10 Facts About the Elgin Marbles | History Hit

10 Facts About the Elgin Marbles

Chris Smith

22 Nov 2021
Section of a frieze from the Elgin Marbles at the British Museum.
Image Credit: Danny Ye / Shutterstock.com

The Elgin Marbles once adorned the Parthenon in Athens but now reside in the Duveen Gallery of the British Museum in London.

Part of a larger frieze of classical Greek sculptures and inscriptions, the Elgin Marbles date back to the 5th century BC and were built to be displayed in the Parthenon at the Athenian Acropolis.

They were controversially moved to Great Britain by Lord Elgin between 1801 and 1805, causing a heated repatriation debate between Greece and Britain which is still ongoing to this day.

Here are 10 facts about the Elgin Marbles.

1. The Elgin Marbles are a section of a larger sculpture

The Elgin Marbles are classical Greek sculptures and inscriptions that once formed part of a larger frieze that adorned the Parthenon on the Athenian Acropolis. They were originally built under the supervision of Phidias between 447 BC and 432 BC at which point the Parthenon was dedicated to Athena, the goddess of war and wisdom. The Elgin Marbles are therefore over 2450 years old.

2. They are a symbol of Athenian victory and self-affirmation

The frieze originally decorated the exterior of the Parthenon’s inner section and is thought to depict the festival of Athena, a battle at the marriage feast of Pirithous and Athena and many Greek gods and goddesses.

The Parthenon was built in the aftermath of Athens’ victory over the Persians at Plataea in 479 BC. Having returned to the ransacked city, the Athenians began an extensive process of rebuilding the settlement. As such, the Parthenon is considered a symbol of Athenian victory, reaffirming the region’s power after its sacred city was destroyed.

The permanent home of the Parthenon Marbles, also known as the Elgin Marbles, has been the subject of a heated, decades-long debate. Currently housed in the British Museum, Greece has been proactively campaigning for their return since the 1980s. But how did this controversy start, and why did the marbles end up in London to begin with?
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3. They were taken when Greece was under Ottoman rule

The Ottoman Empire ruled Greece from the mid-15th century until 1833. After fortifying the Acropolis during the Sixth Ottoman-Venetian War (1684-1699), the Ottomans used the Parthenon to store gunpowder. In 1687, Venetian cannon and artillery fire resulted in the Parthenon being blown up.

During a siege in the first year of the Greek War of Independence (1821-1833), the Ottomans tried to melt lead in the Parthenon’s columns to make bullets. Within the last 30 years of the Ottoman’s near 400-year rule, the Elgin Marbles were taken.

4. Lord Elgin oversaw their removal

In 1801, the 7th Lord of Elgin, Thomas Bruce, who served as Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in Constantinople employed artists to take casts and drawings of the Parthenon Sculptures under the supervision of Neapolitan court painter, Giovanni Lusieri. This was the extent of Lord Elgin’s original intentions.

However, he later argued a firman (royal decree) obtained from the Sublime Porte (official government of the Ottoman Empire) permitted him to “take away pieces of stone with old inscriptions or figures thereon”. Between 1801 and 1805, Lord Elgin oversaw the extensive removal of the Elgin Marbles.

5. The documents permitting their removal were never verified

The original firman was lost if it ever existed. No version was found in the Ottoman archives despite their scrupulous record-keeping of royal decrees.

What does survive is a supposed Italian translation which was presented to a parliamentary inquiry into the Elgin Marbles’ legal status in Britain in 1816. Even then, it wasn’t Lord Elgin himself who presented it but his associate Reverend Philip Hunt, the last person to speak at the inquiry. Hunt had apparently retained the document 15 years after it was issued despite Elgin previously testifying he was unaware of its existence.

A section of the Elgin Marbles.

Image Credit: Shutterstock

6. Elgin paid for removal himself and lost money on the sale

Having unsuccessfully petitioned the British government for assistance, Lord Elgin paid for the removal and transportation of the Elgin Marbles himself at a total cost of £74,240 (equivalent to around £6,730,000 in 2021).

Elgin originally intended to decorate his home, Broomhall House, with the Elgin Marbles but a costly divorce forced him to offer them for a sale. He agreed to sell the Elgin Marbles to the British government for a fee determined by an 1816 parliamentary inquiry. Ultimately, he was paid £35,000, less than half his expenditure. The government then gifted the Marbles to the trusteeship of the British Museum.

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7. Curators at the Acropolis Museum have left space for the Elgin Marbles

The Elgin Marbles represent roughly half of the original Parthenon frieze and they remain on display at the British Museum’s purpose-built Duveen Gallery. The vast majority of the other half currently resides at the Acropolis Museum in Athens.

The Acropolis Museum has left a space beside their portion of the sculptures, meaning a continuous and near complete frieze could be displayed if Britain ever elects to return the Elgin Marbles to Greece. Replicas of the portion held in the British Museum are also kept at the Acropolis Museum.

8. The Elgin Marbles have been damaged in Britain

After suffering from air pollution which was rife in London in the 19th and 20th centuries, the Elgin Marbles were irreparably damaged in bodged restoration attempts at the British Museum. The most misjudged attempt occurred in 1937-1938, when Lord Duveen commissioned a team of masons equipped with 7 scrapers, a chisel and a carborundum stone to remove discolouration from the stones.

This appears to have been the result of misunderstanding that white marble from Mount Pentelicus naturally develops a honey-coloured hue. Up to 2.5mm of marble were removed in some places.

A part of the East Pediment of the Parthenon Structures, exhibited in the British Museum.

Image Credit: Andrew Dunn / CC BY-SA 2.0

9. The British government refuses to repatriate the Elgin Marbles

Successive Greek governments have rejected Britain’s claim to ownership of the Elgin Marbles and have called for their repatriation to Athens. British governments have taken their lead from the 1816 parliamentary inquiry that found Elgin’s removal of the Elgin Marbles to be legal, insisting that they are therefore British property.

In September 2021, UNESCO issued a decision calling for Britain to return the Elgin Marbles. However, a meeting between the two countries’ respective Prime Ministers two months later merely ended with a deferral to the British Museum who stand firm on their ownership assertion.

10. Four times as many people annually view the Elgin Marbles compared to the other Parthenon Sculptures

One of the British Museum’s main arguments for keeping the Elgin Marbles in London is the fact that on average 6 million people view them compared to just 1.5 million people viewing the Acropolis Museum’s sculptures. Repatriating the Elgin Marbles, the British Museum argues, would decrease their exposure to the public.

There is also a concern that repatriating the Elgin Marbles could have a wider impact and see museums all over the world returning artefacts which did not originate in their country. Some would of course argue this is the correct course of action.

Chris Smith