In 1801, a member of the British aristocracy named Lord Elgin was part of an archeological trip to Greece in order to survey, record, and study Greek artifacts of great artistic value. According to the Guardian, over the course of 11 years between 1801 and 1812, Lord Elgin and various representatives in his employ ended up taking much of what they had originally intended to study. They ultimately removed about half of the surviving sculptures and carvings at the Parthenon at the time as well as assorted sculptures and carvings from other famous Athenian sites.
Elgin’s actions were controversial back in Britain with some prominent individuals, such as the famous poet Lord Byron, likening his actions to vandalism or looting, even eulogizing the plundering of the Parthenon in some of his poetic writing. In response to these complaints and accusations, Elgin claimed to have gotten permission from the Sublime Porte, the Ottoman rulers of Greece at the time, to take the sculptures and carvings. No such records can be found in the archives of the Ottoman Empire, and the copy of the document that Elgin had in his possession is of dubious authenticity. The legitimacy of the document is doubted because he was unable to produce the original letter, only an english translation of an italian translation. Elgin eventually sold all the Elgin, or Parthenon Marbles to the British government in 1816 and they were placed in the British Museum, where they still reside today.
Ever since 1832, when Greece became fully independent, the Greek government has been continuously demanding the return of the Parthenon Marbles that were acquired by Lord Elgin. The British government has repeatedly refused to return the pieces. Due to the finalization of Brexit, the United Kingdom is currently going through the process of negotiating a trade deal with the European Union for access to the European Single Market. The Parthenon Marbles have recently become a significant talking point in these negotiations. CBS News reports that the most recent trade deal draft included an addition that demanded Britain return unlawfully acquired cultural artifacts as part of the negotiations and the granting of access. Though this addition does not mention the Parthenon Marbles specifically, it was added to the draft by Greece with the support of Italy.
British government officials have again flatly denied the possibility of returning the marbles, as in the eyes of the government, they were legally acquired and do not fall under the purview of the added clause. According to CBS News, a spokesperson for the British museum recently stated that “The Parthenon Sculptures were legally acquired and help us to tell the story of human history presented at the Museum.” Though both museum and government officials reject the idea of the return of the Parthenon Marbles, the ongoing trade negotiations with the EU may not leave them with much choice.
Joseph Doner – Political Editor