THE SOCIETY OF ANTIQUARIES ON RETURNING THE ELGIN MARBLES (FROM SALON IFA ISSUE 491)

Return of the Elgin Marbles – Talks Begin

(The following is the verbatum text of the Salon IFA note on this subject. My opinion is that it sounds promising but will not happen under a Conservative Government)

Under increasing pressure from Greece and UNESCO, the British government has agreed to talks about the repatriation of the Elgin Marbles, the collection of sculptures which were taken from the Parthenon in Athens in the early 19th century by the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Lord Elgin. At the time the ambassador claimed to have received a permit, since lost, to remove the sculptures from the Acropolis, which was then an Ottoman military fort. The excavation and removal were completed in 1812 at a personal cost to Lord Elgin, of £70,000.  The marbles were bought by the British Government in 1816 for £35,000 and placed in the British Museum.

On a visit to Britain last November, the Greek Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, insisted that the statues currently in the British Museum, had been ‘stolen’. Last week at a UNESCO meeting, the debate centred on whether the sculptures had been lifted from the rubble around the monument or hacked off the walls, using marble saws, as the contemporary documents seem to suggest. The Museum’s Deputy Director, Jonathan Williams FSA said the objects were not all hacked off the building. Anthony Snodgrass FSA, Honorary President of the Committee for the Reunification of the marbles, argued that the state of preservation of t

he sculptures shows the vast majority could not have fallen 40 ft to the ground but were carefully removed and had their backs sawn off. 

The Greek Prime Minister has suggested that the Parthenon sculptures could be loaned to Greece in exchange for other artefacts including the golden Mask of Agamemnon. In January, Palermo’s archaeological museum returned a small fragment of the Parthenon frieze, depicting the foot of Artemis, to Athens’ new Acropolis Museum, on long-term loan. Plaster cast replicas currently stand in the Acropolis Museum, representing the statues in the British Museum.

Perhaps the resolution to this long-running dispute is, surprisingly, to be found in Apple’s latest technology. Recently, Oxford-based researchers from the Institute of Digital Archaeology (IDA), without permission – although in plain view of security – scanned 3D images of some of the sculptures using iPhones and iPads.  A ‘robot sculptor’ can now create perfect replicas, using chisels and blocks of the same Pentelic marble used by the sculptor Phidias in the 5th century BC. The 3D scans were taken using a combination

of Lidar, which uses laser lights to measure distances within a fraction of a millimetre, and photogrammetry, which stitches together multiple images of a subject.

The British Museum had refused a formal application by IDA to take the 3D scans, saying it was already using 3D scanning to reveal some of the secrets of the marbles. Roger Michel, Executive Director from the Institute for Digital Archaeology (IDA) now hopes that the manufacture of incredibly-accurate replicas may pave the way for the original marbles to be returned.

I would be very interested to hear your views on the Elgin Marbles debate, and whether creating an identical copy helps or hinders finding a resolution to the issue. Please do write in to saloneditor@sal.org.uk with your views.

Image Credits: Marble relief (Block XLVII) from the North frieze of the Parthenon, British Museum, Marble relief (block XLI) from the North frieze of the Parthenon, British Museum, Scanned 3D Image, Institute for Digital Archaeology

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