Greece has lashed out at the ludicrous claims made by the British Museum that the Parthenon sculptures, removed illegally at the behest of Lord Elgin, was retrieved “in the rubble” around the monument.
The ridiculous assertion was made at a UNESCO meeting last week.
“Much of the frieze was in fact removed from the rubble around the Parthenon,” the museum’s deputy director, Dr Jonathan Williams, told the annual meeting of the world heritage body’s intergovernmental committee for promoting the return of cultural property.
“These objects were not all hacked from the building as has been suggested,” he claimed.
Campaigners, citing witnesses at the time, have long contended that the sculptures were violently detached from the 5th-century BC temple with the aid of marble saws in the full knowledge of Elgin, Britain’s then ambassador to the Ottoman empire.
The use of saws and other machinery loomed large in correspondence between the Scottish diplomat and Giovanni Battista Lusieri, the Italian painter he entrusted to oversee the removal of the antiquities in 1801.
In one letter, Lusieri beseeched Elgin “to send a dozen marble saws of different sizes to Athens as quickly as possible”.
In a statement to the Guardian on Sunday, Greece’s culture minister, Lina Mendoni, highlighted Elgin's theft.
“Over the years, Greek authorities and the international scientific community have demonstrated with unshakeable arguments the true events surrounding the removal of the Parthenon sculptures,” she said.
“Lord Elgin used illicit and inequitable means to seize and export the Parthenon sculptures, without real legal permission to do so, in a blatant act of serial theft,” the minister added.
Lusieri admitted in a letter penned to Elgin in 1802 that he had “been obliged to be a little barbarous” during an operation to dislodge a sculpted relief panel, or metope, depicting a woman being carried off by a centaur from the temple.
The British Museum, which bought the antiquities from the peer in 1816, has 15 metopes, 17 pedimental figures and 75 metres of the original 160-metre long frieze in its collections.
Much of the remaining statuary – viewed as the high point of classical art – is in Athens, exhibited in a purpose-built museum at the foot of the Acropolis.
The latest spat comes after Greece reinvigorated its campaign to reunite the masterpieces. Its prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, placed the issue centre stage during Downing Street talks with Boris Johnson in November.
The new drive is widely perceived to have put the British Museum on the defensive.
Responding to Williams’ claims, the renowned classical archaeologist, Anthony Snodgrass, said there was no question that Lusieri’s first target – metopes on the southern side of the Parthenon – had been “violently detached” and invoked the horrified accounts of travellers who had witnessed what he described as “irreparable damage” inflicted on the building.
Snodgrass, who is honorary president of the British committee for the return of the Parthenon marbles, said a lack of documentary evidence made it “impossible to quantify or even substantiate” what proportion of the sculptures were lying amid the ruins during the four years that Elgin’s team worked at the site.
But it remained incontrovertible that in its quest to acquire as much as possible of the statuary and sculpture, pieces had been amputated from the monument.
“To reduce the weight for transport, Lusieri had the back of most blocks sawn across and discarded, so as to keep intact just the sculpted face,” he said of the monumental frieze that portrays the procession of the Panathenaic festival and is regarded as a sublime example of poetry in stone.
“In itself, this does not mean that every block had first to be lowered from its place on the upper part of the building; but the state of preservation of the vast majority of the British Museum slabs is surely enough to show that they had not fallen from 40 feet above, but had been carefully detached and lowered, to be sawn on the ground … all in all, it’s incorrect to say that much of what Elgin took was already on the ground.”
The British Museum’s deputy director accepted that the Acropolis monuments were now wonderfully preserved but said Greece’s desire to see the antiquities reunified was impossible because so much had been destroyed by the time Elgin had arrived in Athens.
“There will never be a magic moment of reunification because half of the sculptures from the Parthenon are lost forever, half of the sculptures were destroyed by the late 17th century long before Elgin was active in Athens.”
Mendoni insisted that in an international environment where treasures were being increasingly repatriated to their countries of origin the campaign would continue.
Last week Italy said Athens could keep forever a fragment snatched from the eastern frieze of the Parthenon depicting the foot of the goddess Artemis peeking out from under a beautifully crafted tunic.
The shoe-sized box artefact had long been displayed at the Antonio Salinas archaeological museum in Palermo.
“Greece,” she said, “is prepared to enter into an honest and sincere dialogue with the United Kingdom in good faith within the legal framework and ethical context set by Unesco’s recommendations and decisions.”