The dispute over the Parthenon carvings escalated after Greece rejected a claim by the British Museum that much of the statuary, removed at Lord Elgin’s request, was salvaged ‘from the rubble’ around the monument .
The claim, made at a Unesco meeting on Friday, added a new twist to the long-running cultural row and came just days after it emerged the UK was willing to discuss Greece’s request for the ancient sculptures to be reunited with other treasures in Athens. .
“Much of the frieze has actually been removed from the rubble around the Parthenon,” museum deputy director Dr Jonathan Williams told the annual meeting of the World Heritage body’s intergovernmental committee for the promotion. the return of cultural property. “These items were not all hacked from the building as suggested.”
Activists, citing witnesses from the time, have long argued that the carvings were violently detached from the 5th-century BC temple using marble saws with the knowledge of Elgin, then Britain’s ambassador to the Ottoman empire. The use of saws and other machinery figured prominently in correspondence between the Scottish diplomat and Giovanni Battista Lusieri, the Italian painter whom he entrusted with overseeing the removal of the antiquities in 1801.
In a letter, Lusieri begged Elgin “to send a dozen marble saws of various sizes to Athens as soon as possible”.
In a statement to The Guardian on Sunday, Greek Culture Minister Lina Mendoni accused Elgin of committing serial theft.
“Over the years, the Greek authorities and the international scientific community have demonstrated with unwavering arguments the true events surrounding the removal of the Parthenon sculptures,” she said. “Lord Elgin used illicit and unfair means to seize and export the Parthenon Sculptures, without proper legal authority to do so, in a gross act of serial theft.”
Lusieri admitted in a letter written to Elgin in 1802 that he had “been forced to be a little barbaric” during an operation to dislodge a carved relief panel, or metope, depicting a woman abducted by a centaur from the temple.
The British Museum, which purchased the antiquities from the peer in 1816, has 15 metopes, 17 pediment figures and 75 meters of the original 160-metre-long frieze in its collections. Much of the remaining statuary – considered the culmination of classical art – is in Athens, on display in a purpose-built museum at the foot of the Acropolis.
The latest row comes after Greece reinvigorated their campaign to reunite the masterpieces. His Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, brought the issue to the fore during Downing Street talks with Boris Johnson in November. The new disc is widely seen as having put the British Museum on the defensive.
Responding to Williams’ claims, renowned classical archaeologist, Anthony Snodgrass, said there was no doubt that Lusieri’s first target – the metopes on the south side of the Parthenon – had been “violently detached” and invoked the horrified accounts of travelers who had witnessed what he called “irreparable damage” inflicted on the building.
Snodgrass, who is honorary chairman of the UK committee for the return of the Parthenon Marbles, said a lack of documentary evidence made it ‘impossible to quantify or even substantiate’ what proportion of the sculptures were in the midst of the ruins during the four years that Elgin’s team worked on the site. But it remained indisputable that in his quest to acquire as much statuary and sculpture as possible, parts had been amputated from the monument.
“To reduce the weight of transport, Lusieri had the backs of most of the blocks sawn off and thrown away, so as to keep intact only the sculpted face”, he said of the monumental frieze which depicts the procession. of the Panathenaic Festival and is considered a sublime example of poetry in stone.
“By itself, this does not mean that each block first had to be lowered from its place on the upper part of the building; but the state of preservation of the great majority of the slabs in the British Museum is surely sufficient to show that they had not been dropped from 40 feet above, but had been carefully detached and lowered, to be sawn to the ground. All in all, it’s wrong to say that much of what Elgin took was already on the field.
The deputy director of the British Museum admitted the Acropolis monuments were now wonderfully preserved, but said Greece’s desire to see the antiquities reunited was impossible because so much had been destroyed by the time Elgin arrived in Athens.
“There will never be a magical moment of reunification as half the Parthenon sculptures are lost forever, half the sculptures were destroyed in the late 17th century long before Elgin was active in Athens.”
Mendoni insisted that in an international environment where treasures were increasingly being repatriated to their countries of origin, the campaign would continue.
Italy last week said Athens may forever keep a fragment torn from the Parthenon’s eastern frieze depicting the foot of the goddess Artemis peeking from beneath a beautifully crafted tunic. The shoe-sized artifact had long been on display at the Antonio Salinas Archaeological Museum in Palermo.
“Greece,” she said, “stands ready to engage in honest and sincere dialogue with the United Kingdom in good faith within the legal framework and ethical context set by the recommendations and decisions of Unesco.”