August 19, 2010

Is there any chance that the British Museum would relinquish ownership of the Parthenon Sculptures?

Posted at 1:04 pm in British Museum, Elgin Marbles

The British Museum comes up with many reasons to try & prove that the Parthenon Sculptures are an integral part of their collection that can not now be removed from it & that this is an entirely legitimate position. Large amounts of information suggest that many of their arguments are far less robust than they claim though.


Is the Parthenon Sculpture a Permanent Hostage at the British Museum?
Thursday 27 May 2010
by: Evaggelos Vallianatos, truthout | Op-Ed

On March 8, 2010, Dyfri Williams, Research Keeper of Greek and Roman Antiquities at the British Museum, delivered a lecture on “The Parthenon Sculptures” at the University of Southern California.

Williams justified the holding by the British Museum of the plundered Parthenon treasures.

I found the reasons why the British government refuses to return the Parthenon “marbles” to Greece unacceptable – and not a little insulting.

But before I focus on the continuing cultural imperialism of the United Kingdom, some background throws light on more than the British rape of the Parthenon.

The Athenians erected the Parthenon in 447-432 BCE for two reasons: honoring their patron goddess, Athena Parthenos, the virgin daughter of Zeus, and thanking the gods, particularly Athena, for their victory over the Persians.

For the first millennium of its life, the Parthenon was the shining light of Hellenic culture: a religious, democratic, architectural, and artistic jewel unsurpassed in beauty and craft.

Ploutarchos, a priest of Apollon and a prolific writer who lived about five centuries after the founding of the Parthenon, said the Parthenon, untouched by time, was created for all time.

The Parthenon, however, did not exist in isolation. The temple did well only when the Greeks were masters of their country, a political reality that had changed dramatically by the time when Ploutarchos was admiring the grandeur of the temple of Athena.

The Romans incorporated Greece into their empire in 146 BCE. The Romans, like later “protectors” of Greece, loved and hated the Greeks.

But the Roman crisis in Greece became acute in the fourth century when the Roman Emperor Constantine made Christianity state religion, overthrowing the millennial polytheism of the Greeks and Romans.

Christianity immediately marched into Greece and declared war against the many gods of the Greeks, including Athena honored in the Parthenon.

In 484, the Christian Emperor Zeno inflicted the first major blow against the Parthenon. He pillaged the chryselephantine statue of Athena created by Pheidias.

In the sixth century, the Christians demonstrated their hatred for the Greeks with their conversion of the temple of Athena to a church. They also caused irreparable damage to the building and its sculpture.

The sculpture of the Parthenon, with dozens of statues of gods, men, and animals, was a pictorial history of Athens, a proud message of Greek origins and a celebration of freedom.

The Christians, like other barbarians that attacked the Parthenon, nearly obliterated Greek history and wrote their own. They hacked Parthenon statues to pieces. They defaced, mutilated, and smashed metopes. They punched windows through the frieze.

When the Turks captured Greece in 1453, they also added sacrilege and destruction to the Parthenon, which they made into a mosque.

In 1673, the Venetians bombarded the Parthenon, wrecking the building.

The next attack against the Parthenon came in early 1800s, also from the Europeans, especially Lord Elgin, who served as the British ambassador to the Turks.

Elgin and his agents bribed the Turks to give them a free hand with the surviving sculpture of the Parthenon.

The agents of Elgin sawed off just about every sculpture in the metopes and frieze, smashing in the process plenty of statues and damaging the Parthenon even more. They took intact slabs of metopes and frieze, including a caryatid from the Erechtheion, to England where they are now in the British Museum.

In 1801 and 1805, Edward Dodwell, a traveler who witnessed the agents of Elgin in action, said they left the Parthenon in “a state of shattered desolation.”

Lord Byron also denounced Elgin’s plunder of the Parthenon, calling Elgin a spoiler who rivaled the Goths and the Turks.

The looting and destruction of the Parthenon by Elgin sparked a more widespread stealing of Greek culture.

During the Greek Revolution in the 1820s, general John Makrygiannes stopped a couple of Greek soldiers from selling ancient artifacts to foreigners. He told them, “We went to war for these antiquities.”

In the twentieth century, the Greek government started asking the British to return the sculpture Elgin had pillaged from the Parthenon.

Melina Merkouri, Greek Minister of Culture in the 1980s and early 1990s, was right saying the Parthenon sculpture was “the soul of Greece.”

This language offended the British, who disputed Greek cultural continuity and resented Greek nationalism.

The British remembered the Greeks of the Ionian Islands and Cyprus, who revolted against their oppressive colonial rule. In the case of Cyprus, the British encouraged the Turks to nullify Cypriot independence. The Turks obliged and, in 1974, invaded Cyprus.

The British quote a Turkish order giving Elgin “legal” ground for his cultural atrocity, the violent removal and destruction of Parthenon sculpture. They conveniently ignore that the Turks had no more legal standing in Greece than the Nazis enjoyed in occupied Europe.

Second, British officials pretend that the Parthenon sculpture in their possession receives great care, which Greece, they claim, cannot give.

This is false.

During 1937 – 1938, the caretakers at the British Museum inflicted irreparable damage to the Parthenon sculpture. They scrubbed the statues with chemicals to make them “more white.” And rather than revealing what happened, the British Museum covered up the truth for decades.

William St. Clair, British author of “Lord Elgin and the Marbles,” concluded that the “stewardship” of the Parthenon sculpture by the British Museum for more than half a century was “a cynical sham,” which forfeited “the British claim to a trusteeship.”

In 2009, during the dedication of the Akropolis Museum, which the Greeks built to house the Parthenon treasures, the Greek Minister of Culture Antonis Samaras spoke about the “hostage” of the Parthenon sculpture at the British Museum.

Returning the Elgin marbles to the Akropolis Museum would be the right thing to do. It would be the only path to reconciliation between the British and the Greek people.

Reuniting the sculptures of the Parthenon would also be an act of respect for the integrity of the Greek culture, which, like other Europeans and Americans, the British have used successfully for building their own civilization.

At a time of tension, violence, and extreme financial hardship for Greece, the repatriation of the Parthenon sculpture in the British Museum would be an act of Renaissance humanism that may sow seeds of peace and philhellenism in the Mediterranean and the world.

Such an act of British generosity would also uplift the spirit of Greece.

In addition, in 2012, the Olympics, as Greek as the Parthenon, will be celebrated in London.

What an opportune time for the United Kingdom to return the Parthenon treasures to their Greek home, and show the world its appreciation for all it has benefited from Hellenic culture.

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

Possibly related articles

Tags: , , ,


  1. Nick Krabbenhoeft said,

    08.19.10 at 1:29 pm

    I still haven’t settled on the best practical solution to repatriating the sculptures, but this article has a glaring flaw. Where are the Greeks between the 4th and 19th centuries? Vallianatos presents a blind nationalistic picture of a Greek homeland unfairly occupied for millenia. First “Christian” barbarians desecrate the temple, then Venetians, then Turks. The modern Greek state, which is implied to be a distant ancestor of the Athenians, now has the cohesiveness to pull the statues back as part of their ethnic heritage.

    Could we leave these ethnic arguments to the side? The much better case is to say the Parthenon is a complete work of art. To rely on claims of foreign oppressions will make all of these arguments useless in 50, 100, 500 years when geo-political-demographic situations shift again.

  2. Julian said,

    01.22.11 at 4:14 pm

    Nick Krabbenhoeft must be a Christian, hence all the verbal gymnastics while not disputing any of the claims made by Vallianatos.

    It’s a fact that Christians attacked the Parthenon just like they destroyed the rest of Hellas for being “pagan” and forbid the Olympics for the same reason and closed down the Platonic academy in 529 (under Justinian) plunging Europe into the dark ages.

    He asks “where are the Greeks”, they were first under Roman gentile occupation which was bad but did not sound the death knell because the Roman’s were at least tolerant of different religions and similar to the Greeks in their religion and admired the Greek classics. They then passed under the occupation of Byzantine Christian theocracy which managed to genocide the ancient Hellenes and forcibly impose Christianity on them, then the Turks came in and occupied them till the 19th century and now the modern day theocrats of the Orthodox Church hope to continue their occupation of sacred Hellas using a pliant puppet Greek state.

    It would do Christians some good if they confronted their own gory history before they lecture the Muslims to do the same.

  3. Nick said,

    03.10.12 at 8:35 pm

    I found this response today, and I’d like to offer a few clarifications, even if it’s been a year.

    1. I placed “Christians” in quotes because it’s hard to say who these Christians were. Athenians? Greeks? Non-Greeks? Probably a mix of all of them. The article hides this identification by construing Christians as barbarians, the outsiders, and yet in modern-day Greece, Eastern Orthodox Christianity is the state religion.

    2. My disappointment with the article was that rather than trying to build a narrative of how important the Acropolis has been for the Greeks for centuries/millenia, the author reiterates the crimes of the past. But cultural crimes occur all the time. In fact, I’d argue that knowledge of them is invaluable evidence of the politics of the past and an important aspect of an object’s heritage value.

    I think it would be more effective to talk about whether it is more valuable for visitors to see the marbles in a cramped gallery thousands of kilometers from their original display or in a spacious gallery with the Parthenon in sight. (Assuming that we don’t find a way to safely remount them on the temple.) For me, that argument gives much more justification for repatriation than centuries-old guilt does.

RSS feed for comments on this post

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