For two centuries Great Britain and Greece have fought over artifacts taken from the Acropolis. In Athens, the matter of the Elgin Marbles is complicated.

Ancient stones around the Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens, Greece.

Ancient stones at the Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens, Greece. (Credit: tilialucida)

We climbed to the top of the Acropolis to see some stones.

It was winter in Athens, Greece and the olive trees bore only the fruits of summer, long since shriveled on their branches. In the streets of Lycabettus, the oranges were sour even if you touched them and then licked your fingers.

Cats weaved through crumbles of marble that made up what was once the greatest stronghold on top of the greatest city in civilization.

The Acropolis can be seen from nearly anywhere in Athens. Lit up at night, it serves as both a reminder of the ancient empire and the symbol of a new Greece.

At the top of the Acropolis sits the remains of the Parthenon Temple, dedicated to Athena, goddess of war. Its booming columns remain, but there is no roof. There are the caryatid ladies of stone, their braids and bellies poised against the wind, but missing is Helios with a chariot in tow, ready to raise and set the Sun. There is space for a pediment, but no statues.

This is where the lost stones once lived.

The remains of a great city

In January 2024, I traveled to Athens with my Greek classics seminar at New York University. We came to study a civilization whose stone art now inhabits museums across the world, but whose most famous remains sit on top of the Acropolis.

Literally meaning the “high city” in Greek, the Acropolis boasts a series of architectural gems: the Propylaea gate, the small temple of Athena Nike, the Erechtheion temple and the Parthenon make up the most visible structure in Athens.

But in many ways, this structure is incomplete.

Caryatid columns, depicting maiden ladies, serve as a symbolic protection of their goddess Athena. One of the six original caryatids is now at the British Museum in London.

Caryatid columns, depicting maiden ladies, serve as a symbolic protection of their goddess Athena. One of the six original caryatids is now at the British Museum in London, alone.

Five of six original caryatid columns, depicting maiden ladies, serve as a symbolic protection of their goddess Athena. (Credit: Kaja Andrić)

The sixth Caryatid from the Erechtheum on display at the British Museum.

The sixth caryatid from the Erechtheum on display at the British Museum. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Cashing in on cultural vandalism

Some 200 years before I stood at the Parthenon’s base, Thomas Bruce 7th Lord Elgin, a British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, arrived to find it in crippling condition.

Greece was ruled by the Ottomans and the Parthenon had already been converted into a church, munitions storeroom and mosque. Historians acknowledge that Elgin saw the temple treated with “indifference.” Elgin wondered: What if he took some bits and pieces home to London and kept them safe?

With a permit, Elgin ended up with blocks of crown moulding, friezes, fragmented statues from the walls, the northeast column, an anta capital and pediment sculptures of the Parthenon, which he sold to the British royals for £35,000 pounds or roughly £4.5 million today.

In 1832, 16 years later, Greek independence from the Ottomans kickstarted a series of demands still unmet: Return the Elgin Marbles to the Parthenon.

Today, the pieces — commonly referred to as the Elgin Marbles or Parthenon Sculptures — are in the British Museum of London.

The term Elginism has come to define cultural vandalism — when one country, generally wealthier, takes cultural treasures from another nation.

Stonewalling negotiations

Professor Liana Theodoratou directs the A.S. Onassis Program in NYU’s Hellenic Studies. She has known about Elginism since she was a little girl in elementary school. Growing up in Athens, it was largely because of the Elgin Marbles themselves.

“It’s a complicated issue, you know?” Theodoratou said, laughing at the word “complicated.”

For two centuries the governments of Great Britain and Greece have been involved in tumultuous negotiations, the latest of which occurred in London in January 2023.

That last round was fueled by the announcement in December 2022 by Pope Francis that the Vatican would return several Parthenon pieces.

Theodoratou understands that many museums were formed on the basis of Elginism and art colonialism.

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Annabel Prunty (right), Professor Theodoratou (middle), and I (left) pose in front of the Parthenon, which on this day sat below looming clouds.<br />

Annabel Prunty (right), Professor Theodoratou (middle) and Kaja Andrić (left) pose in front of the Parthenon. (Photo courtesy of Kaja Andrić)

The pride of nations

The Elgin Marbles have come to define the British Museum as other prized art jewels define other museums — the Mona Lisa at the Louvre and the Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example.

But the missing marble from the Parthenon’s east pediment — its triangular front — is an essential part of Greek identity, as much as when ancient Athenians worshiped the gods.

“I also believe it’s nice to have them in the context of where they belong,” Theodoratou said, referencing the pieces’ return to the Parthenon, and sighed.

Apologists for Lord Elgin frequently cite the condition of the Parthenon when Elgin found it.

Although a museum to house excavated pieces from the Acropolis has existed since 1863, a modern Acropolis Museum, 300 meters below the actual structures, was erected in 2009.

As we entered to see the original caryatid columns and other Acropolis pieces, we were able to circumnavigate the Parthenon’s entire frieze while looking at the original structure above.

White plaster replicas now mark the places where the Elgin Marbles should — and, if returned, will — live. In comparison to the original, weathered marble, the plaster feels incomplete.

The holders of history

Theodoratou said the original rationale for the British Museum to house the marbles no longer applies. “Now they have a museum, so in that respect, if the argument is that Greece cannot take care of them, yes they can,” she said.

Reuniting the east pediment, depicting the birth of Athena, would certainly be a win for proponents of decolonizing art. But the stones would not return to the Parthenon. Instead, they would return to a display at the Acropolis Museum, on the south side of the hill.

But they would be back in Greece. “It’s the country where they were born — or made — after all,” Theodoratou said.

Some argue that more people have the opportunity to see the stones in London, as the city attracts more than a million more tourists each year than does Athens. But Theodoratou said it would be better for people see them where they were made.

As part of the negotiations, Greece is considering giving up other pieces of art in exchange. For many Greeks, much like for Theodoratou, an “exchange” or “trade” is off the table.

“It’s a matter of keeping everything in Greece,” she said.

Negotiations require give and take.

On my last night in Athens, my friend Annabel and I met up with two Greek university students, Antonis and Giwrgos. As the Acropolis loomed behind our heads, visible even in the night, the four of us agreed that the British Museum should return the Elgin Marbles. But how? Why should Greece negotiate at all, when the stones should never have been taken in the first place?

In our discussion we ran through arguments that have persisted in the minds of Athenians since the Ottoman Empire’s Greek fall in 1832.

These stones now symbolize the pride of two great nations.

We considered the price that must be paid for the return of the marbles, which any negotiator must do. Even if London gains some Greek treasures in exchange, the return of the Elgin Marbles could set a precedent that would result in pressure to return more artifacts to Greece and to other places where treasures were taken.

And that means that these negotiations between two countries have worldwide implications not just for the British Museum, but for any museum that houses looted artifacts.

This is what Theodoratou meant when she described the issue as “complicated.”

“I understand it’s not easy for a museum to say, ‘Oh, I’m giving you these back,’ because then, rightly so, everyone will say, ‘I want mine back,’” Theodoratou said. “Why would they give Egyptian things back? Or things from India? Or places that were colonized?”

Ultimately, restitution could mean the shift of what we know some big name museums to be: The keepers of other peoples’ history.

“We might have to reconsider what a museum is in our lifetimes, after all,” Theodoratou said.

Three questions to consider:

  1. What rationale did Lord Elgin have for taking ancient Greek stones and statues to Great Britain?
  2. Do you think museums that have long held art and artifacts from other countries should be forced to return them?
  3. What solution can you come up with to satisfy both Great Britain and Greece over the Elgin Marbles?
Kaja Andric

Kaja Andrić joined the News Decoder team as an intern in January 2024. She is a second-year Journalism student at New York University. She is also studying Romance Languages with a concentration in French and Italian. Andrić has written for both NYU’s Washington Square News and Cooper Squared publications. Previously, she was a correspondent for the Florida Weekly newspaper’s Palm Beach community chapter. In 2022, she was Florida Scholastic Press Association’s Writer of the Year.

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CultureArtShould finders remain keepers when it comes to looted stones?