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The Aegina Marbles from the Temple of Aphaia

The Elgin Marbles are by far the most famous sculptures missing from a Greek temple – but there are many other similar, less known cases. Each case is of course different, but there are still parallels that can be drawn.

In the case of this article, is is the sculptures from the Temple of Aphaia, located on the island of Aegina in the Argo-Saronic Gulf, close to Piraeus, which are now held by a museum in Germany.

George Vardas [1]

The Aegina Marbles: Time to come home?

On 13 April 2011 a group of local dignitaries, school children and villagers gathered in front of the Temple of Aphaia on the island of Aegina, carrying placards and making speeches calling for the return of sculptures removed from the sacred temple exactly 200 years ago. Whilst the more famous Elgin Marbles are the paragon of looted works of art and have been the subject of much debate as demands intensify for their return from the British Museum, the significance of the Aegina sculptures should not be forgotten as they continue to decorate the galleries of the Glyptothek Museum in Munich, Germany, a neo-Classical building, displaying sculptures from Greece’s archaic period

Aegina is the closest island to Athens and is one of the jewels of the Argo-Saronic Gulf. On the eastern part of the island on a pine-covered hill, commanding views over the gulf, lies a beautiful Doric temple built in around 490BC out of limestone and marble. The sanctuary is dedicated to the goddess Aphaia (the “Dark One” or “Invisible One” and possibly a Minoan goddess linked to the veneration of Athena). The sculptures that once adorned the temple have been described as amongst the most famous and important artistic remains from the Archaic and early Classical periods, depicting the heroism of the Greek warriors during the Trojan War. Heroic combat is not only the stuff of Greek mythology and history but, to borrow from Shelley, it also resides in the marbled immortality that is Ancient Greece.

It is thought that in the intervening period the pediments were struck by lightning and the damaged sculptures were buried in the sacred precinct where they remained undetected for centuries until a party of English and German adventurers came to the island in 1811.In the early years of the nineteenth century, British adventurers on their Grand Tour to the Levant increasingly found their way to mainland Greece which was then still under Ottoman occupation. This was after all the Age of Enlightenment which, in the case of Greece, meant an opportunity for the systematic plunder of antiquities. Lord Elgin had already led the way with the pillage of the Parthenon but he also had many admirers. One such acquaintance was the antiquarian and then little known architect, Charles Robert Cockerell (who would later go on to design the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford). At about this time Cockerell together with several other foreign architects and artists formed an association called Xeneion

– a nineteenth century version of the “friends of Greece” – who were engaged in cultural ‘acquisitions’ as part of a frenzied collecting binge. It was only a matter of time before their attention turned to the island of Aegina.

Whilst in Athens, Cockerell had met Elgin’s artist, Lusieri, and had also befriended Lord Byron. Somewhat ironically, as Cockerell and his colleagues, John Foster, Car Haller von Hallerstein and Jacob Linckh, left for Aegina in April 1811 their boat overtook a ship also leaving Athens and carrying Byron as well as one of the last shipments of the Elgin marbles. When they arrived in Aegina they engaged some locals to accompany them to the sanctuary of Aphaia and to commence digging around the base of the temple. Soon, a startling discovery was made. In the words of Cockerell (based on diaries he kept): “On the second day one of the excavators working in the interior portico, struck on a piece of Parian marble which, as the building itself is of stone, arrested his attention. It turned out to be the head of a helmeted warrior, perfect in every feature. It lay with the face turned upwards, and as the features came out by degrees you can imagine nothing like the state of rapture and excitement to which we were wrought … Soon another head was turned up, then a leg and a foot, and finally … no less than sixteen statues and thirteen heads, legs and arms … all in the highest preservation not three feet below the surface of the ground.” The adventurers had stumbled upon statuary fragments and sculptures that had adorned the east and west pediments (or ends) of the temple. They were now there for the taking. But first Cockerell had to make sure that the locals and the Ottoman authorities were none the wiser. Word had in fact spread through the villages that an Englishman had uncovered the treasures of the temple. By 27 April 1811 local officials and priests – described by Cockerell as the primates of the island – had come to the site to investigate. Cockerell reported that the officials read out a statement by the island’s governing council beseeching the group to cease the diggings because of the misfortune and bad luck that it would bring. Cockerell was imperially dismissive: “Such a rubbishy pretence of superstitious fear was obviously a mere excuse to extort money, and as we felt that it was only fair that we should pay, we sent our dragoman with them to the village to treat about the sum.” Cockerell went on to pay 40 pound sterling to ‘purchase’ the sculptures. However, the lessons from Elgin’s dealings with the Ottoman authorities and the difficulties in removing the Parthenon Sculptures were not lost on Cockerell. On the advice of the French Ambassador in Athens, Fauvel, Cockerell arranged for the sculptures to be shipped to Zakynthos (known as Zante) which was by then part of the British Protectorate of the Ionian Islands.

They were later transported to Malta. A public auction was arranged for 1 November 1812. William Hamilton, who had helped Elgin in his pillaging of the Parthenon, was equally keen for the British to acquire the Aegina Marbles. The British Museum in fact sent its Keeper of the Department of Antiquities to Malta for the auction in the mistaken belief that the auction was taking place in Malta where the sculptures were stored. But the British got it wrong as the auction actually took place in Zante and the German agent of Prince Ludwig of Bavaria secured the sculptures for £6,000. The British Museum’s representative would have paid more but he was in the wrong place. The British Museum later tried to buy the marbles from the Crown Prince and when this failed the British Government unsuccessfully tried to prevent their export from Malta.

The sculptures eventually made their way to the Munich Glyptothek – which also happened to be the first public classic archaeology museum – but only after they were extensively and controversially restored by the Danish sculptor Thorvaldsen in the 1820s in a misguided attempt to present them as wholly intact and complete statues. This was actually reversed in the 1960sin a process of de-restoring the sculptures to their original fragmentary state. Other fragments from the temple were subsequently recovered and are now in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. The sculptured decorations of the Temple of Aphaia were widely hailed as opening modern eyes to the beauty of archaic sculpture. The life size figures from both pediments portray scenes from the Trojan War, with fighting warriors sculpted in various phases of movement, standing in close combat, falling, running, archers kneeling in the chaos of battle. In the corners of the pediments lie the dead and the dying.

Other prominent sculptures feature the head of Athena and a kneeling Hercules. The dying warrior on the east pediment is one of the most expressive figures. The soldier has received a fatal wound but his incredible will sees him trying to rise, but to no avail.

In contrast, the dying warrior on the west pediment is thought to have been sculpted some 20years earlier and the change in sculptural form reflects the transition from Archaic to Classical sculpture, from expressive but artificial poses to a realistic depiction of bodily forms and activity.

Movement is freer and the figures are less rigid than their archaic brothers. But as the Romantic poet Alphonse de Lamartine wrote, “fragments detached from place, purpose, context are dead; marble-dust which lives no longer”. The Aegina Marbles may inhabit a Bavarian museum but they remain removed and detached in body and spirit from the sanctuary of Aphaia. Fast forward to 2011.

At the suggestion of a young and dedicated museum professional with UNESCO, Ellen Lekka, who herself hails from Aegina, the island’s local council decided to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the marbles’ removal with what has been described as Aegina’s first official demonstration regarding the sculptures. As the young children proudly held up their placards, a local member of parliament, Mr Dimitris Karydis, addressed the crowd and declared that the pedimetal sculptures truly belong to this sacred place and that as from now a multi-faceted campaign will need to be undertaken via both European institutions and throughout Greece to highlight their plight. Another speaker'” made it clear that this ‘race’ would end only when the Aeginan artefacts are finally released from their German ‘cage’ and returned to the motherland.

What happens from here? Whilst the emphasis within Greek cultural and political circles has been on the campaign for return of the Parthenon Sculptures, the significance of the Aegina Marbles should not be underestimated. One suggestion is to promote a greater awareness of the Aphaia sculptures by holding an international conference on the island and pursuing a greater collaboration with the Glyptothek possibly leading to reciprocal exhibitions in Aegina, Athens and Munich, education programs and co-ordinated research.

Let’s hope that in the not too distant future a more enlightened and collaborative approach to the dispute over the Parthenon Sculptures and now the Aegina Marbles will see these incomparable sculptured treasures return to their spiritual and natural birthplace.

George Vardas
Research Director, Australians for the Return of the Parthenon Sculptures and
Cultural Officer, Kytherian Association of Australia