Pressure is mounting on the British Museum to return the celebrated Parthenon marbles to Greece as a convincing life-size replica made by a robot goes on display in London. Over the years, the British and Greek governments have hotly disputed the ownership of the marbles, which were removed by the British from Athens between 1801 and 1805.
“The sculptures we’re creating can break this 200-year-old logjam,” said Roger Michel, the director of the Institute for Digital Archaeology.
The solution involves diamond-tipped robotic tools carving blocks of pentelic marble, the same material used for the originals 2,500 years ago. The copies take four days to make and followed a digital 3D model based on one of the Parthenon marbles, called the Horse of Selene. Creating a near-exact replica is not a cheap process, however, costing a whopping $180,000 (£161,000).
“You can recognize every scratch,” said Giacomo Massari, founder of Robotor, the technical partner on the project. “You can see the flaws of the stone and you can see the challenges our colleagues from 2,000 years ago were facing. It’s like going back in time — you can feel the struggles of the artist.”
The original sculptures once decorated a temple called the Parthenon, the crowning glory of the Athenian Acropolis. Constructed in the 5th century BC, the grandiose building on the city-state’s ancient citadel reflected its financial and military dominance. By the early 1800s, the Ottoman Empire was the governing authority in Athens and the acropolis had been subject to several military sieges.
Thomas Bruce (1766-1841), the seventh earl of Elgin and ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, removed the marbles after receiving a permit from authorities. He intended to display them privately in his home, but instead sold them to the British government. This is where the controversy begins – while the supposed permit is now lost, Greek authorities refuse to recognise the agreement because it was made with the Ottoman Empire, not Greece.
For many years, the British Museum has viewed the sculptures as an essential and irreplaceable part of the collection. Recently the deputy director of the museum, Jonathan Williams, commented “people come to the British Museum to see the real thing, don’t they?” Indeed, according the Michel, the museum refused his request to scan the marbles, so instead he used an iPhone and iPad during normal visiting hours.
But public opinion is shifting. According to a survey conducted by YouGov in 2021, fifty-nine percent of Brits believe the marbles should be returned to Greece and only eighteen percent thought they belonged in Britain. Some scholars also refute the argument that visitors will be deterred by the “emptying out” of museums.
There is also growing enthusiasm for returning artifacts, like those plundered by British soldiers from the historic Kingdom of Benin in the late 1800s, especially across Europe and the United States. London’s Horniman Museum announced in August that they would return 72 stolen artifacts to Nigeria, including its 12 Benin bronzes. Dan Hicks, a curator at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, has argued that “the British reckoning with colonial violence should not be led from Berlin and Washington, D.C., it should be led from London.”
Rumoured talks between the museum and Greece hit the headlines last month. Perhaps a loan of some form will be the likely outcome, but this would require the borrowing institution in Greece to acknowledge that the British Museum has legitimate ownership of the marbles. In the meantime, the replica horse head sculpture can be viewed at London’s Freud Museum.