Analysing the British Museum’s historical revisionism in Elgin’s own words


The  Revisionist Position

Current Director of the British Museum Neil MacGregor is the architect of a revisionist rubber band theory of history. When all else fails and the arguments that the Greeks can’t look after the Parthenon Marbles, or have no place to keep them, can no longer be sustained he snaps back into a neo-imperial justification for retaining them.

“When they were in Athens no one in the ancient world talked of them, just of the building,”[1] he asserts, without the slightest respect for evidence. Then he attempts to establish the basic premise in the neo-imperial idea underpinning his belief that the sculptures can only be fully understood in the British Museum. He insists that, “It is only when they could be seen at eye level they became the stars. In Athens they were architectural decoration. In London they became great sculptures.”[2]

What Neil MacGregor claims is that these works from 5th century BCE Athens can only be fully understood through the lens of a collection gathered when the British Empire was at its zenith. Indeed he takes the argument further often insisting that only in the British Museum can the sculptures from the Parthenon be fully understood because only there can they be readily compared with other examples of human achievement.

He went on to tell the Evening Standard that “If you can take them out of the politics of modern Greece, what you are looking at are great works of art. What Elgin did was astounding. He wanted to show the world these were supreme objects.”[3]

No he didn’t Neil. Certainly the British Museum makes the undocumented claim that “from 1803 it had been Elgin’s declared intention to present the sculptures to the nation, on his return to England in 1806.” No evidence is provided to substantiate this claim. It seems very much as though this is just your revisionist view of history, interpreting the past retrospectively to suit your present. It seems like a self-serving invention to insist that what Elgin did was a conscious move to show the world.

What Elgin Actually Did

In reality Elgin stored the Marbles at various places in England finally transferring them to London, and placing them at the Duke of Richmond’s, in Privy Gardens; removing them afterwards and eventually placing them in his house in Park-Lane, and in Burlington-House where they spent time in a garden shed and coal shed where a damp acidic environment prevailed, putting them at great risk.

It wasn’t until 1810, when in desperate need of money, that Elgin started informal negotiations with the British Government with a view to selling the Parthenon Marbles and other materials he had gathered from the Acropolis and from many other sites. As we now know, he eventually sold the Parthenon Marbles, and some other material forming the Elgin Collection, in 1816. The British Museum advises that in the ‘Elgin collection’ then besides objects in stone we should include those made of other materials, such as Greek vases, bronzes, jewellery, plaster casts and drawings.

Not to leave this matter at the level of mere counter assertions, let’s look at the material on Elgin’s exploits in Greece published by a colleague in 1815. By this time Elgin’s funds were running desperately low so it appears he commissioned his former chief private secretary William Richard Hamilton to prepare a catalogue of the things he had acquired in Greece. This catalogue was published under the title Memorandum on the subject of the Earl of Elgin’s pursuits in Greece [4].

The Memorandum does not only list what he collected but it sets out to describe and account for Elgin’s motivation in removing antiquities from Greece.

On the Parthenon

“The Temple of Minerva[5] had been converted into a powder magazine, and been completely destroyed, from a shell falling upon it, during the bombardment of Athens by the Venetians towards the end of the seventeenth century;” [6]


The following is offered as justification for Elgin’s actions:

“Many of the statues on the posticum of the Temple of Minerva, (Parthenon.) which had been thrown down by the explosion, had been absolutely pounded for mortar, because they furnished the whitest marble within reach; and the parts of the modern fortification, and the miserable houses where this mortar was so applied, were discovered.”[7]

Then it adds, “it is well known that the Turks will frequently climb up the ruined walls, and amuse themselves in defacing any sculpture they can reach; or in breaking columns, statues, or other remains of antiquity, in the fond expectation of finding within them some hidden treasures.”[8]

Although no evidence or any other witnesses are cited there might be other sources of evidence, but the implication is that Elgin’s word is sufficient. Granting Elgin the benefit of the doubt for the moment. We are drawn to this conclusion in the Memorandum when it’s immediately suggested that:

“Under these circumstances, Lord Elgin felt himself impelled, by a stronger motive than personal gratification, to endeavor to preserve any specimens of sculpture, he could, without injury, rescue From such impending ruin.”[9]

Then immediately the Memorandum’s author castes doubt on these motivations informing us that:

“He had, besides, another inducement, and an example before him, in the conduct of the last French embassy sent to Turkey before the Revolution. French artists did then remove several of the sculptured ornaments from several edifices in the Acropolis, and particularly from the Parthenon. In lowering one of the metopes, the tackle failed, and it was dashed to pieces; but other objects from the same temple were conveyed to France, where they are held in the very highest estimation, and some of them occupy conspicuous places in the gallery of the Louvre.” [10]

At this point it’s not clear whether he is concerned because the French broke one of Parthenon’s Metopes or whether he saw them as competitors in that they had removed sculptured ornaments “particularly from the Parthenon”, apparently since before the French Revolution of 1789. The revolution was ten years earlier. When the Memorandum goes on to note that, “the same agents were remaining at Athens during Lord Elgin’s embassy, waiting only the return of French influence at the Porte to renew their operations.”[11] It’s definitely starting to look as though he regarded the French as competitors.

In summation the Memorandum indicates that all of these matters were motivating factors.

“Actuated by these inducements, Lord Elgin made use of all his means, and ultimately with such success, that he has brought to England, from the ruined temples at Athens, from the modern walls and fortifications, in which many fragments had been used as so many blocks of stone, and from excavations made on purpose, a greater quantity of original Athenian sculpture, in statues, alti and bassi relievi, capitals, cornices, frizes, and columns, than exists in any other part of Europe.”[12]

Again we are reminded that the Parthenon was a ruin. Then just in this brief passage the extent of Elgin’s assault on the Parthenon is made plain. He also reminds us that “many fragments had been used as so many blocks of stone” in “modern walls and fortifications” but he is careful not to specify exactly what was used in this way.

What Elgin took


A Lapith fighting a Centaur
A Lapith fighting a Centaur

We are told that he several of the original Metopes from the temple and assured that Christian zeal, Turkish barbarism and the explosion caused by Venetian shelling has ensure that “with the exception of those preserved by Lord Elgin, it is in general difficult to trace even the outline of the original subject.”[13] The extent of this untruth is plain to anyone who visits the Acropolis Museum and views the Metopes let behind and now on display in the museum. In the British Museum there are 15 of the 92 metopes from the Parthenon.


The Memorandum doesn’t refer specifically to how much of the Freize Elgin removed but the British Museum advises that it has 247ft of the original 524ft of frieze

Detail from the Memorandum

The pediment and tympanum

The tympanum is the recessed triangular space forming the centre of the pediment. Venetian shelling caused damage to the west pediment. A janissary dwelling that had been constructed below the western face of the Parthenon so it was purchased and the greatest part of the statue of Victory, the torsi of Jupiter and Vulcan, the breast of the Minerva, together with other fragments were retrieved. Then Elgin moved on to the eastern pediment where he “obtained leave, after much difficulty” to demolish another house but found nothing. It seems reasonable to assume that this house had to be purchased as well, but the Memorandum avoids issue.

Presumably, now with a clear inducement of further windfalls janissiary were keen to sell off other potential sources of ‘treasure’.

What the British Museum says it holds

In the British Museum there are 17 pedimental figures; various pieces of architecture from the Parthenon

Just as an aside, the British Museum claims that “All the sculptures from the Parthenon in the British Museum are on permanent public display.” These images from the first week of August, 2015 give the lie to this claim.


Inducements and bribes

Now the Memorandum moves into a euphemistically clever account of what happens next advising us that “the Turk, who had been induced, though most reluctantly, to give up his house to be demolished, then exultingly pointed out the places in the modern fortification, and in his own buildings, where the cement employed had been formed from the very statues which Lord Elgin had been in hopes of finding. And it was afterwards ascertained, on incontrovertible evidence, that these statues had been reduced to powder, and so used. Then, and then only, did Lord Elgin employ means to rescue what still remained from a similar fate.”[14]

Induce is an interesting word and can often be used, in such circumstances as a soft term for bribery. Of course once funds are flowing there is likely to be further inducement to find other potential sources of ‘treasure’ and to add fuel to the fire of Elgin’s passion by assuring him that there was a mounting threat to the remaining statues.

The ‘incontrovertible evidence’ remains Elgin’s word, no other evidence for the alleged grinding up of statues is offered.

It is alleged that the authority for Elgin’s presence on the Acropolis was a Firman. Even in the alleged translation, his rights only extended to sketching, making plaster castes and collecting elements that had fallen. An Italian translation of the so-called firman has been used in the past in an attempt to prove that Elgin was authorised to remove and export the sculptures. The document in question is actually a poor translation of an Italian translation of what is alleged to be the original Ottoman document.

It is most likely that Elgin’s documentation was not a Firman just a letter purportedly signed by Kaimmakam Seyid, Abdullah Pasha, Deputy to the Grand Vizier. Without the standing of a Firman it was just a form of reference. Elgin effectively admits this later when he says ‘in point of fact, all permissions issuing from the Porte to any distant provinces, are little better than authorities to make the best bargain that can be made with the local magistracies’[15]

To ‘make the best bargain’ could be re-phrased as negotiating a bribe.

In addition to the Pediment sculptures he continued on into the Opisthodomos of the Parthenon, the treasury room, where he removed inscriptions,[16] presumably comprising sections of wall.

Other materials taken from the Acropolis

He continued obtaining a Doric and an Ionic capital from the Propylaea,[17] which is described as ruins.

Freize from the Victory Temple was also removed. The Memorandum advises that it “required the whole of Lord Elgin’s influence at the Porte, very great sacrifices, and much perseverance, to remove them; but he at length succeeded.”[18]

Three other temples on the Acropolis are mentioned as dedicated to Neptune and Erectheus; Minerva Polias, the protectress; and, Pandrosos.

Original blocks of the frieze, as well as a capital and a base, were taken from the Neptune and Minerva Polias temples. Elgin also took a Caryatide statues from the Pandrosos temple. Since this temple had seven statues of Caryan women supporting it instead of Ionic columns, his actions were inimical to its continuing stability.

Beyond the Acropolis

Elgin’s interests extended well beyond the Acropolis and the grandiosity of his operation negate the conservationist gloss he attempts to cast over his operation on the Acropolis. An attempt is made to render these activities as being a type of windfall arising from an attempt to map ancient Athens.

The Memorandum advises that, “The ancient walls of the city of Athens . . . have been traced by Lord Elgin’s . . . as well as the long walls that led to the Munychia and the Piraeus. The gates, mentioned in ancient authors, have been ascertained: and every public monument, that could be recognised, has been inserted in a general map”[19].

For all of this to be done extensive excavations were necessary and these were conducted at the Great Theatre of Bacchus ; the Pnyx, and at the theatre built by Herodes Atticus. Then his team excavated the Tumuli of Antiope, Euripides, and others finding “a complete and valuable collection of Greek vases” from Athens, Corinth, Sicily, and Etruria

One grave yielded objects of particular importance, the Memorandum noting that

It “ . . . has furnished a most valuable treasure of this kind. It consists of a large marble vase, five feet in circumference, enclosing one of bronze thirteen inches in diameter, of beautiful sculpture, in which was a deposit of burnt bones, and a lachrymatory of alabaster, of exquisite form ; and on the bones lay a wreath of myrtle in gold, having, besides leaves, both buds and flowers.”

Other treasures taken from the excavations include an ancient sundial, from the Theatre of Bacchus, a large statue of the Indian, or bearded Bacchus. Then Elgin took to using his letter of authority to approach the Archbishop of Athens and to carry away “several curious fragments of antiquity”[20] from “churches and convents in Athens”.[21] This search furnished many valuable bas-reliefs, inscriptions, ancient dials, a Gymnasiarch’s chair in marble”[22]

Purchases were also made from Athenians who had encountered ancient fragments when ploughing their fields.

A word from Tom Minogue

Tom Minogue has made a detailed account of Elgin’s booty reminding us that many observers of the Parthenon Marbles lose sight of the fact that at the time the Westminster parliament bought them they were only part of a large and varied collection of items stolen from sacred sites all over Greece. 


[2] ibid

[3] ibid


[5] The Parthenon

[6] Memorandum on the subject of the Earl of Elgin’s pursuits in Greece. London: Printed for William Miller Albemarle Street. By James Moyes, Greville Street, Hatton Garden Page 7

[7] Op cit page 7 – 8

[8] Op cit page 8

[9] ibid

[10] Op cit page 8-9

[11] ibid

[12] Op cit page 9-10

[13] Op cit page 11

[14] Op cit page 15

[15] Greenfield. J, The Return of Cultural Treasures, 2nd ed., Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 76-7

[16] op cit page 16-17

[17] op cit page 20

[18] op cit page 21

[19] op cit pages 28-29

[20] Op cit page 32

[21] ibid

[22] ibid

2 thoughts on “Analysing the British Museum’s historical revisionism in Elgin’s own words

  1. ……there is more…

    In William St. Clair’s fascinating, and very well documented book Lord Elgin & The Marbles; the controversial history of the Parthenon sculptures (third revised edition, 1998) one can read an account about the illicit removal of ancient manuscripts: “Professor Carlyle had been attached to Lord Elgin’s Embassy by the government for the specific purpose of looking for ancient manuscripts”…”Carlyle obtained them in various ways. Six he brought from the monastery of St Saba near Jerusalem. Four or five others come from the library of the Patriarch of Jerusalem at Constantinople. To none of these manuscripts did Carlyle have any legal title. They were lent to him, at his own insistent request, to allow them to be collated in England and to help with the production of a revised edition of the New Testament. Before he left Constantinople for the last time in March 1801 Carlyle signed a declaration prepared by the Patriarch promising to return the manuscripts to the Patriarch at Constantinople ‘when the purposes for which they were borrowed were completed or whenever the Patriarch should demand them’. Philip Hunt, as a secretary of the Embassy also signed the declaration, thus making the British Government a party to the promise”. (Chapter 21 The fate of the manuscripts, of St. Clair’s book.)

    These manuscripts were never returned. Apparently ‘the purposes for which they were borrowed’ are still – after 200 years – to be completed…

    Where are they now: in the library of the Archbishop of Caterbury’s Library at Lambeth.

    Correct me if I am wrong, but if I remember well Carlyle also too manuscripts form the monastery of Mount Athos.

    Ton Cremers


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