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Wednesday, 13 November, 2002, 12:12 GMT
How the Greeks lost their marbles
Elgin Marbles
The marbles have been fought over for 20 years

The Elgin Marbles are hitting headlines again, with the Greek Minister for Culture stepping up his campaign to have them returned to Greece and removed from the British Museum in London. But how did the row over the ancient artefacts begin?

The tortuous debate over rightful ownership of the Parthenon sculptures may be just two decades old, but the seeds of disagreement were sewn when they first left the Acropolis of Athens in the 19th Century.

The opposing sides agree on only one thing - that the Elgin Marbles form one of the most important collections of classical art in existence.

The problem, the Greeks say, is that the building and sculptures form a single entity which cannot be broken up.

Artist's impression
Artist's impression: The Greeks are building a museum to house the marbles
In an increasingly vociferous campaign, the Greek Government, with plenty of support within the UK, argues that keeping the artwork 2,000 miles from its true home is unacceptable.

"The Parthenon marbles are not free-standing sculptures but integral parts of the Temple of the Parthenon", according to Evangelos Venizelos, Greece's Minister of Culture.

Their artistic content is held up as evidence: the vast frieze depicts an ancient Athenian ceremony that would have involved the Parthenon itself, while carved panels feature scenes from the citadel's mythical beginnings.

All, it is said, are bound up firmly with the history of Athens and specifically with the Parthenon.


Campaigners also claim another major justification for the return of the marbles - the allegedly unlawful manner in which they were removed.

Lord Elgin, British Ambassador to Turkey, was the man responsible.

The Parthenon he visited in 1801 was in a state of semi-ruin. The 2,250 year-old building had been damaged massively by an explosion 50 years earlier, caused by the ignition of a gunpowder store set up inside it by occupying Turks.

Depending on who you ask, Elgin either "rescued" or "pillaged" what he could and sold it to the British Museum, which maintains that the removal was carried out legally.

Elgin Marbles
Critics say poor restoration has damaged the relics
A museum statement points out that Elgin was an official diplomat and had acted with the permission of Turkish authorities.

The Greeks disagree, saying that the Turks were a foreign force acting against the will of the people they had invaded.

A recent Mori poll suggested that more than 50% of people in the UK would back the return of the statues if the Greek Government met certain conditions.

One such condition is that any return must not set a precedent for the reclaiming of other treasures.

Greek campaigners vow that the marbles are a one-off case and say their return would not threaten the status of other artefacts in the British Museum and beyond.


Opponents like former UK Education Minister Alan Howarth are unconvinced. A restoration would, he warned early in 2002, "open a floodgate of similar requests".

The tit-for-tat battle goes on.

The British Museum claims it enables six million people to view the statues annually. The Greeks promise visitors the valuable experience of seeing the art in its supposedly rightful setting.

And campaigners allege the museum damaged some of the statuary by inept restoration techniques.

The museum retorts that Athens' notorious pollution has done greater harm to the few sculptures that remain attached to the Parthenon.


Meanwhile, the British Museum says Parliament requires it to keep the statues. Greece feels that UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) regulations demand their return.

Successive British Governments have appeared unmoved by the Greeks' determination to win the statues back in time for the 2004 Olympic games.

With politicians, historians and celebrity campaigners on both sides unable to sway the argument decisively in either direction, the dispute could prove as enduring as the marbles themselves.

See also:

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