Monday, 10 October 2011

Introducing the Elgin Marbles

Lord Elgin
One of the many removed Parthenon Marbles
 This post is related to this week’s and last week’s discussions of looting and the “ethically correct” owner’s of looted objects. The controversy of the Parthenon Marbles can be used to determine the negative role of looting in history and how it still affects the modern archaeology of Greece today. This post will introduce the controversy of the Elgin or Parthenon Marbles.

In 1799 Thomas Bruce, the seventh Earl of Elgin, was appointed as British ambassador to the Ottoman government. In his new position, Bruce began travelling to Athens and it was here that he became intrigued with the Parthenon and, consequently, became involved with what some would call looting. In April of 1801, Elgin’s plan surpassed making copies and representations, he now wished to collect a few scattered pieces of the Parthenon. Elgin devoted himself and all of his efforts towards removing as much of the Parthenon marbles as he possibly could manage and sending them back to England.

In July 1801 Elgin was granted a firman, or ‘official letter’, by the Ottoman Sultan which allowed him to continue his work on the Parthenon without any pressing legal conflict. Translations have revealed that the firman authorized Elgin to ‘remove some stones with inscriptions and figures,’ not to violently remove sculptures from the Parthenon. There still remains a considerable amount of doubt around what the firman actually allowed Elgin to do.

This particular event in history can be related to Julian’s stance as an antiques dealer. Elgin can be considered an antiques dealer of a sort. He was collecting important artifacts from the Parthenon for a British museum collection. Elgin sought the most beautiful and artistic pieces from the Parthenon and sent them back to England to be put on display. Elgin’s actions were essentially those of an antiques dealer, so are his actions justified in that sense?

I personally think that Elgin was justified in his actions as an art collector, but succeeded in destroying a very important part of Greece’s history. His removal of the marbles was not in any way archaeological and he therefore can be considered a looter. There are many questions and problems that surround his actions. Hence, I feel that it is important to analyze this event from more than just an archaeological perspective.

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