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Parthenon Sculptures: Ancient Treasures at the British Museum


British PM Rishi Sunak’s cancellation of a meeting with Greek PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis has escalated tensions over the status of the Parthenon Sculptures housed at the British Museum, commonly known as the Elgin Marbles. Athens accuses London of evading discussions on the contested artifacts. Greece has repeatedly requested the permanent return of the sculptures, but the British Museum has steadfastly refused to comply, exacerbating the longstanding dispute over cultural heritage.


GS I: History

Dimensions of the Article:

  1. Parthenon Sculptures: Ancient Treasures at the British Museum
  2. Journey of the Parthenon Sculptures to Britain: A Controversial History
  3. British Museum’s Response

Parthenon Sculptures: Ancient Treasures at the British Museum

  • The Parthenon Sculptures at the British Museum consist of more than 30 ancient stone sculptures from Greece, dating back over 2,000 years.


  • Originally adorned the walls and grounds of the Parthenon temple on the Acropolis hill in Athens.
  • Created between 447 BC and 432 BC during Athens’ Golden Age.


  • Frieze depicting the Panathenaic festival procession.
  • Metopes illustrating the battle between Centaurs and Lapiths at Peirithoos’ marriage-feast.
  • Figures of gods and legendary heroes from the temple’s pediments.
History of the Parthenon:
  • Construction:
    • Built in the 5th century BC, symbolizing Athens’ power during that era.
  • Symbolic Significance:
    • Became a symbol for modern Greece after gaining independence in 1832.
  • Transformations:
    • Served as a temple, church, and mosque before becoming an archaeological site.
    • Significant damage, including an explosion in 1687, left the Parthenon in ruins.
  • Architectural Style:
    • Designed in the Doric style with incorporated Ionic elements.
    • Doric features include fluted columns without bases and simple rectangular capitals.
  • Philosophy of Design:
    • Reflects ancient Greek ideals of harmony, beauty, and balance based on mathematical ratios.
    • Illustrates the integration of mathematical principles into architectural styles.

Journey of the Parthenon Sculptures to Britain: A Controversial History

  • Removal by Lord Elgin:
    • The sculptures were removed from the Parthenon in the early 19th century by Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, and the then-British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.
  • Transport to Britain:
    • Lord Elgin took the marbles to Britain and subsequently sold them to the British Museum in 1816.
Controversy Surrounding the Removal:
  • Accusations of Theft:
    • Athens accused Lord Elgin of theft, while he maintained he had permission from the Ottoman Empire, which controlled Athens at the time.
  • Disputed Permission:
    • The original letter granting permission has been lost, and its contents remain disputed.
  • Calls for Return:
    • Athens has been demanding the return of the sculptures since gaining independence in the early 1830s.
    • The movement gained momentum in the 1980s when Greek actress Melina Mercouri, serving as the culture minister, launched a campaign for their return.

British Museum’s Response:

  • Legal Contract Claim:
    • The British Museum claims that Lord Elgin acquired the sculptures under a legal contract with the Ottoman Empire.
  • Rejection of Return Demands:
    • The British Museum has consistently rejected demands for the return of the sculptures.
Recent British Stance:
  • Asset to the UK:
    • The British government, including Prime Minister Sunak, views the Parthenon Marbles as a significant asset to the UK.
  • Legal Standpoint:
    • In March, PM Sunak stated that the marbles were legally acquired, ruling out any change in laws allowing their return to Greece.

-Source: Indian Express

February 2024