February 2, 2006

Is Dorothy King’s book on the Elgin Marbles worth reading?

Posted at 10:37 pm in Elgin Marbles

According to this review by the classicist Peter Jones, it would appear that the answer is an emphatic no. It is worth bearing in mind when reading this that the author of the review, to the best of my knowledge is in fact against restitution of the Parthenon Marbles to Greece.

The Literary Review

December / January issue
THE ELGIN MARBLES: the Story of Archaeology’s Greatest Controversy
By Dorothy King
Review by Peter Jones

(Hutchinson 288pp £16.99)

This is the worst book I have ever reviewed. It reads as if it has been cut and pasted from a web-site by a semi-literate school-girl (in my proof copy, King talks of Greeks cities ‘still under the [Persian] yolk’), struggling with her GCSE course-work. Doubtless a great deal of labour has gone into it, but to little purpose when the author’s ignorance on many topics is encyclopaedic, her ability to clarify and marshal arguments based on evidence that demands careful handling almost non-existent, and her English style execrable (her favourite conjunction is ‘and so’).

Here, for example, King is struggling to say something about (i) the Athenian claim that their first king was born from the earth, and (ii) the absence of mothers from the Parthenon marbles (‘ … and so one can read the Parthenon as a statement of Athenian misogyny’, she concludes, absurdly):

‘The Athenians also thought of themselves as superior to all other Greeks, for they claimed that they had always inhabited Attica, and had not arrived as migrants, and so their race was the oldest. Athenian mythology is confusing, for it emphasises this notion of autochthony, and the lack of a human mother also of course emphasises how little the Athenians thought of women, and so we have not one king who sprang from the earth, but a whole series of them, so that a king almost didn’t need a queen, or to bother himself with such trivial matters as procreation. Autochthony meant that Athenians could claim they were purer, allowing themselves to see other Greeks as pseudo-foreigners.’

Don’t ask. I haven’t the remotest, either.

Not only is the book unreadable, its title is also misleading. King begins her story millions of years ago with the formation of the Mediterranean basin, spends a hundred pages mangling Athenian history and trying to describe the original Parthenon, and another hundred pages labouring through Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman times, before finally arriving at the subject of the title, Elgin, two-thirds of the way through. The subject of the title is then treated to a royal fifty pages before we turn to the controversy over the marbles’ subsequent treatment and ownership (forty-six pages). The word ‘history’ would have been helpful somewhere.

King’s views on this controversy continue to exemplify the seamless fit between prose style and logic evident from the rest of the book, i.e. she is against returning them, but then again, she isn’t. The following points pop out like ping-pong balls from a lottery machine. Greeks: the marbles can be appreciated only in Athens. K: this is cultural nationalism. British Museum: we acquired them legally and have cared for them well. K: Greeks have made requests to get the marbles returned, rejected by various political and cultural bodies. Christopher Hitchens say that Greeks want only the marbles back, but we cannot know that. Greeks: we now want you to loan the marbles to us. K: they would never give them back. Their demand is cultural nationalism. BM: the marbles are better seen in the BM, in the context of other cultures. K: they have inspired poets and painters, and millions see them every year here. They are part of our culture. They have inspired philhellenism and led to the recognition of Greece as a country. They are part of our heritage. The city state of Athens no longer exists, but the marbles have been here for 200 years. Henry Moore and Selfridges have been influenced by them. Had Elgin not brought them back, they would not exist. BM: the trustees are not allowed to make permanent loans. Only an Act of Parliament will allow their return. K: states cannot return everything. Should we return things in chronological order? The marbles belong to the whole of humanity. To the Greeks they are a symbol of their imperial past. Should we destroy e.g. Venetian palazzi which contain bits of the marbles? The Greek and BM holdings could not be displayed next to each other because their quality is so different. The BM gets more visitors than Athens would. When I was studying Greek art, Greek authorities would not let me see material. The BM is open and free to all. The Parthenon was famous only to Athenians, not all Greeks. Greeks have not looked after their own material well, so ours and theirs could not be displayed next to each other.

And so the little balls continue popping out, some re-appearing two or three times, till she unveils a conclusion which she has already explained is constitutionally excluded, quite apart from contradicting everything she has said: ‘When the Greeks can demonstrate that they too have done an admirable job of caring for the marbles in Athens then, perhaps, we can discuss a loan’.

I love that ‘we’.

Is Dorothy King's book on the Elgin Marbles worth reading?, 2.0 out of 5 based on 8 ratings
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Rating: 2.0/5 (8 votes cast)

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  1. George Joannou said,

    06.27.08 at 2:53 am

    King’s arguement that the marbles should stay in the British Museum is more emotive rather than objective. She still believes that Britain has the right to own other counties’ national treasures and cultural artifacts. Is this not Imperialism in the 21st century.

    Lord Elgin did not remove the Parthenon Marbles because of his selfless sacrifice to preserve them, rather because he wanted them in his own private collection . He only sold them to the British Parliament because he needed the money . If Lord Elgin had his way the Parthenon Marbles would be passed on to his descendants as a private collection , thus robbing future generations of the right to enjoy these amazing Hellenistic treasures .

    The Parthenon Marbles belong in their rightful place of origin , in Athens in the new Greek Museum near the Acropolis.

    To put things in perspective, who wants to see the English Crown Jewels in Athens, or indeed the Tower of London in Athens. No one of course, these amazing historical treasures belong in England where their history originated. The British Museum has done a wonderful job looking after them (except in the 1930s when some of the sculptures were permanently damaged as a result of using harsh abrasives to try to whiten them), but now it is time to return them to their rightful custodians , the Greeks. This way all lovers of history can enjoy them in their proper settings where they originated from.

  2. Nick said,

    06.21.09 at 7:08 pm

    Dorothy King is crazy.
    She and her friends have turned this into a political vendetta.
    They are trying to belittle ancient Greek civilization.
    They are morons.

    The real story:
    The marbles were stolen by Elgin according to some, legally purchased according to others and saved from impending damage.
    But is n’t it a bit like saving your friend’s property from the fire and then refusing to give it back ? If you do that you start by being a hero and then make yourself into a social outcast, when you hold on to your friend’s belongings indefinitely.
    The reason those marbles exist in England is an act of parliament in 1830 meant to appease the Turkish Sultan, after the Greek revolution. The British did not want to have anything with the Greek revolution anymore and decided it was time to make friends with the Sultan. A move to humiliate the king of Greece (Otto) over the issue of the marbles, was handy in that respet.
    That shambles of a parliamentary decision is what started it all.

    The Elgin marbles affair was a political vendetta from the start and retained the dimensions of a political vendetta in the years that followed.
    Gt. Britain and Turkey became enemies again and friends again. Gt. Britain and Greece remained in alliance, but with this thorn in the flesh of their relations.
    Today there are no more wars.
    Turkey -the controlling power during Elgin’s time- now thinks the marbles are Greek and they should never have been removed in the first place.

    To my mind it is evidently not a matter of legality but a matter of political morality and ethics.
    It is not even a matter of archaeology because -here or there- the people of the world will always be able to see and admire the ancient Greek exhibits.
    The circus of people who support the (official) British line and are trying to make a case out of nothing are in reality nothing but a bunch of political extremists and bully-boys who are happy when Anglo-Greek alliance is damaged (and the consequences to trade – commerce – cultural exchanges mean nothing to them because their money is not in any case enough to buy a bag of pop corn in the first place).
    The number of extremist articles they have published is too numerous to site and in those they immitate the infamous Herman Gorig who ransacked the Louvre from its treasures, until the Americans returned everything from the castle in Bavaria.

  3. Dida Papalexiou said,

    06.28.09 at 11:27 am

    If the Greeks had lost their national identity, as Dr King claims, the Parthenon wouldn’t be on the Acropolis now. It would have been demolished by the Turks besieged within the Acropolis during the siege of 1821-1822 .The leader of the siege, Gouras, in an attempt to save the marbles from demolition, as the Parthenon structure was a source of lead for the besieged Turks, offered the lead required by the enemies in order to make their ammunition.

    Further, the hypothesis that if Elgin hadn’t snatched the marbles to salvation, they would be clay powder now, it’s an outrageous hypothesis, disgracing Dr King’s prestige as an historian because the rest of the friese marbles are in the new Acropolis museum, ‘alive and kicking’

    In my humble opinion, Dr King should be more careful when expressing views like this, as she is not speaking to illiterate audiences, unless this is the respect she grands to the British audience. It would be braver and more ethical to admit the usurpation and the illegal possession of the marbles , as a result of the British power and influence on the Ottoman Empire then, and now, as a result of reluctance to render justice to to History.

  4. Vassilis Manoussos said,

    07.03.09 at 12:45 pm

    I have had an experience with the way the British Museum deals with the Greek artifacts in its posession. Here are my thoughts in this blog.


    As for Dorothy King, thanks to the Greeks and the Athenians, she now lives in what she calls “Democracy” and have the freedom to express her opinions.

    But on the other side, let us not forget the immortal words of Clint Eastwood : “opinions are like a….oles. Everybody has one”.

  5. Antonis Deves said,

    08.15.12 at 8:37 pm

    It has been quite trendy in England for the last few years or so the emergence of a few bimbo-new era archeologists that write books about the Hellenic civilization, Hellene philosophers and so on, in a soap opera manner and in an attempt to bring scholarly manners brutally transformed with a titanic amount of ignorance and arrogance. Who exactly is Dorothy King aka PhDiva (Zeus help us!!!!)again? And what is the value of her opinion on this matter? A big, fat zero. The matter is very simple: New evidence that has been already submitted to the Scottish Authorities (written documents, letters etc) shows clearly that Thomas Bruce was nothing but a ruthless thief and an arrogant liar. With the assistance of his (of course) Christian (surprised?) second secretary reverent Hamilton, who actually tried to convince Bruce to remove the whole Erechteum whereas he only manage to remove one of the daughters, he purposely present altered and fraudulent documents to the Parliament claiming a legal purchase from the Turks for all the Hellenic treasures that he plundered. The claims that the BM is spinning on for two centuries to excuse this crime are simply ridiculous and cowardly at the least. Their arrogance does nothing more than to stain permanently the reputation and image of the British people and their government of which is equally hypocritical. The only solution is to arrive this case at court and settle it once and for good. The legal removal of the Marbles from the BM, the world embarrassment and probably an astronomical amount of settlement for the damages this theft has caused to the Hellenic Republic will be a good lasting lesson for their long lasted arrogance. Meanwhile, the success of such a law suit will open the doors for other matters to be settled with the plagiarism that is so proudly exhibited in BM now and so hypocritically called “world culture” rather than “world spoils”
    As for Dorothy King….who cares

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