Elgin Marbles – Cleaned or Vandalised?

Feb 18, 2022 | Bible Archeology | 0 comments

“Melina Mercouri, thou shoulds’t have lived to see this hour” or words to that effect, for the fiery Greek Minister for Culture, who was unrelenting in her demand that the Elgin Marbles be returned to their homeland, would have regarded the latest revelations concerning the famous sculptures as confirming her argument that they were better off in Greece.

The Elgin Marbles are a series of reliefs that come from high up under the eves of the Parthenon, the famous Temple of Athena in Athens. They depict the annual procession when the people of Athens presented the monumental statue of the goddess with a new robe and show the various participants in this procession in lively and informative detail.

The priceless marble statues were brought to Britain between 1803 and 1812 when Lord Elgin discovered that they were being torn down from the Parthenon and burned to make lime. The culprits were ignorant Greek peasants, who saw in this treasure of their heritage nothing more than a convenient source of fertiliser and whitewash.

Of course Lord Elgin had to “satisfy” the local officials and as Greece was ruled by the Ottoman empire at the time, these officials were all Turks. Although there was nothing underhand or illegal about what Lord Elgin did, this fact has been the basis of Greek claims that the marbles were “stolen” from Greece.

The Marbles arrived in Britain courtesy of the Royal Navy and were put on display in the British Museum, where they aroused great enthusiasm. Artists and scholars came from all over the world to study these products of ancient Greece and admire the purity of their line and the genius of their creation. It was unfortunate that some of the pieces were discoloured by age and even by traces of what seemed to be a sort of paint, but what could you expect of carvings that old?

A few years later Greece attained independence from Turkey and almost at once nationalists began to agitate for the return of what they naturally viewed as “national treasures”. The Trustees of the British Mueseum, equally naturally, retorted that had it not been for Lord Elgin, the precious Marbles would long ago have been turned into lime and that they were far better off in the civilised atmosphere of the capital of the British Empire than in the uncertain conditions that prevailed in a newly independent country.

This argument only gained persuasiveness in the post-war years, when political unrest in Greece made every-one’s future uncertain, let alone that of ancient stones. More recently Museum authorities have pointed to the terrible atmospheric pollution in Athens and its detrimental effects on the rest of the Parthenon, as an argument for keeping the Marbles in Britain, where they were better off.

Now the republication by the Oxford University Press of a book by William St Clair, Lord Elgin and the Marbles threatens to destroy forever the claim that the Marbles are better off in Britain.

William St Clair reveals that in 1939 Lord Duveen generously provided a special gallery in which the Elgin Marbles could be displayed. To fit in with the spacious, light-filled hall he was building, he asked that the Marbles should be cleaned. Indeed, “asked” is probably too delicate a word: under the mistaken impression that all ancient statues were pure white marble, he pressured the Museum management into undertaking the task and actually set some of his workmen to work alongside Museum staff.

Your average British builder is probably as sensitive to ancient sculpture as the average Greek peasant, and these horny-handed sons of toil set to with a will to scrape the stones clean and reveal the pure white marble beneath the layers of grime and paint. They used a variety of metal scrapers as well as carborundum stone and were indeed successful in presenting an admiring public – to say nothing of Lord Duveen himself – with the gleaming white marble of their dreams.

Unfortunately, dreams is all they were. To the ancient Greeks, as to the Egptians before them, the stone or wood of the statue was merely a base on which they could paint a more realistic portrayal of their subject. Hair was painted black, skin a light-brown flesh colour, clothes were patterned in gaudy hues. Ancient temples, which we today see as glowing, golden stone, were originally a riot of colour. There is no doubt that some, at least, of the colouration that so distressed Lord Duveen, was traces of the original paint applied by the hands of the ancient Greek artists themselves, and scholars today would give their back teeth to have such information available. Not only could they reconstruct the original appearance of the Marbles, but they could use modern techniques to analyse the pigment.

At some point in the proceedings the Trustees of the British Museum became aware of what was happening to their prize exhibit. There was a high-level investigation and a number of senior staff were disciplined, two or three retired early or were sacked, but 1939 was a fraught time. The next item on the agenda of the meeting that discussed this “cleaning” was “Air-raid precautions”. Although the Trustees issued a full report, which was even mentioned in parliament, it was lost in the pressure of events as Britain and Europe plunged into war.

Now St Clair’s book has revived the story, claiming that there was a cover-up and that the damage done to the Marbles was extensive. Andrew Hamilton, head of Press Relations at the British Museum, told me that although the the methods used in the “cleaning” were not approved by the Trustees of the Museum, the word “damage” is an exaggeration and that there is not and never has been a cover-up.

Indeed, in order to demonstrate the Museum’s openness in the matter, the Trustees of the British Museum are to invite Mr St Clair to a meeting at which he can discuss his allegations with Museum staff and with other experts in the field. These discussions may take the form of a seminar, with St Clair being invited to give one of the presentations. The conclusions of this meeting will be published in full and will probably appear on the British Museum web-site, which can be found at:


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