May 26, 2003

Is a left arm in the British Museum from the Elgin Marbles in fact a right arm?

Posted at 4:58 pm in British Museum, Elgin Marbles

The British Museum claims to be the best place for looking after the Parthenon Marbles, but new claims suggest, that for the entire time it has been in their collection, they have labeled a piece as a left arm from the sculptures, when it is in fact a right arm. Whether or not this is the case has yet to be determined.


Artist says British Museum does not know left from right
Maev Kennedy, arts and heritage correspondent
Monday May 26, 2003

There are several ways of looking at the troubled history of the Parthenon marbles. The argument now is over whether the British Museum knows its elbow from its armpit.

As international controversy rumbles on over future of the marbles, the new bones of contention are in a shattered fragment of a 2,441-year-old arm.

Fragment 331 came to the British Museum almost two centuries ago, as part of the Elgin marbles. The museum believes it is a left arm, probably part of the depiction of the goddess Iris. Richard Divers, a graphic designer and art director, claims it is a right arm, possibly from the great central section of the west pediment, which was hacked out of the monument not by Lord Elgin, but by the Christians who converted the temple to a church 1,500 years ago.

If he is right, the museum has been labelling and displaying the arm wrongly for at least a century. The museum says he is wrong but has agreed to bring a cast of the arm from a museum store so that it can be examined from all angles. The museum will also see if the piece matches the figure of Iris. The whole argument turns on an armpit.

“It cannot be a left arm,” Mr Divers said. “Down is not the same as up, however much you want it to be.” Curator Peter Higgs said: “We have had a close look at the piece and still believe that it is a left arm. There is an area that must be armpit that was not easy to see while the sculpture was on show in the display case. This seems to clearly make it a left arm.”

“That is not an armpit,” Mr Divers said. “They have mistaken the little depression between the tendons behind the arm for the armpit itself. It is a right arm. It won’t fit the figure of Iris because it doesn’t come from that figure.”

Mr Divers gave his drawings of the fragment to the British School in Athens, which gave them to an expert on the sculptures, archaeologist Olga Palagia, who found his suggestion plausible.

A vital key to the puzzle of the marbles is a watercolour by French artist Jacques Carrey in 1674, before the explosion in 1687 which shattered the artwork.

Mr Divers believes the arm could be a fragment of a sculpture of the goddess Athena, to whom the temple and the city were dedicated.

Mr Higgs still insists the museum label on the fragment is correct. But he said an international project was being considered, to scan in three dimensions all the known and possible fragments from the Parthenon, so the puzzle might at last be fitted together.

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