December 7, 2002

When jokes get confused with the truth

Posted at 1:46 pm in British Museum, Elgin Marbles

A Belgian newspaper appears to have re-printed the story about the real origins of the Elgin Marbles from Artnose, without realising that the whole story was originally written as a satirical spoof.


How the Belgians lost their marbles
Fiachra Gibbon, arts correspondent
Saturday December 7, 2002

It looked like the archaeological scoop of the year. The Elgin Marbles were not Greek after all, but the work of a wandering stonemason from Devon called Phil Davies who changed his name to Pheidias to ingratiate himself with his ancient Athenian patrons.

And it got better. The British Museum, sick of a century of Greek whingeing about its refusal to return to sculptures to the Acropolis, was now demanding the repatriation of the entire Parthenon to Britain where it would be rebuilt as a part of a “shopping centre and multiplex cinema” in the West Midlands.

In the meantime they had stamped each piece of the Parthenon frieze with the words MADE IN ENGLAND in large red letters. Curators were now even considering re-naming them the Davies Marbles. And in another calculated slight to Hellenistic sensibilities, the museum was giving the sculptures a jolly good blasting with a power hose to take off the years of accumulated grime the Greeks said must not be touched.

Unfortunately, the revelations, apparently the result of an unauthorised dig by the Oxford archaeologist Dr Rex Tooms, were of course bogus. The clinching proof that Pheidias was the son of a donkey breeder from Devon – a 4th-century BC terracotta cup found by Dr Tooms bearing the legend “My name was Phil Davies, but I changed it to Pheidias” – was but a figment of the imagination of Dr Tom Flynn, who runs the satirical art website,

Yesterday editors of the respected Belgium broadsheet, De Morgen, were trying to live down every journalist’s worse nightmare having swallowed the spoof whole.

They ran the full story of the shocking discovery, including a vehement denial by the Greek ministry of culture’s Mrs Fredi Mercouri. “These findings are totally baseless,” she fumed. “Pheidias was unequivocally Greek. Furthermore, Dr Tooms was never granted permission to excavate this important site and he had no right to remove the artefacts to the British Museum. It amounts to nothing less than the shameless pillaging of Greek cultural heritage.”

Dr Flynn was still incredulous last night. “I just couldn’t believe it. A friend in Brussels read it and rang me immediately. As he read it out I just laughed and laughed, my sides nearly split. I rang the paper but they have yet to get back to me. The poor, poor Belgians.”

De Morgen manfully owned up to their boob. “It was a stupid mistake,” a spokesman said. “It all happened on a Sunday when we had a skeletal staff. We noticed it ourselves the next day and ran a correction. What can you say. The journalist who translated the piece did so too literally. She didn’t see the significance of the names.”

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