The Parthenon Marbles at the British Museum

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During our recent trip to London we visited the British Museum. Perhaps surprisingly I’d never been there before. it was incredibly busy and clearly is a major draw for foreign tourists.

One of the main reasons for wanting to visit the museum was because I wanted to take a look at the so called “Elgin Marbles” – the marble reliefs and sculptures that Lord Elgin, who was serving as British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, which at that time included Greece, removed from the Parthenon in Athens between 1801 and 1812. The marbles were purchased by the British government in 1816 and are displayed in the purpose-built Duveen Gallery at the museum.

The marbles include figures from the statuary from the east and west pediments,

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including this outstanding carving of the head of a horse.

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There are 15 panels from the metope , which illustrate a battle between humans and Centaurs that broke out during a wedding feast held by the Lapith king Pirithous, when the Centaurs who were invited got drunk and tried to rape the Lapith women and boys. This was a particularly good example still largely intact.

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And 75 metres  from the Frieze from the interior architrave of the building

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which depict a procession of chariots, horsemen, cattle being taken for sacrifice, girls, women and men on foot during the Panathenaic Festival being held in honour of Athena, the goddess to whom the temple was dedicated.

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The sculptures are certainly very beautiful and show the talent and skill of the craftsmen who produced them.

And they’re white, more or less, which certainly isn’t how they would have looked when they were created. The Greeks, like other ancient civilisations, used to paint their statues in bright colours. Look closely, and some traces of pigment can still be seen on some of the sculptures. There was an interesting display and video in the gallery showing how one of the metope panels would have looked and describing the archaeological “detective work” undertaken by researchers to find out how the sculptures would have originally looked.

Although weathering would have meant that much of the pigments applied to the sculptures would have already been lost when Elgin had them removed them from the Parthenon, “restoration work” undertaken by the Museum in the 1930’s inflicted further damage when chisels and wire wool may have been used to remove traces of pigment due to a misguided belief that Classical sculpture should be “pure” and, therefore, white.

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