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What are the Elgin Marbles and Why are they so Controversial?

What are the Elgin Marbles and Why are they so Controversial?
Prized ancient marble relics known as the 'Elgin Marbles', which were originally a part of the famous Greek Parthenon, have been housed in the British Museum for decades. These have also been a bone of contention between the British and the Greek governments for quite a while. Vacayholics explores what are the Elgin Marbles, and why are they so controversial?
Mary Anthony
Last Updated: Feb 26, 2018
Latest on the Elgin Marbles
The British Museum has decided to loan part of the Elgin Marbles to Russia's Hermitage Museum. It is for the first time in 200 years that the marbles will leave the British shores. This move has been widely opposed by the Greek government who are the rightful owners of the ancient marble sculptures.
The Acropolis was a sprawling place of worship dedicated in the honor of the ancient Greek gods and goddesses, the most revered temple in this vicinity was the Parthenon. It was built between 447 and 438 BCE, in honor of Athena Parthenos, the virgin goddess and patron of the city-state. Constructed as a symbol of victory over the Persian invasion in 480 BCE, the civilization in Athena thrived successfully and it was attributed to Goddess Athena. During this period, Pericles, the statesman, commissioned Pheidias, the sculptor, and a team of sculptures to decorate the temple and build a statue of Goddess Athena.

Pheidias solely envisaged the themes of the metopes, frieze, and pediments, his sculpted statue of Athena stood in the eastern chamber of the Parthenon. The temple was to be finished by Athena's birthday, the 28th day of Hecatombaion. By 438 BCE, the work on the prime sculpture of Goddess Athena was almost complete.
Brief History of the Elgin Marbles
➔ Parthenon was completed in 432 BCE, and it was a sacred place for thousands of centuries. Later in 5th century, it was transformed into a church and part of the eastern frieze was removed to accommodate an apse.

➔ In 1799, Thomas Bruce, the seventh Earl of Elgin, became ambassador to the sultan of Turkey.
➔ The Ottoman invasion of 1458, transformed the temple into a mosque and a minaret was added to its existing structure. On September 26,1687, the temple was destroyed in an explosion, and the ruined sculptures and columns were either stolen or bribed away, leaving the temple in complete desolate state by the late 1700s.
➔ Being a connoisseur of arts and antiques, the Earl of Elgin appointed architect Thomas Harrison―an expert in Greek-Roman designs―to construct his new mansion in Britain inspired by Greek style architecture, as it was a rage in Britain during those days. Thomas Bruce convinced the Sultan to lend him pieces of the Parthenon marbles to adorn his new home. The Turks had low regard for such priceless antiques and readily agreed to the favor in return of British support against the invading French.
➔ Around 1801, Elgin procured the legal authority of the Sultan to take away any carvings or dedications which would not be used in the making of the Turkish citadel. On July 31, 1801, the first metope was shifted and by next June, more than half of the Parthenon sculptures were in Elgin's possession. He shipped them to Britain in the warships 'Hydra', 'Tagus', and 'Satellite'. The looting of these precious relics stopped only after the Greek War of Independence.
➔ These antique marbles were stored at the Earl's house in London, he occasionally put them on display due to which he soon went into debt, also personally, he had incurred huge losses due to them as he had shipped them at his own expense. Meanwhile, an outcry ensued over this issue in the British Parliament. Lord Byron and other prominent members of the parliament accused the Earl of Elgin over vandalism and dishonesty. The British parliament set up a committee to inquire about this issue. Due to financial losses and a maligned reputation, the Earl of Elgin sold the marble sculptures to the British government at £35,000, less than half of what he had invested.
➔ In 1816, the marbles were reassigned to the British Museum in London, Lord Joseph Duveen constructed a new gallery for the Parthenon sculptures under his own expenses. They are currently freely exhibited for public viewing in the Duveen Gallery in the British Museum since 1817.
Description of the Elgin Marbles
➔ Three prominent types of sculptures from the Parthenon are part of the Elgin Marbles.


The pediments were massive triangular shaped niches on the top exterior of the Parthenon, these depicted impressively sculpted figures of the Greek gods and goddesses. These figures were the handiwork of many sculptor,s but the sole visionary behind them all was the great sculptor Pheidias. There were two pediments, one on the east and the other on the west of Parthenon. The west pediment depicted the epic battle between Goddess Athena and God Poseidon. The most important collection of Elgin marbles comes from the east pediment that depicts the birth of Goddess Athena.

According to Greek mythology, Athena was the daughter of God Zeus and the Goddess Metis. Concerned over the fact that Athena would be more powerful that himself, Zeus swallowed Metis whole while she was pregnant, apparently this could not stop Athena from being born, and it is said that Zeus' head was struck open with an ax by the Greek blacksmith god Hephaestus, and the goddess was born.

The scene is well depicted in the east pediment, which shows Athena being born 'at daybreak' as the sun-god Helios and the heads of two of his four horses rise from the sea. Celebrating and observing this event is a nude Dionysus, god of wine and revelry, who is toasting the birth with a cup of wine. To the right are two seated goddesses, who are probably Demeter and her daughter Persephone, while further to the right is a mortal Greek girl, who appears frightened by this event.

➔ Metopes

The metopes measuring 1.20 meters in height and 1.25 meters in width, depict the epic battle between the Lapiths and the centaurs. According to Greek mythology, Lapith King Pirithous had invited the centaurs for his wedding feast during which the centaurs got badly drunk and tried to rape the Lapith women, thus leading to a war. These large-scale figures hold weapons made in bronze. These metopes were on the southern side of the Parthenon, the eastern metopes depicted the battle between Olympian gods and giants, and the western metopes depicted the Greeks fighting opponents in Oriental dresses. Of the 92 massive metopes, 15 are now part of the Elgin marble collection.

➔ Frieze

The frieze is the top exterior of the Parthenon covering about 524 feet (160 meters), and carved out in low relief. It depicts the Panathenaic procession, which used to be held every fourth year, the procession includes chariots, people on horses, sacrificial cows, young girls and women with ritual items, soldiers supervising the procession, and a plethora of gods and goddesses. A major chunk of this frieze is now part of the Elgin marbles collection.

The collection now includes sculptures that are 247 feet of the original 524 feet of frieze,15 of 92 metopes, 17 figures from the pediments, and various other pieces of architecture. It also includes relics from the Acropolis: the Erechtheion, the Propylaia, and the Temple of Athena Nike.
Controversy Regarding the Elgin Marbles
➔ The Greek government has built the New Acropolis Museum to display the prized relics from the Parthenon and the nearby archaeological sites. It has always maintained that the British government must return the Elgin marbles to their rightful location. In anticipation of this epic return, the New Acropolis Museum has dedicated a top floor gallery of the museum named Parthenon Hall exclusively for the exiled relics. The Greek government maintains that the marbles have suffered irreparable damage while in London through pollution, damp weather, and the attempted efforts to clean them with sandpaper, chisels, and acids. The Greek government states that many of the Acropolis relics housed in museums of Sweden, Germany, the U.S., and the Vatican have been returned to the New Acropolis museum, and the British government should follow the same.

➔ The British government, on the other hand, is adamant on its stand that the Elgin marbles will remain in the British museum because they state that it was because of the Earl of Elgin that the marbles were saved from the Turkish destruction during the Greek War of Independence. Many of the pieces are still missing from the set and even if the exiled relics are returned, it will not pose the complete picture. Moreover, the British Museum's legal charter indicates clearly that it cannot legally return items from its collection: ''The Trustees of The British Museum hold its collections in perpetuity by virtue of the power vested in them by The British Museum Act (1963).'' The trustees of the British Museum feel that the Elgin marbles represent world heritage and culture as they are freely on display for the millions of visitors every year; whereas if returned to Greece, they will be just used as a backdrop representing the ancient Greek civilization.
The Elgin marbles have once again come into the media spotlight because of the latest development where the British government has agreed to loan parts of it the Hermitage Museum in Russia. The Greek government feels that this unfair as they have been seeking the return of the marbles instead, they are determined to pursue this issue till the end.

Controversy or not, these precious relics are symbols of the once glorious Greek civilization and they are a debt of honor towards history.