December 05, 2004

Elgin Marbles Dispute Takes New Twist

Dec. 3, 2004 — One of the oldest international cultural disputes, the battle over the Elgin Marbles, has taken another turn as a distinguished Cambridge scholar says the sculptures would have been just fine if Lord Elgin had left them in Athens.

Following a sophisticated 11-year conservation program in Athens, the 14 slabs that Lord Elgin did not manage to remove are now showing surprisingly bright original details.

"They are in better shape than anything in London. We now know exactly what Lord Elgin 'saved' them from: one has only to go to Athens and see for oneself," Anthony Snodgrass, professor emeritus of classical archaeology at Cambridge University, told Discovery News.

Indeed, the 17 figures and 56 panels chiseled off in 1801 by Lord Elgin from a giant frieze that once decorated ancient Athens' most sacred shrine, the Parthenon, bear dramatic signs of the British Museum's heavy-handed cleaning scandal in the 1930s.

The fearless horsemen, sprightly youths, lounging deities, belligerent centaurs and expressive horses were cruelly scraped and scrubbed with chisels and wire brushes in an attempt to make them whiter than white, an aesthetic admired by museumgoers.

Despite the 1930s cleaning, the British Museum has always maintained that the museum is the best possible place for the marbles to be on display.

"The British Museum is a truly universal museum of humanity, accessible to five million visitors from around the world every year entirely free of entry charge.

"The Parthenon Marbles have been central to the museum's collections, and to its purpose, for almost two hundred years. Only here can the worldwide significance of the sculptures be fully grasped," Neil MacGregor, the museum's director, said in a statement.

He added that centuries of damage have meant that "the Parthenon is a ruin" and that only 50 percent of the original sculptures survive today.

"They can now only be an incomplete collection of fragments," MacGregor said.

Until now, no one had been able to have a close view of the slabs Lord Elgin did not remove as they were too high up on the Parthenon. When they were taken down in 1993, a thick layer of soot made it almost impossible to distinguish anything.

Now, after undergoing a double-laser cleaning program, the marble pieces show an abundance of details, such as chisel marks and veins on the horses bellies.

According to Snodgrass, who has chaired the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles since 2002, the difference between British museum's marbles and the Greek ones is clear to anyone who compares them.

"The Athens pieces have more detail preserved, and are more like what their makers intended," Snodgrass said.

He noted that the much-debated natural-stained patina is still present in the newly restored Greek marbles, while it is totally gone in the British museum's pieces.

Carved by Phidias in the 5th century B.C., the Parthenon sculptures are scattered throughout several European museums, including the Louvre in Paris.

But the bulk of the marbles are kept in London's British Museum. Greece contends they were stolen in 1801 by Lord Elgin, British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. Britain claims that Lord Elgin had permission from the ruling Turkish authorities to take them.

Greece has been demanding the return of the Elgin Marbles since the country's independence from Turkey in 1829.

It is now building an Acropolis Museum which is due to be completed by 2006. The museum will include a Parthenon Hall which will remain empty until the marbles have been returned.


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