The History of the Elgin Marbles: Past, Present and Future

by Jessie Bangs

The Acropolis, an outcrop overlooking Athens, was once the site of many temples and places of worship built to honor the gods and goddesses of ancient Greece (figure 1).

Figure 1. Plan of the Acropolis.

The most important temple was the Parthenon of c. 432 B.C., designed especially for Athena Parthenos, the virgin goddess and patron of the city-state (figure 1, number 8). Today, a visitor to the British Museum can view remnants of the Parthenon.

How, we might ask, is the Parthenon of Athens, Greece linked to England? Why are fragments from the original temple on exhibit in the British Museum? The building was partially destroyed in 1687 when the Turks (who were in charge of Athens at the time) carelessly but unintentionally blew up the Parthenon. One century later the Lord of Elgin, British Ambassador of Constantinople, came along with his team to remove much of the remaining sculptural artwork, including the temple frieze, metopes, and pediment statues. While he acted largely to preserve the artwork, many have criticized Lord Elgin's actions, claiming he did more harm than good.

In this report I will explore the construction and later history of the Parthenon, including the damage done by the Turks and Elgin's removal of the marbles to England. I will then discuss the present state of the marbles at the British Museum and examine the growing controversy that surrounds them as the 2004 Olympics that will be held in Athens grows near and the Greek government presses for their return.

To fully understand the significance of the Elgin Marbles for both Greece and Britain, we must begin with the construction of the Parthenon in Athens. The Parthenon, built between 447 and 438 B.C., was dedicated to the city's patron goddess, Athena (Cook 5). Athena's birth made her the virgin warrior goddess. She was conceived after her father Zeus shared a bed with Metis (Bonnard). Zeus then became frightened that Metis would overpower him, so he swallowed her whole. In due time, Athena sprang from the head of her father when Hephaestus split open Zeus' head with an axe. Athena was born fully grown and armed (Wycherly 5).

The Parthenon, dedicated to the war-goddess Athena, was constructed after Athens had recovered from the devastation brought upon by the invasion of the Persians in 480 B.C. By mid-century the city had achieved prosperity and power as head of a league of Greek states (Corbett 7). During this period of prosperity the Athenian goddess was not forgotten. The architects Ictinus and Callicrates began work on a colossal new temple to house the ivory and gold statue of Athena by Pheidias (Cook 9).

Pericles, the statesman, was the driving force behind the commissions. He was the one who decided to dedicate the temple to Athena, since Athen's recent good fortune was regarded as the result of her favor (Corbett 8). Pheidias, the sculptor commissioned to create the sculpture of Athena, was Pericles' Minister of Works. Plutarch noted, "Pheidias managed everything for [Pericles]; he was the overseer (episkos) of everything, even though the various works required great architects and artists" (Wycherly 110).

Pheidias played a primary role because the temples and statues were equally important. A Greek temple such as the Parthenon was to shelter the image of the major divinity and house the sacred or precious vessels used in his/her cult and the offerings of worshippers. The building was to serve as a treasury for goods left in the care and protection of Athena. It was also an offering to the goddess in gratitude for all past and future good fortune. The temple was an expression of civic pride and was to impress visitors with its grandeur (Corbett 8).

The Parthenon was to be completed in the time for the Panathenaic festival of 438 B.C., the main festival dedicated to Athena. The festival was to be celebrated on Athena's birthday, the 28th day of Hecatombaion (a midsummer day) (Cook 14). The Parthenon was substantially completed by 438 B.C. and the most important sculpture of Athena was finished (Yalouris 33).

Pheidias, working with a large team of sculptors, carved the statues. There is almost no doubt that Pheidias decided the themes of the metopes, frieze, and pediments. Many scholars believe that all of the statuary was the vision of one artist (St. Clair 40; Cook 11).

Pheidias' statue of Athena stood in the eastern chamber of the Parthenon (figure 2).

Figure 2. The plan of the Parthenon (Cook 3).

The smaller western room was used as a treasury. It may have also been a place to house the maidens who served the goddess. Eight columns marked the entrances on the eastern and western sides of the building. There were seventeen columns on the northern and southern sides. Three steps led up to the temple and then two more steps to the porches (figure 3) (Cook 2).

Figure 3. The elevation of the Parthenon (Cook 2).

The Parthenon has a mixture of the Doric and Ionic orders. In addition to the Doric columns there are Ionic elements including an Ionic frieze that was sculpted in low relief. The frieze formed a continuous band around the central structure below the ceiling of the colonnade (Cook 14).

Three types of figurative sculpture on the temple included the metopes measuring 1.20 meters in height and 1.25 meters in width (carved in high relief), the continuous frieze almost 160 meters long and barely one meter high (carved in low relief), and the pediments with many large scale figures (carved in the round) (Haynes 21; Cook 12). Some of these figures held weapons made in bronze (Corbett 105). Furthermore, the figures, friezes, and carved reliefs were painted or polychromed.

The metopes on each side depicted different subjects. The eastern side was the most important since the statue of Athena was housed in the eastern chamber. The metopes on the eastern side represented a battle between Olympian gods and giants (Yalouris 14). The metopes on the western side represented Greeks fighting opponents in Oriental dress. Some scholars, including George Hersey, argue that the opponents represented Amazons or possibly Persians. Another theory is that the metopes on the northern side represented the Fall of Troy. The southern side depicted battles between men and centaurs (monsters with human torsos combined with the bodies of horses).

The frieze represented the Panathenaic procession held every fourth year when the citizens of Athens brought a new robe for the statue of Athena. The frieze was carved in low relief and was polychromed with a blue background. What is interesting about the frieze is that the relief was cut deeper at the top than at the bottom so that the figure leans slightly forward. The frieze was set so high above the ground that it was difficult to see the carvings otherwise. The depth of relief was no more than six centimeters high. The frieze had to have been carved by a large group of sculptors, but its overall design is believed to be the work of Pheidias (Cook 12).

Fifty statues, all completed within five to six years, were made to ornament the pediments. The statues must have been carved by many sculptors but again, the overall design must have been left to a single artist (probably Pheidias) (Cook 14). Although most of the pediment statues have been damaged or destroyed, it has been possible to determine the subject matter of each pediment by referring to A Description of Greece by Pausanias from A.D., 2nd century. Pausanias stated that the eastern pediment located above the entrance represented the Birth of Athena while the western pediment represented the contest between Athena and Poseidon for control of the land of Attica (Corbett 106).

The Parthenon was completed in 432 B.C. and for a thousand years was used as a temple of Athena. Around the 5th century, the temple was turned into a church. Part of the eastern frieze had to be removed with the conversion of temple to church in order to build an apse on the eastern end. It was at this time that the central figures of the eastern pediments were probably removed. There was also the deliberate defacement of the metopes on the east, west, and north because pagan figures were depicted. There was one exception--a scene in which a woman was greeted by some figure. It is believed that the metope was not damaged because it was thought to represent the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary (Yalouris 36).

More destruction occurred when the Ottoman Turks took control of Athens in 1458 and turned the Parthenon into a mosque and added a minaret. The worst was yet to come. On September 26,1687, there was a terrible explosion. The Turks had foolishly used the Parthenon as a powder magazine. On that fateful day, a Venetian shell hit the Parthenon and caused the powder within to explode. Most of the interior walls were destroyed except for those at the western end. The explosion brought the frieze crumbling down. Groups of columns on the north and south sides were also damaged. The columns fell and took down half of the metopes. The Parthenon was a ruin. The Turks then cleared out the center and built a new mosque. Many of the fallen items were taken by stone-robbers and lime-burners. Travelers would often take fragments of sculpture as souvenirs and would get away with it by bribing the Turkish officials (Cook 15). In the late 1700s, the Parthenon seemed to face total ruin.

This all changed in 1799 when the seventh Earl of Elgin, Thomas Bruce, became Ambassador Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary of His Britannic Majesty to the Sublime Porte of Selim III, Sultan of Turkey (Bregman). Lord Elgin's interest in the marbles of the Parthenon began when he was stationed in Constantinople as Ambassador. The architect, Thomas Harrison, had been working on Elgin's new home, Broomhall, when he suggested Elgin study the architecture near Constantinople.

The best example of classical architecture that Elgin found was the Parthenon. Elgin felt the goal of his embassy should be "beneficial to the progress of the Fine Arts in Great Britain" (Cook 24). To that end he worked to document, if not preserve, the Parthenon. The government did not grant Elgin financial support so Elgin financed the project at his own expense. Elgin did not initially think he would be removing original statues or fragments of architecture. He had hired artists to come with him such as the landscape painter Giovanni Battista Lusieri, the figure painter Feodor Ivanovitch, the cast makers Bernadino Ledus and Vincenzo Rosati, and the architectural draftsmen Vincenzo Balestra and Sebastian Ittar. When Elgin and his team arrived in Athens, the artists were allowed by the Turks to draw there for five guineas a day.

A firman (a document from the Turkish government authorizing operations) was needed to allow the sculptors to make casts or replicas of the marbles. Because of the fast rate of destruction, Elgin proposed a drastic measure; he asked to take away any statues or fragments that did not interfere with the works of the citadel. The Turks agreed because at the time the French army in Egypt had surrendered to the British. It was to the Turks' advantage to be accommodating to the British Ambassador. The following is an excerpt from the firman that was agreed to:

It is our desire that on the arrival of this letter you use your diligence to act conformably to the instances of the said Ambassador, as long as said five artists dwelling at Athens shall be employed in going in and out of the said citadel of Athens, which is the place of their occupations; or in fixing scaffolding around the ancient Temple of the idols, or in modelling with chalk or gypsum the said ornaments and Visible figures thereon; or in measuring the fragments and vestiges of other ruined edifices; or in excavating, when they find it necessary, the foundations, in search of inscriptions among the rubbish; that they be not molested by the said Disdar, nor by any other persons, nor even by you; and that no one meddle with their scaffolding or implements, nor hinder them from taking away any pieces of stone with the inscriptions or figures... (Cook 56)

The first metope was removed July 31, 1801, and by the next June more than half of the Parthenon sculptures that were to become part of the Elgin Collection were secured. Work on the removal continued until 1804. The marbles were stored at Elgin's home in London on the corner of Park Lane and Piccadilly. In 1807 Elgin opened the collection to invited guests. Some marbles were even added to the collection by people who had taken fragments from the Parthenon years earlier (Cook 17).

Elgin exhibited the marbles several times and incurred great debt. The marbles had cost him £74,420. He eventually sold the marbles to the British government because he just could not afford to maintain them any longer. The British government paid him £35,000, less than half he had invested (Anderson and Speres 7).

In 1816 the marbles were transferred to the British Museum in London. Their present location is in the Duveen Gallery, named after Lord Joseph Duveen who built a new gallery for the Parthenon sculptures at his own expense (figure 4) (Cook 19).

Figure 4. Plan of the Duveen Gallery (Haynes 3)

Although many believe the marbles were rescued and that they are safe at the British Museum, the Greek government disagrees and wants to reclaim them (Allan). Athenians have put up a hard fight to win the statues back. They have dramatized their position letting the world know their plight using the publicity for the summer Olympics (Sennott and Liebowitz).

With the Athens Summer Olympics less than a month away, Greece is taking advantage of the worldwide attention and using it to gain world support for the return of the marbles. An exhibit is to open in Athens on August 2nd to coincide with the millions of tourists visiting Athens for the Olympics (Sennott and Liebowitz). The Greeks will also present their case that Elgin actually stole the marbles (Parlen). The exhibit is to illustrate what the Greeks see as an injustice, documenting how Elgin and the British Museum inflicted more damage on the marbles than they would have endured had they remained in Athens (Sennott and Liebowitz). The Greeks claim that Elgin did irreparable damage to the artwork of the Parthenon by hacking away at the sculptures to bring them to England (Parlen).

Greece will also disclose information the British Museum has not released concerning the restoration of the marbles during 1937-1938. Duveen initiated this restoration claiming that the marbles needed to be "whiter than white" rather than the honey-color; he imagined that the marbles when freshly carved were white. The British Museum granted Duveen's wishes and hired untrained masons to "clean" the marbles with harsh copper chisels and wire brushes ("Deep Frieze"). Greece is hoping that this exhibit will convince the rest of the world to support their fight for the marbles (Allan).

Greece has also begun construction of a museum to hold their beloved marbles when and if Britain decides to comply with their demands. The New Acropolis Museum will be located only 300 yards away from the Parthenon. The building was to be ready for the Olympic games, but construction has been delayed because artifacts were found making it necessary to excavate the site before completing the foundation. Currently circular concrete pilings are in place (Sennott and Liebowitz).

With the delay the Greeks are taking a different stand; they are simply asking the British to loan them the marbles. Evangelos Venizelos, Greece's former minister of culture, proposed the idea of the British museum having a long-term loan with Greece or the creation of a British Annex in the New Acropolis Museum. In exchange Greece will loan Britain a variety of "priceless" antiquities.

Recently Joanna Mackie, British Museum spokesperson, rejected the proposal stating:

When the word 'loan' is used, it's not the word 'loan' in the way you or for anybody might understand... what we're actually being asked for through the media and through politics is for the permanent removal of all of the sculptures forever, never to be returned to London. That's not a basis for any form of discussion (Parlen).

The New Acropolis Museum has a glass-enclosed area that would house the marbles. If Britain does not comply, the new museum will remain empty as a "monument to Britain's guilt" (Sennott and Liebowitz).

Britain believes the marbles should stay at the British Museum because they are part of a larger collection of antiquities. The British Museum sees 4.6 million visitors a year. The museum spokesperson says the museum is "a world museum in which Greece's cultural debts...can be clearly seen, and the contribution of ancient Greece to the development of later cultural achievements...can be fully understood." The Director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor states, "only here can the worldwide significance of the sculptures be fully grasped" (Sennott and Liebowitz).

Greece must also face the judgment of other nations who fear that the return of the Elgin marbles will encourage art restitution all over the world. The case has provided an important precedent for additional claims. Egypt, for example, has asked the British museum to return the 2,000 year-old Rosetta Stone and a collection of the Egyptian mummies (Parlen).

Professor Emeritus Norman Palmer at the University College in London, a legal expert on cultural property, has encouraged museums to think objectively about their collections and to consider who are truly the rightful owners. Recently the Vatican re-evaluated its claims and returned a precious icon to the Russian Orthodox Church ("Elgin"). Similarly, the Glasgow Museum in Scotland returned a Ghost Dance Skirt, a Native American heirloom, to the Lakota Sioux tribe of South Dakota (Parlen).

There are many issues that need to be considered and it seems that it will take a lot of time for Britain and Greece to find resolution. As for me, I feel incredibly fortunate to have had the chance to see these wonderful sculptures. Had they been in Greece I probably would have never had the chance to view them and to appreciate their beauty and significance. Perhaps selfishly I am grateful they are in London, even though I feel it is right for the marbles to be housed in Athens. After the New Acropolis Museum is completed, it will be the perfect home for the marbles. The marbles will have greater magic when they are back home.

The Parthenon was not supposed to be dismantled and reassembled in a number of separate places. The building will come closest to being complete if the marbles are displayed near the original structure. Spectators would have a greater appreciation for the marbles in Greece than in London because the Acropolis was the original site for the art and architecture.The British Museum should complete Elgin's mission to preserve the marbles for future generations by returning them to Athens (Bregman).


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