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The modern history of the Acropolis sculptures

(19th century on)

In a nutshell

In the early 19th century, Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin and British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire (commonly referred to as Elgin), removed 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 as the Parthenon Sculptures (as far as the sculptures removed from the Parthenon are concerned), included a number of artistic and architectural pieces, all of which are part of the ancient buildings of the Acropolis of Athens. Today, the sculptures continue to be kept in Britain, despite the request by Greece and supporters from around the world to bring them back to Athens in their original geographic, historical, and archaeological context. The state-of-the-art Acropolis Museum in Athens has the capacity to house them all in optimal conditions, in direct view of the monument.

In 1801, Elgin, the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, removed sculptures from the buildings of the Acropolis of Athens without permission from the Sultan. He shipped them to Britain where they continue to be displayed, half, and far from their original context. The state-of-the-art Acropolis Museum in Athens was designed to host all of the Acropolis sculptures together in one complete exhibition and in direct view of the actual monument. Image: the Acropolis of Athens in 1851. You can see a Photo chronicle of the Acropolis in the dedicated gallery.

What Elgin removed from the Acropolis

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

(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 and, mostly, from the Parthenon.
Diagram showing the relative position of the frieze, the metopes and the pediments on the Parthenon (G.Niemann). 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 diagram 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”. Source: Hellenic MInistry of Culture

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 detach or remove parts of the Acropolis buildings (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. The original Ottoman document is missing. The English translation of the Italian translation shows that the original Ottoman document, if any such document ever existed, was merely a recommendation letter from a lower-rank official (a ‘kaymakam’), but not an official permission (a firman) from the Sultan. Source: Lifo magazine ⧉

Elgin’s acts were unpopular in Athens

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.

Elgin’s acts were unpopular in Athens, as revealed by original memoirs and letters from European travellers to Athens in that period (Tomkinson, 2006). The Greeks were practically ignored by Elgin who arranged to have the sculptures literally cut off the Parthenon and shipped to Britain. Elgin bribed the Turkish guards at the Acropolis of Athens, to proceed according to his wishes unobstructed. 

Elgin tried to control the reaction of the locals

In exchange for taking the sculptures away, in an effort to calm down the local community, Elgin offered a small clock tower to Athens (1811) which was later burned down by the locals (1884).

The location of the Tower of Elgin is indicated in this 19th-century map (item #24 on the map).

Far from an act of conservation

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

You can find documentaries explaining Elgin motive's in Films & Videos.

In the early 19th century, amongst other Acropolis sculptures, Elgin removed one Caryatid from the Erechtheion, leaving in her place a brick column (you can see it in the image above). Image: Edward Dodwell. Southwest View of the Erechtheion (1821). Image source:Edward Dodwell: Views in Greece, London 1821, p. 39.Source: Wikimedia
The Erechtheion, today, with replicas of the Caryatids holding the iconic porch. In the early 19th century, before Elgin's arrival, the porch would have looked like this. Today, the original Caryatids are in museums: five Caryatids are in the Acropolis Museum at the foot of the Acropolis; and one Caryatid, removed by Elgin in the early 1800s, is still in London.

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.

Documentaries about the impact of Elgin's act on the Acropolis are available in the Films & Videos section.

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.

Elgin’s ship sank leaving the sculptures 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 Acropolis sculptures in sea water for two years (Pavlou, 2011).

Shipwreck of “Mentor”, Elgin’s ship that sank off Kythera in 1802, carrying Acropolis sculptures. Source: Kytherian Research Group

Elgin brought the sculptures to 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 delicate details on the surface of a number of the sculptures, also taking into account the relative significance of the portion lost in comparison to how thin the sculptural relief is.

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

The first claim was by Otto (Othon), King of Greece, in the 19th century (24 June/6 July 1836, Royal Decree #125/46; General State Archives) 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 continues today, gaining increasing support also from the public in the UK (see links below).

The British Museum has refused to return the sculptures to Athens

Despite the historical facts, scientific reasons, popular claims, and ethical basis 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. Source: Greek Ministry of Culture, presentation of the Parthenon Sculptures

Moving forward: Britain can return the Acropolis sculptures to Athens by a new Act of the English Parliament

The public opinion, including the public opinion in the UK, supports the return of the sculptures to Athens. The UK can return the Acropolis sculptures to Athens by a new Act of the English Parliament.

The public opinion is increasingly showing their support for the return of the sculptures to Athens

Watch τhe debate Send them back: The Parthenon Marbles should be returned to Athens' (Intelligence Squared Debate, Cadogan Hall, London, 11 June 2012; broadcast by the BBC)

Source: Intelligence Squared

Read more:


Hellenic Ministry of Culture (2007a). The restitution of the Parthenon marbles: The removed sculptures. Athens: Hellenic Ministry of Culture. Retrieved from

Hellenic Ministry of Culture (2007b). The restitution of the Parthenon marbles: The review of the seizure. Athens: Hellenic Ministry of Culture. Retrieved from

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

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

More sources can be found in the Memorandum of the Greek Government for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles.

Additional information is available in the Library, specifically in the:

Perspective: A brief timeline of the complete history of the Acropolis

>> Click here to view the history timeline of the Acropolis Sculptures <<

Roman emperors used the Acropolis to display themselves as figures of power. Pausanias, an ancient traveller, wrote about the Acropolis.

More information

The fragment had been removed from the Acropolis by her great uncle, a naval officer, in 1896. 


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