Letter from Athens
By Patrick Comerford
A brush fire broke out recently in the ancient Agora at the foot of the Acropolis in Athens, briefly threatening 2,500-year old monuments before being brought under control.
Tourists watched as fire fighters battled burning trees and bushes inside the site that was the ancient market and meeting place of Athens, and smoke billowed up towards the Acropolis and the Parthenon.
Temperatures and winds have caused hundreds of forest fires throughout Greece this summer, and the fire at the foot of the Acropolis came only weeks after the long dispute over the Parthenon Marbles grew more heated. In a new book, the British historian William St Clair claims cleaners at the British Museum irreparably damaged them 60 years ago by scrubbing them with metal scrapers.
As St Clair’s book was being published, the British government once again rejected renewed demands from the Greek Culture Minister, Mr Evangelos Venizelos, for an international commission to decide the fate of the Parthenon Marbles, known in the museum as the Elgin Marbles.
Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, was British ambassador to the Ottoman Court in Istanbul when he stripped much of the surviving inner frieze and most of the pediment sculptures from the Parthenon, shipped them off to England in 1802, and sold them to the British Museum in 1816.
Elgin had stretched the powers of an Ottoman permit allowing him to collect inscriptions and slabs from the Acropolis, and in their rushed efforts his crews greatly damaged the temple.
“Instead of removing things slowly and safely they hacked away and mutilated,” says Dr Manolis Korres, the architect in charge of a major restoration project at the Acropolis. “They pushed three-tonne ledges from 15 metres high, shattering them and damaging the base of the temple.”
St Clair alleges the damage caused to the marbles 60 years ago was covered up by the trustees of the British Museum. Over a period of 15 months from 1938 to 1939, the marbles were cleaned by workers who used copper tools to remove what they believed was dirt but was in reality the honey-coloured patina of the surface.
The museum standing committee found that “through improper efforts to improve the colour of the Parthenon sculpture … some important pieces had been greatly damaged”, and disciplinary action was taken against two officials. Frederick Pryce, then keeper of Greek and Roman antiquities, was given leave to retire because of ill-health, and his assistant, Roger Hinks, who later resigned, was formally reprimanded for neglect of duty.
It is generally believed the cleaning was ordered by Sir John Soames, then director of the British Museum, at the request of Lord Duveen, who had commissioned a new gallery to house the sculptures.
However, in public the museum denied using a blunt copper tool. In a letter to the Times in 1939, George Hill claimed the cleaning method involved only soap and water and any resulting damage was imperceptible to the untrained eye. But Arthur Holcombe, the museum's chief cleaner, later admitted that when a solution of soap and water and ammonia had failed “to get some of the dirtier spots, I rubbed the marbles with a blunt copper tool.”
A new controversy over the cleaning of the marbles surfaced in 1983, when the museum was accused of speeding up the process of decay by coating the caryatid with a supposedly protective plastic. That year, the then Greek Minister of Culture, Melina Mercouri, began a vigorous campaign for the return of the marbles, saying: “I believe the time has come for these marbles to come home to the blue skies of Attica.”
Her successor, Mr Venizelos, says: “The request for the restitution of the Parthenon Marbles is not made by the Greek government in the name of the Greek nation or of Greek history. It is made in the name of the cultural heritage of the world and with the voice of the mutilated monument itself, that cries out for its marbles to be returned.”
In Britain, the campaign to have the marbles restored to Greece has received the support of writers such as Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis, Christopher Hitchens, Tariq Ali and John Fowles.
However, the British Museum and government insist the marbles will stay in London, although previous Labour leaders, including Neil Kinnock and Michael Foot, supported their return.
Earlier this year, the Mail on Sunday claimed the British Culture Secretary, Chris Smith, had said in private he was sympathetic to calls for the return of the marbles. Former arts minister, Mark Fisher, is a known supporter of the demand to return the marbles. A long-awaited Acropolis Museum is being built near the Parthenon to house the marbles, and Mr Fisher believes Greece has now met many of the British objections to their return.
In recent years Greece has demonstrated a commitment to preserving its archaeological heritage. Alarmed by the rapid crumbling of the Minoan palace at Knossos, archaeologists in Crete are trying to rescue the 5,000-year-old site from further damage by the millions of tourists who visit it each year in search of a unique glimpse of Europe's oldest civilisation. A 700 million drachma (£1.6 million) restoration project is expected to be completed by the end of the century.
Last month it was announced that the five marble lions on the island of Delos, prized as beacons of Greek antiquity, are to be moved indoors to save them from salt erosion and pollution. The lions, dating from 700 BC, will be replaced by copies next year.
But the most ambitious restoration programme in Greece is currently under way on the Acropolis.
Of the 97 surviving blocks of Parthenon frieze, 56 are in Britain and 40 in Athens; of the 64 surviving metopes, 18 are in Athens and 15 in the British Museum; in many cases, half a sculpture is in Athens and the other half in the British Museum.
Mr Venizelos says: “The most important monument of Western civilisation is mutilated. The Parthenon itself demands its marbles back.”
Roger Casement once wrote:
Give back the Elgin marbles, let them lie
Unsullied, pure beneath the Attic sky.
The smoky fingers of our northern clime
More ruin work than all ancient time …
Give back the marbles, let them vigil keep
Where art still lies, over Pheidias’ tomb
The marbles form an inseparable part of the Parthenon and their restitution would restore the unity of the decoration and the architectural cohesion of the monument. The 2004 Olympics in Athens would provide an ideal opportunity to return the Parthenon Marbles to Greece.
This ‘Letter from Athens’ was first published in ‘The Irish Times’ on 4 August 1998
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