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History snatched away: is a happy ending in sight for the Parthenon reliefs?


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The Conversation

Javier Andreu

Full Professor of Ancient History and director of Diploma in Archeology

It is November 28th. We are in an exclusive hotel on London's Golden Mile, opposite Beaufort Gardens: the Knightsbridge. A new meeting - leaked by the press -between the chairman of the British Museum's board of trustees , the former English minister George Osborne, and the Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis augurs a happy ending to one of the most famous archaeological controversies of the last 200 years: that of the Parthenon marbles, on display in the British Museum since 1839.

It is a sensational repertoire of metopes and friezes sculpted by Phidias for the architectural symbol of the time when Athens was "the school of all Greece", as stated by its ruler Pericles. Reliefs that, in 1812, Thomas Bruce, Earl of Elgin and English ambassador to Turkey, sold to his government. Greece has consistently demanded their return to Athens but Britain has refused.

How did the reliefs arrive in England?

It all started between 1801 and 1805, as one more manifestation of the colonial procedures that so many countries -especially France, England and Germany- developed in their imperialist policies. Perhaps it helped the state of neglect and withdrawal in which Greece had for centuries the Parthenon.

The reliefs were collected by Thomas Bruce, English ambassador in Athens during the years of the Ottoman domination of this country. The aforementioned official had them in his possession until he went bankrupt and decided to sell them to the English Parliament claiming a document of sale signed by the local sultan. A document that, however, most of the critics consider false.

Although Parliament was divided in the vote - among the votes against was that of the romantic writer Lord Byron -the reliefs were finally purchased. Thus they saved Elgin from ruin and brought to England an archaeological material on a par with that which at the same time France was acquiring for the Louvre and Germany for the Pergamonmuseum or that which, through more or less legitimate purchases, reached the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York or the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. England deposited them in the British Museum -the same one that just a decade ago already had the Egyptian Rosetta Stone-.

Archaeology was then conceived as a collector antiquarianism. It was based on the assumption that the societies of the time improved by contemplating the artistic bequest of the civilizations that were considered the pinnacle of Western culture. Having splendid archaeological materials in museums was a source of cultural pride, even if they were foreign.

Greece claims restitution

When Greece, in the 1920s, regained its autonomy from the Turks, it began to demand the return to Athens of such a distinguished artistic and archaeological repertoire. The arguments - which, above all, intensified from the 1980s onwards and in which UNESCOwas also involved -always coincided in the same, legitimate terms: the pieces left Greece without a regulated sale and the ancient monuments should be contemplated and enjoyed in their primary, unitary context, and not with their disintegrated elements.

Great Britain defended itself against these thesis alleging a legal purchase of Elgin. It also put on the negotiating table the criterion that, of course, should always prevail in heritage matters: to guarantee the conservation of the property above any other circumstance. As in so many other cases, some also in Spain, this argument is part of the very history of the disputed object.

It is true that, at least until 2009, when the new Acropolis Museum was built in Athens, the impressive collection of reliefs seemed to have better preservation conditions more than 3,000 kilometers from the site of their primary context.

Reliefs in the future

We often say that cultural heritage, particularly archaeological heritage, has something of identity. It is a cultural success that communities want to enjoy, in different corners of the world, original archaeological pieces despite the fact that there are ways to generate simple and reliable 3D replicas. This highlights the value we place on heritage as a historical fetish.

When there is no agreement, replicas may be a solution. When there is and, in addition, the claiming state guarantees the conservation of the property, there is no doubt that this is the way to go.

A first step has already been taken in recent weeks by Sicily, which has returned to Athens one of the reliefs of the series in exchange for sculptural and ceramic material from Magna Graecia that belonged to it. Pope Francis, in an act that he has hastened to describe as purely religious, has also given the Greek Orthodox Patriarch a pair of reliefs that were in the Vatican Museums.

2023 will be decisive to know if the reliefs of Phidias that still today are displayed in the British Museum will be exhibited a few meters from where this great Attic sculptor designed them around 460 B.C. The precedent could be very suggestive, although it could also precipitate the dissolution of many of the archaeological collections of the great European museums.