Caryatid and Other Prisoners of the British Museum

How England appropriated part of Greek history

Athens' Acropolis as alternative Wonder of the World.

Ancient Greek Acropolis was the upper, fortified part of the city, located on a high cliff. The ruler of the town and its main temples resided at that location.

The Acropolis of Athens is a steep, 156-meter-high hill with a flat top that measures 300 by 170 meters. Its history is long. It was the residence of the Mycenaean kings in the XV-XIII century BC. The first religious buildings appeared during the reign of the legendary Cecrops, Athens' first ruler. During the following centuries, Acropolis was constructed extensively. The Persians, however, destroyed the palaces and temples of the Acropolis during the Greco-Persian wars of 480 BC.

The restoration of shrines began thirty years later on the initiative of Pericles, an influential Athenian politician and general, one of the founders of Athenian democracy. Phidias, Callicrates, Ictinus, Archilochus, and other famous Greek sculptors and architects were involved in the construction.  During this time, the Athenian Acropolis was adorned by the most renowned structures: the Parthenon (the main temple of ancient Athens, dedicated to Athena the Virgin), the Propylaea (the main entrance to the Acropolis), the Erechtheion (a temple dedicated to Athena, Poseidon, and the legendary Athenian king Erechtheus), and the temple of Nike Apteros (the wingless victory). In addition, some ancient historians considered the Parthenon and the statue of Athena by Phidias (now lost) to be one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

1687. The bombing of the Acropolis

1687. The bombing of the Acropolis

Ancient buildings were often used to house Christian churches in the Byzantine period. The Turks converted the Parthenon into a mosque in the fifteenth century and placed an arsenal there. As a result, the Erechtheion (the one with the caryatids) was turned into the harem of the Turkish pasha. In 1687, about seven hundred cannonballs fell into the Parthenon during the Turkish-Venetian war. A bullet landed in a powder magazine and smashed the temple. As a result, the Acropolis of Athens lay in ruins until the middle of the nineteenth century, when Greece gained its independence and began a slow but still gradual process of restoration.

Thief or saviour?

The main character of our history arrives - a man called Thomas Bruce, also known as the 7th earl of Elgin or the Earl of Kincardine. The earl, an ancient Scottish family member, was the British envoy to Istanbul in the early nineteenth century. Elgin was obsessed with collecting antiquities like most British aristocrats at the time. Thus, he obtained the so-called firman or permission as soon as the opportunity arose in 1801.

And this raises questions. At first, no one had seen that permission; later, Elgin only showed everyone a clumsy Italian translation. Second, the Sultan's instructions were vague: Elgin was authorized to take a few pieces of debris as souvenirs and "move the stones". However, the Turks did not care much for "those ruins". They used the Acropolis as a military fortress and did not pay much attention to its architectural excesses.

Centaur and Latif.

Centaur and Latif.

Initially, Elgin just wanted to draw sculptural images of the Parthenon. Elgin, however, seeing the Turks' indifference toward the masterpieces of ancient art and perhaps bribing whomever necessary, hired fifty workers and began shamelessly removing bas-reliefs from the Parthenon. Upon entering the taste, he even broke off one of the caryatides from the entrance of the Erechtheion, replacing it with a simple stone pillar.

This exportation story sounds like the plot of a good detective film. One of the ships carrying the sculptures sank due to a storm in the Ionian Sea near the Greek island of Antikythera (not to worry, it was soon brought to the surface). The cargo of another ship was arrested by the French and stored in a warehouse for a long time when a new war between France and England broke out. Elgin himself spent three years in French custody. Only in 1812 did the earl and his treasures successfully reunite in London.

The collection's fate

The fate of the collection was not that successful. The scientific community did not acknowledge that the Elgin collection was of value. Additionally, the earl's financial affairs were shaken. He spent a lot of money collecting. Elgin then sold the collection to the government.

Let us take a closer look at the collection.

You probably know what a bas-relief is, and you can find the meanings of the words "metope", "frieze", and "pediment" in a standard architectural dictionary. First of all, there are 15 metope panels with bas-reliefs depicting the battles of Lapiths and Centaurs, 17 sculptures of the eastern and western pediments of the Parthenon, and 75 meters of bas-relief frieze. Furthermore, the Earl of Elgin appropriated a caryatid from the Erechtheion, 4 slabs from the Temple of Athena the Virgin, and many other small architectural elements.

The ribbon of the frieze along the inner perimeter of the Parthenon.

The ribbon of the frieze along the inner perimeter of the Parthenon.

In other words, Elgin was able to transport more than half the Acropolis's sculptures to England. He requested only 62 thousand pounds sterling (about 5 million pounds in the equivalent of 2021) for all this wealth from the government, claiming that he spent much more on collecting the pieces and transporting them to England. A long auction ended with the seller and buyers agreeing on 35 thousand pounds.

In the same 1816, the earl's collection was placed in the newly constructed Duvin Gallery, becoming one of the greatest treasures of the British Museum.

Byron and others

Following Greece's independence in 1833, the country repeatedly requested that the British government return the Parthenon marble to its rightful place. Elgin had been criticized in Britain before. Lord Byron directly refers to Mr Bruce as a thief in his 1812 poem, "The Pilgrimage of Childe Harold". The poet, during his visit to the Acropolis in Athens, inscribed the following on one of the columns: "Quod non fecerunt gothi, hoc fecerunt scoti." This means, "What the Goths did not do, the Scots (the English) did."

There are many modern "stars" who stand in solidarity with Byron. Stephen Fry, George Clooney, Matt Damon, and Bill Murray are the most famous supporters of justice. They are also in favour of returning the Elgin collection to Athens.

Melina Mercouri, Greek actress, singer and politician.

Melina Mercouri, Greek actress, singer and politician.

In the 1980s, Melina Mercouri, then Greece's Culture Minister, organized the most significant campaign to return the Parthenon marble. This campaign was supported by many international organizations, including the International Organizing Committee of Australia and the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles. Furthermore, several global social movements call for the return of the Parthenon sculptures to Athens; these include "Bring them back" and "Unite the Marbles". Sadly, all the efforts so far have not been rewarded with success.

What does the British establishment say about this?

The British believe that Earl Elgin acted legally and saved the sculptures from destruction. In any case, does it make any difference where they are stored? You can see the beautiful conditions in the British Museum. Our collection is always open to anyone who wants to view it - access is not forbidden. If the artefacts are returned to their original location, the Parthenon walls, to the height of 11 meters, who will be able to see them? While here, they are displayed at eye level and are pleasantly illuminated - come and admire them as much as you wish. Could it be that if we imagined the impossible and brought back the Parthenon sculptures to Greece, we would also have to discard all the other exhibits? We should then return the Rosetta Stone to Egypt and the Diamond Sutra to China. No way.

This was roughly the position taken by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in March 2021.

The British Museum.

The British Museum.

What happens next?

The Acropolis Museum was established in Athens at the beginning of the new century. Original sculptural elements from the Parthenon and other historical buildings of the Acropolis were relocated here and replaced with copies. The museum's exhibition space allows it to take back the exhibits from the British Museum if it chooses to return them. The British had previously argued that Athens had no room to store the Elgin collection. The Greek government even consents to joint supervision of the collection. In a recent statement, UNESCO announced its intention to serve as a mediator between the two countries to find a convenient solution for all.

Now it is up to England.

The Sixth Caryatid from the British Museum awaits its return home.

The Sixth Caryatid from the British Museum awaits its return home.

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