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Tuesday, 30 November, 1999, 17:54 GMT
Elgin Marbles: The story so far...
One of the friezes in the British Museum
What are they?

The Elgin Marbles (as they are known in the UK) or the Parthenon Marbles (as they are known in Greece) were the intricately carved friezes and statues on the Parthenon in Athens, which has been described as "the supreme monument of Greek antiquity" and the monument which "represents the whole of western civilisation".

The late Melina Mercouri visiting the museum as Greek culture minister in 1983
Who was Elgin?

Elgin himself was Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, who was British ambassador to the Ottoman empire from 1799 to 1803. Depending which side you take in this passionate debate, Elgin decided to remove some of the carvings EITHER to protect them from damage from an unstable political climate OR because he was a cultural thief who took advantage of his position.

What did he do?

He tried to get permission to measure and copy the stones, and eventually got it - and (depending on your position) EITHER got permission to take away "any pieces of stone" OR removed stones without permission.

Over a 10-year period, he removed carvings and shipped them back to Britain. The stones were kept in a private collection for 10 more years, but Elgin faced public criticism for bringing the stones. The poet Byron was a particularly harsh critic, and is alleged to have scrawled "Quod Non Fecerunt Gothi, Fecerunt Scot" on the Acropolis ("What the Goths spared, the Scots have destroyed").

The British Museum bought the stones from Elgin in 1816 for 35,000.

What's left?

Fifty-six blocks of the frieze are in Britain, 40 in Athens; 19 statues are in Britain, 9 in Athens.

What does Greece say?

For many years, the Greek Government has been demanding the return of the marbles, wanting to restore a central part of its architectural and cultural heritage.

The colourful figure of late actress Melina Mercouri, Greek culture minister, became a familiar character to the British in her quest to have the stones returned.

What does Britain say?

Most museums have plenty of artworks that have originated abroad, and so have resisted calls for them to be repatriated. And, it has been said, if museums cannot keep items originally from other countries, the whole existence of museums would be questioned. For example, should the Mona Lisa be returned to Italy? As far as the marbles are concerned, the British position has been that at least they have been safe in the UK from any political instability and also polluted Athens air which would have severely damaged the stones. And, they say, they are in better condition than other Greek treasures of the time.

So why the row now?

Doubt was cast on this position by author William St Clair, in his book Lord Elgin and The Marbles. He claimed that in the 1930s, the British Museum had cleaned the marbles with chisels and wire brushes. This had taken off a layer of paint and the patina, and had been done in a mistaken belief that the marbles should have been pure white. The museum denies that serious damage was done.

Greek officials told a conference in London organised by the museum that the damage was irreparable.

President Clinton also encouraged the Greek campaigners by saying he would return the stones.

The Parthenon, the original home for the marbles

Elgin Marbles
Should they stay in the British Museum?
See also:

20 Nov 99 | Europe
Clinton backs Elgin marbles claim
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