November 22, 2003

Are the Parthenon Marbles more about politics than archaeology

Posted at 1:43 pm in Elgin Marbles, Greece Archaeology

The reality of the dispute over the Parthenon Marbles is that it has progressively become more politically oriented as time has elapsed since they were first removed from Greece. This is not to say though that there aren’t also good archaeological reasons supporting their return.

The Guardian

Arts and humanities | Comment
Moving the marbles
The case for the Parthenon frieze is more about about politics than archaeology or public access, writes Mike Pitts
Saturday November 22, 2003

Whatever side you take on the case for moving the fragmentary 5th century BC Parthenon frieze from London to Athens, recent events show that the arguments are more about politics than archaeology or public access.

In 2001, MP Edward O’Hara proposed that the Elgin Marbles should be returned to Athens for the Olympic games next year, to fill the otherwise empty museum being built by Greece at a reported cost of £29m (in case anyone missed the hint, the Greek culture minister, Evangelos Venizelos, presented the UK with a virtual tour of the marbles in the new museum). The prime minister, Tony Blair, told Greece the art belonged to the British Museum, a view recently echoed, in refreshingly diplomatic language, by the museum’s present director, Neil MacGregor.

“The British Museum is not in ‘secret talks’, negotiating with the Greek authorities about lending the sculptures,’ he wrote to The Sunday Times in reply to an article reporting he was in talks over the new Acropolis Museum. “The Greek Government has acknowledged that the British Museum has proper legal title … and no longer disputes ownership.”

Evangelos Venizelos responded: “I have to repeat once more that the Greek Government has never acknowledged a legal title of the British Museum to the Parthenon marbles.”

A puzzled British archaeologist asked the museum for clarification. “The Greek Government’s request for the loan of the sculptures,” we were told, “logically presupposes recognition of the British Museum’s trustees’ ownership of the objects.”

With such repartee, the headline, British Museum to be moved to Athens, seemed believable.

Tom Baroli reported for Artnose that the move would solve the director’s dilemma that the marbles could not leave the museum. “We are the champions of the world,” cried Fredi Mercouri, of the Greek ministry of culture, in response.

Meanwhile, as grave doubts are aired that games facilities will be ready in time for the August 2004 start, it is reported the one major site that should be operational is the Schinias Olympic rowing and canoeing centre. This is on the site of the 490 BC battle of Marathon, where a Persian army was defeated by a few Greeks, after which Pheidippides ran the 42.2km of the modern marathon to report the victory in Athens. One interpretation of the Elgin frieze is that it represents this battle (there are 192 horsemen, the number of Greeks killed).

It sounds so appropriate: the Parthenon sculptures on new display in Athens, the Olympic water course where the Persians landed their fleet, the one commemorating the other and linked by the famous race. Perhaps. But not, it would seem, appropriate enough to impress the Greek Government, which ignored protests from archaeologists and environmentalists that the Schinias marsh was not the place for major construction works.

Hastily excavated buildings dating from 2,500 BC (and what else?) sit oddly beside claims that the land was under water in the past. If Greek politicians wanted us to believe they cared about their history – the history of modern world democracy – they would have followed the example of Eton College.

Eton is building an Olympic-standard rowing course, one of only two in the UK. Evaluation by Oxford Archaeology began in 1987, and continued in 1990, 1994 and 1995, resulting in a major excavation programme and the discovery of some of the country’s most important ancient waterlogged deposits (1995-97, 2000, 2003).

The archaeological budget, says project director Tim Allen, was more than £1m, and will bear fruit in the form of two monographs, the first to appear next year. With proper archaeological site clearance at Schinias, though, and a late starting date, the Greek Olympic centre would never have been ready in time.

· Mike Pitts is the editor of British Archaeology Magazine

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