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Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Greece’s Elgin Marbles ‘swap’ would be a bad deal for Britain

From the Greek perspective this attachment to the marbles is understandably difficult to fathom. There is a wonderful purpose-built gallery in the Acropolis Museum where they could be displayed more vibrantly than they are at present in the British Museum. The gods carved into stone are not ours. No one can even agree what’s going on between the figures on the main frieze. 

In this debate, sadly, the art itself is inconsequential. Consider the gold death mask described above. It continues to be known as the Mask of Agamemnon even though we now know that it dates to the 16th century BC, almost half a millennium before Agamemnon was supposed to have led his troops into battle. Ancient artworks all too easily become what we want them to be. 

For right, or for wrong, the Parthenon Marbles, to give them their proper name, are the antiquities upon which the most ideals have been hung. For some who seek to keep them in London, they are not simply symbols of democracy and victory, as they were for the Greeks of Periclean Athens, but of national pride. As generous as the offer to send the mask and bronze is, such an exchange is unlikely to resolve the dispute, because the argument fails to grasp the significance of the marbles in this country, a significance that is, in practical terms, broadly irrational. 

It has recently been shown that many of the plaster casts Elgin made of the marbles preserve more detail than the originals, which were subject to further weathering. And yet, emotionally, an original will always be favoured over a copy. As the debate rumbles on, with no obvious way forward, we could do worse than to do something really radical, and look afresh at the marbles for the quality of their art alone.  

Daisy Dunn is the author of Of Gods and Men: 100 Stories from Ancient Greece and Rome

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