Surprises in Athens

ArtWatch UK Journal no. 20 Summer 2005

Surprises in Athens

Classicist Dorothy King finds long-hidden Parthenon sculptures, laser cleaned and unsung, in the Acropolis museum.

In November 2004 I spoke in Athens at a conference on Greek Architectural Sculpture. Much informal discussion took place on the Parthenon and its sculptures. My own paper, on sculpture on the Acropolis, was pleasingly well received, given my views on the Elgin Marbles – they should stay where they are – are well known and often criticised in Greece. When, a few days later, I went to the Acropolis itself, I was in for a greater surprise.

The Elgin Marbles are ‘architectural sculpture’, sculptures that decorate public monuments (in this case the Parthenon) and expressed in stone the propaganda of the builders, the way those builders wished to be seen by others: namely, superior to foreigners, more civilized, and possessors of an empire as well as a lineage that set them above all others. For decades archaeologists had been asking the Greeks to remove the west frieze from the Parthenon, to prevent further pollution damage. Finally in 1993 they did so, but instead of cleaning and displaying it, the Greeks stuck it into a storeroom of the museum. Although I had seen it there, in appalling condition, few others had. I asked most of those at the conference whether they too had seen these ‘missing’ frieze blocks from the Parthenon, but none had. I had hoped to hear some news of these poor abandoned sculptures, but was disappointed. At an earlier Athens conference held on the Parthenon sculptures (March 2003), the classicist Jennifer Neils told a fellow speaker (Michael Daley) that when researching he book, The Parthenon Frieze, she asked permission to see the west frieze sculptures (then in storage on the Acropolis) and had been refused.

The Greeks demand constantly that the Elgin Marbles be “returned” to Athens. But it has always struck me as odd that if the Parthenon Sculptures were so important to the Greeks, why didn’t they first bother to look after the half of the sculptures in Athens? Why didn’t they bother to put their sculptures on display if they are such an important part of Greek culture? Why was so much of the Parthenon frieze languishing, uncared for, in a museum store rather than cleaned and on display?

When the conference was over, I went, as always, up onto the Acropolis which, although stripped of post-Classical structures and much of its character by Greek archaeologists in the 19th century, remains one of the great archaeological sites and key part of the world’s cultural heritage. As I wandered around the Parthenon, several of the Greeks working within it glared at me. Finally one came up and grabbed me by the arm. Although open to the public, I initially thought he might ask me to leave. Instead he drew me closer to the Parthenon, and insisted on showing several of the new discoveries made by the Greek Archaeological Service in recent years, to make sure I knew about them for my forthcoming book. He even suggested I take photographs of the new discoveries, and could not have been more charming or more helpful.
Then the man led me to the edge of the Acropolis, to the low wall that stops visitors from falling off the hill. For a split second I panicked at the way he was wildly waving his hands. Was he going to push me off? Had he shown me the new discoveries as a sort of “last meal” before condemning me, sending me plummeting to my death off the side of the Acropolis? He spoke rapidly in Greek, getting increasingly excited, and my Modern Greek is quite appalling – worse even than my Chinese.

Eventually I worked out that he was furious about the building of the New Acropolis Museum over an important archaeological site at the foot of the Acropolis. Although construction of the Museum had been halted due to the many controversies surrounding it, the new Greek government had announced a few days earlier that work would resume.

My new friend, unhappy like many Greek archaeologists about the site chosen for the project, was pointing out another. His preferred site, to the southwest of the Acropolis, would not have involved destroying an archaeological site, and offered an even better view of the Parthenon.
Next I wandered around the small museum on the Acropolis, where many beautiful sculptures are poorly housed. I went to the penultimate room, where a small portion of the Parthenon sculptures the Greeks have are displayed. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the west frieze blocks were finally on display – even if the display was temporary – rather than hidden in the storerooms. I tried to ring some of my colleagues from the conference, but most were already on their way to the airport, and so missed seeing these long-concealed sculptures.

The Greeks normally hold lavish press conferences to publicise even the most trivial detail concerning the Parthenon or Elgin Marbles, but surprisingly they had quietly slipped these laser cleaned sculptures into the museum without hosting a large press conference or making an announcement of any sort.

I came home to an Inbox full of emails. Apparently, Anthony Snodgrass, Chairman of the British Committee for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles, has told journalists “The west frieze s in better shape than anything in London, we can now see.” (Times 25.11.04). These were not the sculptures I had seen in Athens, and my own (rapidly snapped) photographs contradicted Snodgrass’ claims. He and his fellow would-be “restitutionists” must surely need new glasses. On June 22nd, in a letter to The Times, Christopher Price the vice-chairman of the British Committee for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles, made the extraordinary claim that far from having been at all damaged by Athens’ notorious 20th century atmospheric pollution, the west frieze was “amazingly preserved … down to the veins on the flanks of the horses” and unlike the “scrubbed white” Parthenon sculptures in the British Museum. The raising of colour in this manner is the latest of the restitutionists’ “own goals”. The failure to acknowledge the disappearance of whole chunks of carving on the west frieze – including a rider’s face shown here – and elsewhere on the Acropolis, testifies, perhaps, to an excessively politicised intellectual method.

I could not bring equipment into the Acropolis Museum to measure that colour of the marbles in Athens, so I used a simple strip of paper printed with shades of white, and on return to London repeated the exercise on the British Museum’s Elgin Marbles. The London sculptures, sealed with a protective coating but not tinted, came up in the healthy mid-range colour. The recently ‘restored’ and newly displayed west frieze blocks in Athens, were dark on the chart, like the decaying teeth of a chain-smoker. The blocks from other friezes in Athens, cleaned years ago and long on display, were matt and worryingly light in colour.

Given Greek claims that the Elgin Marbles have been ‘over-cleaned’ and ‘scrubbed white’ in the 1930s, the bright colour of the Athens blocks was surprising, even shocking. They could easily pass the Daz White Challenge, and are clearly over-cleaned. Their matt surface, which makes them look more like plaster casts than real marbles, is also disturbing. I mentioned this to Michael Daley, Director of ArtWatch UK and an expert on restoration, who has studied the Parthenon sculptures. He suggested to me that their surface was probably the result of a very aggressive cleaning, and that their matt look was characteristic of steam-cleaning, a controversial method.

When Greek archaeologists complain about the ‘whiteness’ of the Elgin Marbles, when many of their own Marbles are even whiter, then surely this is hypocrisy?

Although poorly displayed, and in low-level lighting, it was a pleasure to finally see the poor forgotten west frieze blocks in Athens on display. I can only suspect that the Greek government did not make a fuss when they put the blocks on view, because they wanted to draw as little attention to them as possible – and for this reason: when seen in the same room as the other (differently restored) blocks in Athens, blocks that have been in the museum for a century, the contrast between the two is extremely shocking and in need of explanation.

In 2003, then in opposition, Petros Tatoulis was involved in trying to stop work in the New Acropolis Museum. In late 2004, as Deputy Minister of Culture, he had to announce that work had resumed. His patience with the Archaeological Service seems to be running out though. In December 2004 he announced that he was extremely unhappy with the way the Acropolis restoration work was progressing, and that the archaeologists would not be receiving any more funds from the Greek Treasury. In 2005, because of political pressure, funding was of course resumed for their fourth decade of work.

If even the Greek Deputy Minister of Culture is unhappy with the Acropolis works in Athens, how on earth can Anthony Snodgrass justify campaigning to send the Elgin Marbles from their home in the British Museum to an uncertain future in Athens?

For evidence of the archaeological cost of the new museum to house the Acropolis sculptures, see Spiros Kalogeropolous (“Wrecking the Ancient Centre of Athens” and “Letter from Athens”, ArtWatch UK Newsletters 18 and 19. For an account of the Greeks’ own damaging of sculptures on the Parthenon’s sister temple, the Hephaesteion, see Michael Daley (“Beware restorers bearing chisels”), Art Review, December/January 2000.

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