March 16 16:07 2015 Print This Article

John Keats was 21 years old in 1817 when he wrote the poem “On Seeing the Elgin Marbles”, where he expressed mixed feelings of awe for the sculptures and their creators and repulsion at the profane acts of his compatriot Lord Elgin.

In a letter to the editor of the Fortnightly Review, Lord George Nathaniel Curzon proposed that part of the Parthenon Sculptures and the Caryatid be returned: “For my own part, as an Englishman, I would sooner, were the proposal of restoration be made, that it were made spontaneously and without arrière pensée. A free gift is preferable in such a case to a bargain, a restitution to an exchange.”

He also claimed that the gendarmes guarding the Acropolis were as polite as they were numerous and that under their watchful eye the Caryatid would be safe with here five sisters. He also drew a parallel between the Caryatid in the British Museum gallery and Niobe, who seems to weep her desolation in stone. (Source: Christopher Hitchens, 138)

In 1980 philosopher and historian Frederic Harrison wrote an article that appeared in “The Nineteenth Century” under the title: “Give back the Elgin Marbles”. The article mentioned that: “…art students of the world would gain immensely if the ornaments of the Parthenon  could be seen again together and beneath the shadow of the Parthenon itself. The Parthenon Marbles are to the Greek nation a thousand times more dear and more important than they can ever be to the English nation, which simply bought them. (Source: Evgenia Kafallinaiou – «OLKOS» Publications, p. 111)

While on an expedition to Congo, Roger Casement wrote a poem, overflowing with emotion: “…Give back the marbles; let them vigil keep / Where art still lies, over Pheidias’ tomb, asleep. …”. (Source: Christopher Hitchens, pp. 138-140)

In a poem he wrote in 1905, Thomas Hardy depicts the statues speaking to each other: “O it is sad now we are sold — / We gods! for Borean people’s gold, / And brought to the gloom / Of this gaunt room / Which sunlight shuns, and sweet Aurore but enters cold….”.

In 1924, Harold Nicholson, a young Foreign Office employee and a specialist in Greek affairs, proposed that the government should take the initiative on 19 April 1924 and commemorate the 100th anniversary of Lord Byron’s death in Messolonghi by sending a British contingent to the Corinth Gulf to offer a canon salute to Messolonghi. Encouraged by the positive reaction to his proposal, he thought that there was an opportunity to undo the injustice done and generously return the Caryatid to its proper place that was now occupied by a clay column. He also claimed that few people knew about the fact that it is kept in the British Museum while it is obvious that it is missing from the Erechtheion.

  1. W. L. Knight, who was responsible for Greek affairs at the Foreign Office later on in his life, took into account the excellent relations between Great Britain and Greece and that most of the letters to the London Times regarding the Acropolis sculptures were in favor of their return and concluded his report in these words: “To make this a complete and undeniable gift, it should include not only the Parthenon marbles but also the Caryatid and the Erechtheion Column. Britain should not miss the opportunity to present this decision as an act of generosity”. (Source: Evgenia Kafallinaiou – OLKOS Publications, pp. 84-85).

When France came under German occupation in 1940-41 and while England and Greece were the only nations left that were still fighting against Hitler’s Nazi troops, the Foreign Office prepared a draft to return the marbles but it was dropped after the war ended.

On January 23, 1941, conservative MP Thelma Calazet proposed the return of the marbles and received an answer that could be described as affirmative on the condition that Greece should build a special museum for the Parthenon marbles.

English historian W. Miller wrote: “The stolen treasures await their return to Greece”.

On March 9, 1983, George Gale wrote the following in the Daily Express: “For as long as the Parthenon marbles remain in the British museum, they will stand as Monuments of Ancient Greece and proof of modern British greed, rapacity, and vandalism”.

On January 1, 1983 The Spectator published an article by Christopher Hitchens under the title: “Give them back their marbles”.

This article together with the official request of the Greek government and Culture Minister Melina Merkouri for have the marbles returned rekindled discussions on the issue once more. In 1988 Nea Synora Publications released Christopher Hitchens’ bilingual (Greek and English) book “The Elgin Marbles”.

Reading Christopher Hitchens’ book, I concluded that the author considered objectively all the facts, the reactions, and the arguments that are in favor of keeping the artifacts in the British Museum, but concluded that they should be returned when the New Acropolis Museum is completed. It will be ready to house the marbles in 2004.

The third revised edition of William St. Clair’s “Lord Elgin and the marbles” was published in Greek in1999 by the Ellinika Grammata Publications.

The aforementioned British authors, Christopher Hitchens and William St. Clair, have collected a rich store of material about what has happened, what has been said, and what has been written since Elgin pillaged the sculptures. The two writers make special reference to the “cleaning” of the marbles commissioned by art dealer Lord Duveen, presenting official British Museum documents that detail what happened in the basement of the British Museum in 1938.

Let me give you my personal opinion on this matter, based on my second visit to the Museum in July 2002. I took great care to observe the surface of the frieze and the metopes. I could see the difference when comparing different fragments or different points on the same fragment. My conclusion is that some sculptures were scrubbed more than others while some others were not scrubbed at all. Protrusions seem to be relatively smooth as they were easy to scrub with the metal brush used. They seem to be brighter and look like white-washed marbles when compared to intrusions that were difficult to scrub. However, the metopes, which have smoother surfaces, look brighter due to the scrubbing when compared to the frieze, which is characterized by the numerous folds of the garments.

I also observed circular exfoliations and multiple groups of minute borings that look like ant nests.

I believe that the exfoliations were due to the friction caused by overheating the already misused marbles while the borings were probably created by the acids used.

As soon as I returned to Greece, I visited the Acropolis Museum where the rest of the remaining Parthenon sculptures are kept. The surfaces are certainly different and intense brightness is nowhere to be seen. Unfortunately, in order to form a complete picture, the sculptures need to be examined with visits to both museums at the same time.

The British people have never stopped reacting. Politicians and scholars still react today and they don’t simply condemn Elgin and his profane acts. They have filed complaints against the British Museum officials, protesting the reckless maintenance work, the receptions held in the hall where the sculptures are exhibited, and the lack of sufficient security. They have presented proposals and taken initiatives aiming to return the sculptures to Greece. It is a demand that is now supported around the world and by the majority of the British citizens.