made for Lord Elgin in 1802 bear striking witness to the sad losses that had occurred to the sculpture on the frieze.”