Wednesday, July 17, 2024
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Losing our Marbles


THE recent decision to return artefacts to Africa inevitably reminds us of the seemingly perpetual debate regarding the sculptures known as the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum. In 2014, Peter Hitchens wrote in his Mail on Sunday column: ‘We rescued them from the Ottomans. We’ve guarded them well. But now their home is safe again, and we have had them for long enough.’ 

Would it really be a case of giving them ‘back’? Back to whom? Geographically speaking, undoubtedly they would be ‘returning’, since the intention is to house them in a museum in Athens near the Parthenon. But in what other sense would this be a return? The civilisation which produced these masterpieces is long gone. Given the long and complex histories across the whole of the Balkans, who can say that the modern political entity currently referred to as Greece (actually Hellenic Republic) is the unarguable cultural descendant of those ancient city states? 

Civilisations which disintegrate and disappear do not return. All that does remain is the evidence of their scholarship and the objects they created, and in this the achievements of the various ancient Greek city-states were nurtured and kept alive by the academic devotion of scholars in Northern Europe. Without that devotion over many centuries, much would have been lost for ever and much would never have been discovered. Because of this, it could be argued that the connection between ancient Athenian society and modern Greece is more a matter of a geographical coincidence than one of cultural continuity, since ancient Greek culture and the people who created it were subsequently dispersed widely over Eastern Europe and Asia Minor. 

The present Hellenic Republic is a relatively recent creation and it is surely, at the very least, debatable whether it has an unarguable right to claim sole entitlement to objects which were created by a long-disappeared civilisation. Lost through successive conquests over a thousand years, and in the case of the Parthenon marbles rescued by an Englishman from destruction by a hostile Islamic culture which not only failed to recognise their value, but worse, condemned them as sacrilegious.

What is certain is had they remained in place on what was left of the ruined Parthenon in 1806, they would barely exist today. Certainly they would be in nothing like the condition they enjoy as a result of having been rescued and kept safe in the British Museum. And not just because of the danger of further vandalism by the occupying Ottoman army. 

I visited the Acropolis in 1962 on a school trip, and a relatively recent TV documentary on the work being done to restore the Parthenon contained one chilling observation. Owing to the high levels of sulphur dioxide in the air of Athens, the whole of the Acropolis has been eroded more in the years since I saw it than in the entire preceding 2,000-year period of its existence. Being removed from a derelict Ottoman army ammunition dump was the Elgin Marbles’ lucky day.

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Brian Meredith
Brian Meredith
Brian Meredith is a retired graphic designer who grew up in the Midlands but has lived in Devon for over forty years. A semi-professional musician since his early teenage years, these days his main interests are writing and recording his compositions in a modest home studio.

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