Parthenon Marbles Damaged by Vandals, British Museum Cleaning


Elgin Marbles, also known as the Parthenon Marbles, at the British Museum. (Photo by Eurokinissi/Marcos Houzouris)

LONDON - One of the British Museum’s most oft-cited reasons for keeping the stolen Parthenon Marbles since 1816 - saving them from pollution - has been undercut by an analysis claiming they have been damaged by cleaning methods and chipped at by vandals.

The marbles were ripped off the edifice of the Parthenon by a Scottish diplomat, Lord Elgin - who said he took them with permission of officials from the occupying Ottoman Empire, who didn’t own them.

A new study of detailed plaster casts made of many of the artworks, commissioned by Lord Elgin in 1802, suggests many from the west frieze of the Parthenon were in a better condition then, than they are today.

Victorian-era “vandals” had chipped away at the faces of the sculptures and deliberately left chisel marks, Emma Payne, a specialist in classics and archaeological conservation based at King’s College London, discovered, said INews.

She defended the theft as necessary to ultimately protect the sculptures - not mentioning that the Acropolis Museum opened in 2009 with a top floor designed to show them off if returned, under the Acropolis.

Payne compared the casts with present-day 3D scans of the west frieze, now in the Acropolis Museum in Athens, and found features that had subsequently been lost, said the site’s report.

“The obvious conclusion to draw is that there was a period of particularly rapid deterioration between 1802 and 1872,” she wrote, and a second set of casts, commissioned by the British Museum in 1872, found more likely damage caused in the previous 70 years than the next 120.

The study, published in Antiquity magazine, meant that more than a century of Greek traffic pollution had actually caused less harm than the Victorian “vandals” who damaged them, although it wasn’t described why or how. “It is noteworthy that the decay of the sculptures appears to have slowed during the 20th Century precisely when problems with sulphurous emissions and acid rain were most acute,” said Payne.

The British Museum, whose director Hartwig Fischer, said the theft was a “creative act,” keeps changing the reasons why it keeps them and said they were taken legally and not removed because of a conflict or violence without mentioning Greece was occupied when they were taken.