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Last Updated: Thursday, 19 January 2006, 10:49 GMT
Return the Marbles? Forget it
By Trevor Timpson
BBC News

Dorothy King and statues from the Parthenon east pediment
Dorothy King at the British Museum
Archaeologist Dorothy King, who breaks the mould of the dusty academic, is an outspoken critic of Greek demands to take back the Elgin Marbles from the UK.

"I think she sounds fun," Dorothy King says of Melina Mercouri, "I wish I could have been friends with her - a bit of a drama queen, but aren't we all?"

Ms Mercouri was the Oscar-nominated actress and Greek culture minister who demanded that the UK return the Parthenon sculptures - the Elgin Marbles - "in the name of fairness and morality".

But standing firm against her is Dr King, who argues in her new book against repatriating the Marbles. Like Ms Mercouri, she is a colourful character. She is irreverent and feisty, with a blog called PhDiva, and she speaks her mind on a range of issues in newspaper columns and on TV.

Not that she absolutely rules out the return of the Parthenon sculptures, removed by Lord Elgin in the early 19th Century, although her book keeps up her attack on the Greeks' ability to look after their archaeological treasures properly.

"When the Greeks can demonstrate that they too have done an admirable job of caring for the Marbles in Athens then, perhaps, we can discuss a loan.

"Should Greece ever sort out a suitable museum display, it might be possible to appreciate them [the Marbles] there fully one day," she says in her book.

New home for old treasures

Her stance - that a loan might be possible one day - is not what those who want the Marbles to stay in London want to hear. "I think a lot of the people who want them to stay are not happy because they thought I'd be firmer," she says.

Design plan for the New Acropolis Museum
The controversial new museum
The Greeks are building a new museum in which they want to unite their own Parthenon sculptures with those held in London and around the world at the foot of the Acropolis - within sight of the Parthenon temple itself. And they have been praised for the recent cleaning of the slabs taken down from the Parthenon's west frieze in 1983.

So does this mean the Greeks have met the conditions she sets in her book for "perhaps discussing a loan"? Not at all, says Dr King, who hates the new museum.

"I don't think it should have been built," she says, pointing out that distinguished Greek scholars have protested at the destruction of archaeological remains to build the museum.

But the Greek authorities and their supporters insist that the museum's plans have been altered precisely so as to preserve early Christian remains underneath - and to enable them to be seen by visitors through transparent panels in the floor.

This cuts little ice with Dr King, who says there are eight or nine layers of remains under the museum.

Left: Marbles in the British Museum, and right, the west frieze in Athens (photo S Mavrommatis©)
Parts of the frieze in London, left, and in Athens
And as for the cleaned frieze, she says: "Anyone who saw the condition of the west frieze in Athens next to the Elgin Marbles in London would immediately decide that the Marbles in London should stay there."

But when the museum finally opens, surely we will know then that whatever has happened in the past, the London carvings will be safe in Athens?

"Three months of 'let's look after our Marbles' after 50 years of 'let's ignore them and damage them' does not add up to a good track record," she says.

Patina or whitewash?

On no subject is she more scornful than what supporters of their return lovingly call the "honey-brown patina" formed on some of the Parthenon carvings in Greece. They say the patina forms naturally as marble ages and it contains precious surface details of the carvings - and lament the fact that it was lost on many of the London sculptures during a controversial cleaning in the 1930s with metal tools.

I like Athens so if they did go back it would just be an excuse to go
Dorothy King

Dr King calls it "brown sludge", and says it is almost certainly a whitewash that the Ottomans applied to the Parthenon when they turned it into a mosque, and which has turned brown over time.

As for the 1930s cleaning, the Greeks used similar techniques for much longer, she says: "It happened a long time ago and I think it's very hypocritical of the Greeks considering how white and shiny their own sculptures are."

Her book is wide-ranging, with many insights into the history of Athens and the temples of the Acropolis - particularly interesting for those who like all periods of Greek history and don't like to read about the classical age alone.

Athens puts cleaned west frieze on display

It is spoiled a little by some small textual and other mistakes which have enabled some of Dr King's opponents to make fun of her. Hopefully the publisher will put these right in future editions - especially as the book will probably be read by young people just starting to love the study of the Greek world.

Is she confident that the British will resist calls to send the marbles back to Athens? "Who knows what's going to happen in the future? I like Athens so if they did go back it would just be an excuse to go."

The Elgin Marbles, by Dorothy King, is published on 19 January by Hutchinson.

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