The Acropolis Museum, Athens

Some years ago when Greek authorities were trying (again) to convince the British Museum to return the marble sculptures from the roof of the Parthenon (the Elgin Marbles), it was said that should the sculptures be returned, the Greeks didn’t even have a decent place to put them. That stirred people up.

Everything in Athens is built on ruins, these are under the Acropolis Museum

The Acropolis Museum is the Greek response. Completed in 2009, it is a spacious contemporary space tucked in at the foot of the Acropolis. There was a small museum on the Acropolis itself that was chock full of finds from continuing excavation and restoration. The new museum displays many of these items, like votive statues buried to honor Athena, or pottery offered to the various shrines on the Acropolis. As you enter the museum, the main hall is a ramp leading up, lined with cases that show fine examples of pottery, metal work, stone carving, and jewelry. There is information about each type of craft product.

Arriving on the landing of the second floor, you are surrounded by statuary, and there is a lot to see. The highlight for me was the caryatid statues, pillars in the shape of women, that held up the porch of one of the important buildings on the Acropolis, the Erechtheion. The figures are indoors now, and copies have taken their place as porch supports.

The highlight of the museum is intended to be the third/top floor, where the surviving sculptures from the roof of the Parthenon are positioned at eye level. You can see all the detail of the pieces, AND you can see the spaces that are available for the pieces still in London, should a deal ever be struck to return them to Athens. No one can say there isn’t an appropriate place waiting for the fragments of sculpture to be returned.

There is lots more to this story. During the early 1800s, Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, was a diplomatic representative of Britain to the Ottoman Empire, and at the time, the Ottomans controlled Greece. As part of his diplomatic mission, Bruce commissioned drawings of ancient monuments and artifacts in Greece with the goal of making Greek culture more widely appreciated back in Britain. The sculptures called The Elgin Marbles were collected by employees of Bruce from the ruins of the Parthenon.

Original pieces of this frieze are the darker tan color, the paler sculpture is a reproduction. As pieces are found or repatriated, they are added. Sketches made in the 1600s were used to create what is missing.

Have you noticed that the sculptures are all in pieces, sometimes small ones? Explosions from gunpowder stored in different structures on the Acropolis demolished the Propylaea in 1656, and the main structure of the Parthenon under shelling in 1687. When the earl’s artist and laborers began to copy remains on the Acropolis around 1800 (more than 100 years later) they found pieces of sculpture on the ground and began to collect them. The ambitions of the group shifted from copying to recovery, and surviving pieces were collected, taken down from the surviving sections of the roof, and shipped to England. Elgin was eventually investigated for taking the remains illegally. He claimed possession of a firman, or permit, to collect what his people could find. He was cleared of charges in England, and the collection was purchased for the nation in 1816. They’ve been in the British Museum ever since.

That is just the short version of the tale. Shipwreck lost the collection, divers recovered it after three years; Elgin and his wife were crossing France on their return to England when war broke out and he was held prisoner, eventually released with a promise to return to France if required. Elgin’s pregnant wife was allowed to return to England before him, and he got home to find her having an affair with a good friend. He sued both of them, for divorce and monetary damages (and won). He remarried and had an additional seven children, but ended his days back in France, where he moved to escape his creditors. He took a bath on the sale of the marbles, getting paid only half of what it actually cost him to move the sculptures to England. (Does this sound like a curse to you?)

Wikipedia has a lot of detail, and there is controversy among scholars around the world on whether the acquisition of the sculptures was legal in the first place.

In recent years, the repatriation of important works of art to their countries of origin has happened with increasing frequency, but in the case of the Elgin Marbles, the UK is a holdout.

Recently, Pope Francis decided the Vatican would return the three chunks of the Parthenon frieze that were in its museum. The pieces are not that large, but the precedent is important.

Another tiny piece of the sculpture was returned to Greece from Sicily in 2022. The fragment was originally obtained by the collector and British consul to Sicily in 1809, Robert Fagan, who bequeathed it to his wife. She sold it to the Royal Museum of the University of Palermo, an entity from which the Regional Archaeological Museum was formed and from where the piece was returned.

And so it goes. The Acropolis Museum stands ready to receive its ancient patrimony, if and when ongoing secret negotiations between Greece and the UK lead to an agreement. The museum is well worth a visit, and there could be a great adventure novel written about the sculptures.


Published by winifredcreamer

I am a retired archaeologist and I like to travel, especially to places where you can walk along the shore or watch birds. My husband Jonathan and I travel for more than half the year every year, seeing all the places that we haven't gotten to yet.

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