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The Elgin Marbles: Where do they belong?

The Elgin Marbles: Where do they belong?
August 7, 12:49 PM – Archeological Travel Examiner
Gwynneth Anderson

…And so it happened that the Lapith peoples celebrated the wedding of the brave warrior Perithous to his fair maiden, Hippodame. All were invited to the nuptial feast – even the cloud-begotten race of Centaurs, those half men, half beasts. But when a bevy of glittering nymphs finally brought forth the lovely bride, the brutish centaur Eurytus, half crazed from wine and lust, rose from his place and attacked her, inciting his fellow centaurs to do the same.

Greatly angered, the mighty warrior Theseus snatched the bride free from her ghastly assaulter, smashing a heavy goblet against the head of Eurytus who fell thunderously to the floor, choking on his own blood, brains and teeth.

Roaring with fury, the remaining centaurs leapt into the fray, seeking to redeem the honor of their fallen brother. The fight is brutal – clubs, stones, hooves, tree branches, fingers – anything that gained an advantage is used to the other’s detriment. The once beautiful feasting tables become red with blood, littered with smashed dishes and other unimaginable horrors as the battle rages on.

Finally, a desperate thrust to an exposed navel disembowels the last standing centaur. It is now over. 

At one time, the outside of walls of the Parthenon were decorated with 92 sculpted panels (called metopes) depicting various topics in triumphant Greek history. The Battle of the Lapiths and the Centaurs was one of them.

The eastern wall holds the desperate battle between the Greek gods and giants. The western wall depicts the Amazonian invasion of Athens while the northern wall shows scenes from the Trojan War. The southern wall was reserved for man versus centaur. Over time, weather, battles and hundreds of years of tourism, wreaked their own havoc.

As seen below, the west and eastern walls have fallen victim to centuries of atmospheric pollution while the southern side shows the damage from an 1687 explosion after Venetians scored a direct hit on the Parthenon-cum-Ottoman-munitions-depot.

The southern metopes, however, remain in excellent condition because they are no longer there.

From 1801 – 1812, The Ambassador Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary of His Britannic Majesty to the Sublime Porte of Selim III, Sultan of Turkey, otherwise known as Lord Elgin, removed the metopes and other statues from the Athenian Acropolis for shipment back to England.

How he managed to do this when never receiving specific permission to do so, is still unclear.

Initially, Elgin had requested government funds to pay for a project to cast and draw various Parthenon statuary. He was turned down. Deciding to use his own funds (or rather his wife’s, since he had recently married a wealthy heiress) he hired a Neapolitan court painter to supervise this task and eventually received written permission from the Ottoman government to:

“Fix scaffolding, make drawings, make moldings in chalk or gypsum, measure the remains of the ruined buildings and excavate the foundations which may have become covered and that when they wish to take away pieces of stone with old inscriptions or figures thereon, that no opposition be made thereto.”

Since the original grant corroborating this has never been located in Ottoman archives, scholars still debate whether Elgin simply stretched the boundaries of what he was allowed to encompass what he really wanted – the originals.

British public reaction to Elgin’s “gift” was initially negative while Parliament was reluctant to pay his purchase price. Eventually, the marbles were accepted and since 1816, have become an integral part of the British Museum.

Over the years, Greek requests for their return have been denied, the Museum citing some of the following reasons:

• Returning the marbles would condemn them to inevitable disintegration from Athenian air pollution;
• The marbles are a global influence, entitled for all to enjoy, whereas the Greek government will charge a fee for the privilege of viewing them;
• Fulfilling restitution claims would simply empty world class museums of their collections to countries that do not have the facilities or the local interest in maintaining them;
• The museum is barred by its charter from returning any of its collection.

The Greeks counter by pointing out that:

• Returning the marbles to Athens would not initiate a restitution domino effect as the Parthenon is considered a world cultural phenomenon;
• Precedent for return has already been established as other well-known museums contribute their pieces to the overall reunification;
• The newly opened Acropolis Museum was specifically built to hold these structures in an environmentally controlled climate also designed to show them off in a natural light – something the British Museum does not do.

Seven years ago, an Ipsos MORI poll showed 56% of Britons supporting the return of the marbles (if certain conditions were met) while 7% said no. 37% of those asked were undecided. Perhaps it’s time for another look at determining just where these stones really belong.

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(adapted from Metamorphoses, Book XII ): August 16, 2004
http://www.elginism.com/20090810/2325/

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