11 December 2022

The Parthenon Marbles and
the destruction of cultural
heritage in times of conflict

Part of the Parthenon frieze in the British Museum (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

There are reports that senior Greek officials have been in ‘preliminary’ talks with the British Museum in what could amount to a tectonic shift in resolving the long-running cultural dispute over the repatriation of the Parthenon marbles to Athens.

Revelations about the negotiations were first reported in Greece last weekend by Ta Nea, which said the Greek Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, and other Greek officials had met George Osborne, the chair of the British Museum, in London hotel in recent days.

Insiders in Athens say the report is ‘not only credible but very exciting.’

The reports in Ta Nea in Athens, the Guardian and the Sunday Times in London, and other newspapers came only days after Kyriakos Mitsotakis told a gathering at the London School of Economics that he ‘sensed’ headway was being made on the issue and that a ‘win-win solution’ was possible. He has made a cultural priority of reunifying the Parthenon marbles in London with the carvings that have remained in Athens.

The row over the marbles has lasted for more than 200 years. The British Museum acquired the antiquities, which include 75 metres of the Parthenon’s original 160-metre-long frieze, in 1816 when Lord Elgin parted with them, having removed them with force and violence, using saws to hack them from the Parthenon on the Acropolis.

Ta Nea reports several behind-the-scenes meetings have taken place in London between Mitsotakis and Osborne, a former British chancellor, and meetings have also involved the Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias and Minister of State Giorgos Gerapetritis.

The dispute over ownership of the sculptures has descended into acrimony, with the Greek Culture Minister accusing Elgin of committing a ‘blatant act of serial theft’.

The British Museum’s deputy director, Jonathan Williams, said earlier this year that the museum was eager to ‘change the temperature of the debate’ after Unesco ruled it imperative that the affair was discussed at an inter-government level. The Museum has described the talks as part of efforts to create ‘a new Parthenon partnership with Greece.’

Four of us visited the British Museum last weekend after lunch earlier in the day in Tas, a Turkish restaurant in Bloomsbury, just a few steps away from the museum.

As we wandered through the museum, it was interesting in one display to read that the deliberate destruction of cultural heritage is today classed as a crime against humanity.

The Acropolis at night, seen from Monastiraki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The long dispute over the Parthenon Marbles, and Britain’s failure to return them for over 200 years, is in sharp contrast to the British Museum’s stand against the looting of archaeological sites and destruction of monuments and museums, which are problems that are particularly extreme during periods of conflict.

One of the sad but often unnoticed consequences of the war in Ukraine is the destruction of Ukraine’s museums, monuments, cultural heritage and archaeological sites. The British Museum says it works closely with the affected countries and British law enforcement agencies, as well as the art trade and with private individuals, to identify and advise on the origin of antiquities believed to have been stolen or illegally exported from abroad.

One showcase displays recently identified examples from Ukraine and Yemen. Careful study and scientific analysis at the museum enables objects like these to be returned to their country of origin.

In recent years, a number of objects acquired by illicit metal detector users in Ukraine have been sold to private collectors in Russia, Germany and Britain. ‘We are facing gigantic transnational looting of Ukrainian heritage which needs to be stopped through common efforts,’ Dr Fyodor Androschuk, director general of the National Museum of History of Ukraine, said last March.

A small collection of metalwork, some recent but mostly of mediaeval date, comes from illegal metal detecting in Ukraine. These objects were posted from Kyiv to England in 2021 with the intention of being sold online. They were seized by the British Border Force, and jointly identified by curators from the British Museum and the National Museum in Kyiv.

Uncontrolled treasure hunting at archaeological sites around the world is causing huge damage and loss of historical information. The British Museum says it works closely with British law enforcement, the art market, colleagues at other museums around the world and others to ensure that stolen or illegally trafficked antiquities are investigated and repatriated to their countries of origin.

Among the exhibitions from Ukraine on display in the British Museum is a collection of pendants and rings, mostly dates about the 1000s to the 1300s.

The cross pendants are connected with Greek Orthodoxy. There are similar crosses from the district of Kyiv in the National Museum of Ukraine, believed to be local copies of prototypes used in the Byzantine Empire centred on Constantinople (modern Istanbul). The disc pendants are widespread in eastern Europe and also show the impact of Christianity on the local population. These objects were probably found in graves or possibly a hoard.

The other objects are finger rings, some also early medieval but others more recent. These pieces will be sent to the National Museum of Kyiv when the current conflict is over.

Culture is fragile yet precious. The safeguarding and neutrality of culture during conflict is crucial to the future rebuilding of society afterwards. The British Museum is working together with other organisations to provide aid and support to museums in Ukraine.

It would be interesting to see similar approaches, values and policies in the British Museum when it comes to returning the Parthenon Marbles to Athens.

A collection of pendants and rings from Ukraine, mostly dating from the 1000s to the 1300s, in the British Museum (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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