The history of the removal of the Acropolis sculptures from Athens

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Summary

In the early 19th century, Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin and British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire (commonly referred to as Elgin), took sculptures from the Acropolis of Athens without permission from the Sultan (Korka, 2010) and shipped them to Britain. At that time, Athens was under Ottoman occupation. The sculptures, today also known as the ‘Elgin Marbles’ but, correctly, referred to the Parthenon Sculptures, as far as the subset that was removed from the Parthenon is concerned, included a number of artistic and architectural pieces, all of which are part of the ancient buildings of the Acropolis of Athens. The sculptures continue to be kept in Britain, despite the request by Greece and supporters from around the world to reunite them in their original geographical, historical, and archaeological context. The state-of-the-art Acropolis Museum in Athens has the capacity to house them all in direct view of the monument.

In 1801 Elgin, the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, removed sculptures from the temples of the Acropolis of Athens without any permission from the Sultan. He shipped the sculptures to Britain, where they continue to be displayed far from their original context. The state-of-the-art Acropolis Museum in Athens is ready to host all of the Acropolis sculptures in one complete exhibition right next to the monument. Image: photograph of the Acropolis of Athens in 1851. A selection of photographs of the Acropolis, courtesy and copyright of the Benaki Museum Photographic Archive, can be viewed here: https://www.acropolisofathens.gr/aoa/benaki/index.html

In 1801, Elgin, the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, removed sculptures from the temples of the Acropolis of Athens without permission from the Sultan. He shipped them to Britain, where they continue to be displayed far from their original context. The state-of-the-art Acropolis Museum in Athens is ready to host all of the Acropolis sculptures in one complete exhibition in direct view of the monument. Image: the Acropolis of Athens in 1851. You can see aphotographic chronicle of the Acropolis from the 19th to the early 20th century in the dedicated AcropolisofAthens.gr gallery (photographs courtesy and copyright of the Benaki Museum Photographic Archive).

What Elgin removed

Elgin removed the majority of the sculptures that adorned the Parthenon. He also dismembered and took parts of the other buildings of the Acropolis. In summary, he took from the Acropolis:

  • from the Parthenon: 247ft of the original 524ft of frieze, 15 of the 92 metopes, 17 pedimental figures and pieces of architecture
  • from the Erechtheion: one of the six Caryatids, a column and architectural members
  • from the Propylaea: architectural members
  • from the temple of Athena Nike: 4 pieces of the frieze and architectural members (Hellenic Ministry of Culture, 2007a).
The buildings on the Acropolis of Athens are: the Propylaea, the temple of Athens Nike, the Erechteion, and the Parthenon. Elgin removed sculptures and/or architectural members from all of these buildings - especially from the Parthenon.

The buildings on the Acropolis of Athens are: the Propylaea, the temple of Athens Nike, the Erechteion, and the Parthenon. Elgin removed sculptures and/or architectural members from all of these buildings and particularly from the Parthenon.

Diagram showing the relative position of the frieze, the metopes and the pediments on the Parthenon (G.Niemann). [Image source: Hellenic Ministry of Culture]

Diagram showing the relative position of the frieze, the metopes and the pediments on the Parthenon (G.Niemann). Image source: Hellenic Ministry of Culture

Schematic overview of the layout of the frieze and metopes of the Parthenon, indicating the parts that are missing from Athens. Note that this schematic does not show the pedimental sculptures, almost all of which were also removed from the temple by Elgin. [Image source: Mantis, 2000.

Schematic overview of the layout of the frieze and metopes of the Parthenon, indicating the parts that are missing from Athens. Note that this schematic does not show the pedimental sculptures, almost all of which were also removed from the temple by Elgin. Image source: Mantis, 2000. “Disjecta Membra. The Plunder & Dispersion of the Antiquities of the Acropolis”. Available online: http://odysseus.culture.gr/a/1/12/ea122.html

External links:

Elgin did not have permission to dismember buildings or temples of the Acropolis, or to detach, cut or remove any parts of them

Elgin did not have permission from the Sultan to commit his deeds (Korka, 2010). According to the available translations of a supposed permit, Elgin’s delegate had a simple letter from a Turkish official, which he managed to get through bribery and pressure. This letter was informal, did not have the Sultan’s signature, and lacked the form or syntax of a firman. Thus, Elgin’s delegate did not have Sultan’s permission to detach or take parts of the Acropolis to Britain. If that was true, then the translation would reflect the characteristics of a firman, which is not the case. The letter simply asked the Turkish provosts in Athens to allow Elgin’s men to enter the Acropolis, draw and make casts, and, in case they found a small fragment of sculpture or inscription in the ruins around the monument, they could remove it (Hellenic Ministry of Culture, 2007b; Korka, 2010). 

Philip Hunt's English translation of the Italian translation of the Ottoman document that was supposedly a 'firman'. The original 'firman' was never found… The English tranlation of the Italian transation shows that the original Turkish document, if one ever existed, was merely a recommendation letter from a lower-rank official (a 'kaymakam'), and not an official permission (a 'firman') from the Sultan. [Image source: http://www.lifo.gr/team/sansimera/34863]

Philip Hunt’s English translation of the Italian translation of the Ottoman document. The original Ottoman document is missing. The English translation of the Italian translation shows that the original Ottoman document, if one ever existed, was merely a recommendation letter from a lower-rank official (a ‘kaymakam’), but not an official permission (a firman) from the Sultan. Image source: http://www.lifo.gr/team/sansimera/34863

Elgin’s acts were unpopular in Athens

Elgin’s acts were unpopular in Athens, as revealed by original memoirs and letters by travellers to Athens in that period (Tomkinson, 2006). The Greeks were practically ignored by Elgin, who literally cut the sculptures off the Parthenon and shipped them to Britain. Elgin bribed the Turkish guards at the Acropolis of Athens, to perform his deeds unobstructed. In exchange for taking the sculptures away, Elgin offered a small tower clock to Athens (in the area of Plaka), which was later burned down by locals. One of the clock arms is still kept in the National History Museum in Athens (in the Old Parliament).

Tomkinson's collection of memoirs and letters (

Tomkinson’s collection of memoirs and letters (“Travellers’ Greece: Memories of an enchanted land”, 2006) provides invaluable insights into the historical, political and emotional context of the removal of the Acropolis sculptures from Athens.

Far from an act of conservation

Elgin was in a critical financial state and, while taking the Parthenon sculptures to Britain was initially a desire to decorate his mansion in Scotland, it was an easy way out of his financial situation.

Edward Dodwell. Southwest View of the Erechtheion (1821). Photo source: Edward Dodwell: Views in Greece, London 1821, p. 39. Available online: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dodwell1821039.jpg

Amongst other Acropolis sculptures, Elgin removed one Caryatid from the Erechtheion, leaving in her place a brick column. Image: Edward Dodwell. Southwest View of the Erechtheion (1821). Image source:
Edward Dodwell: Views in Greece, London 1821, p. 39.
Available online:
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dodwell1821039.jpg

Elgin caused enormous damage to the Parthenon and the other Acropolis buildings

Elgin broke pieces off the Parthenon, cutting their artistic facade off their architectural extension with a saw. He then shipped the artistic part of the sculptures to Britain. He abandoned the architectural parts on the Acropolis, which you can still see today. One of them, on which you can see the saw marks, is displayed in the Acropolis Museum. Elgin’s actions would be totally unacceptable according to today’s conservation standards.

Elgin sawed off the artistic facade of the Parthenon frieze, leaving behind mutilated building parts. This is one of Parthenon's architectural members that were removed and cut with a saw to detach their sculptural decoration. [Image source: Nikolaos Chatziandreou]

Elgin sawed off the artistic facade of the Parthenon frieze, leaving behind mutilated building parts. This is one of Parthenon’s architectural members that were removed and cut with a saw to detach their sculptural decoration. This piece can be seen on the Acropolis today. Image source: Nikolaos Chatziandreou

Elgin’s ship sank and the sculptures were left in sea water for 2 years

On its way to Britain, Elgin’s ship that carried the sculptures, ‘The Mentor’, sank outside the island of Kythera, leaving the Parthenon sculptures in sea water for two years (Pavlou, 2011).

Shipwreck of

Shipwreck of “Mentor”, Elgin’s ship that sank off Kythera in 1802, carrying Acropolis sculptures. Image source: http://krg.org.au/mentor/

Damaging conditions

The sculptures suffered bad treatment by Elgin. They were placed in a dirty, damp shed in his house where he kept them decaying for years. At the end of Elgin’s financially devastating adventures, after an enquiry by the British government which aimed to investigate Elgin’s actions, the British government bought the Acropolis sculptures and kept them in the British Museum. Later, in the 1930s, an erroneous belief by the British Museum curators that the sculptures were and should look again white, led to damaging practices of British Museum staff using metallic brushes to scrape off what later experts realised was the patina. This practice led to irrecoverable loss of part of the details in some of the sculptures.

Greece has been asking for the return fo the sculptures since the 19th century.

The first claim was by King Otto of Greece in the 19th century (decree for the return of the frieze parts of the temple of Athena Nike), followed by the famous claim for their return led by Melina Mercouri (late 20th century). The request by Greece and supporters from around the world for the reunification of the Acropolis Sculptures remains active.

The British Museum refuses to return the sculptures to Athens

Despite the claims, historical facts and scientific reasons for the reunification of the sculptures, the British Museum continues to hold the Acropolis sculptures in London, refusing to reunite them with the matching originals in the Acropolis Museum in Athens.

A jigsaw puzzle is waiting to be completed while the Acropolis sculptures remain divided. In this example: pieces no. XXXII, XXIII and XXXIV from the northern part of the Parthenon frieze. The middle piece is in London, while its matching, adjacent pieces are in Athens. [Image source: Hellenic Ministry of Culture. Available online as a Presentation of the Parthenon Sculptures (ppt) at http://odysseus.culture.gr/a/1/12/ea126.html]

A jigsaw puzzle is waiting to be completed while the Acropolis sculptures remain divided. In this example: pieces no. XXXII, XXIII and XXXIV from the northern part of the Parthenon frieze. The middle piece is in London, while its matching, adjacent pieces are in Athens. Image source: Hellenic Ministry of Culture. Available online as a Presentation of the Parthenon Sculptures at http://odysseus.culture.gr/a/1/12/ea126.html

Britain can return the Acropolis sculptures to Athens by a new Act of the English Parliament.

Public opinion, including the public opinion in the UK, support the return of the sculptures to Athens (polls). The UK can return the Acropolis sculptures to Athens by a new Act of the English Parliament.

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Information sources

Hellenic Ministry of Culture (2007a). The restitution of the Parthenon marbles: The removed sculptures. Athens: Hellenic Ministry of Culture. Retrieved from http://odysseus.culture.gr/a/1/12/ea126.html

Hellenic Ministry of Culture (2007b). The restitution of the Parthenon marbles: The review of the seizure. Athens: Hellenic Ministry of Culture. Retrieved from http://odysseus.culture.gr/a/1/12/ea125.html

Korka, E. (2010). A conversation with Elena Korka – The pillaging of the Parthenon Marbles by Elgin. In C. Koutsadelis (Ed.), DIALOGUES ON THE ACROPOLIS: Scholars and experts talk on the history, restoration and the Acropolis Museum. (English Ed., pp. 278-298). Athens: SKAI BOOKS.

Pavlou, L. (2011, August 10). Research on the Shipwreck “Mentor” Which Carried Elgin Marbles. Greek Reporter. Retrieved from http://greece.greekreporter.com/2011/08/10/research-on-the-shipwreck-mentor-which-carried-elgin-marbles/

Tomkinson, J. M. (2006). Travellers’ Greece: Memories of an enchanted land (Second Edi.). Athens: Anagnosis.

More sources can be found here: The Memorandum of the Greek Government for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles

You can find more information on AcropolisofAthens.gr

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