Lord Elgin is one of the many controversial characters in British colonial history. This notorious Scottish nobleman was responsible for the removal of ancient Greek marble sculptures from the Parthenon in Athens, priceless treasures that remain in the hands of the British Museum to this day (much to the annoyance of Greece).
Marine archaeologists have recently been studying the wreck of the ship used by Lord Elgin to transport many of the marbles back to Britain in the early 1800s, known as Mentor. To their surprise, they found that the remains of the ship are still scattered with ancient treasures.
The Greek Ministry of Culture announced the discoveries of their underwater excavations on Tuesday.
Much of the loot was rescued from the ship shortly after it crashed into the rocks of Greece’s Kýthira Island and sank in September 1802. However, the recent salvage work managed to scoop up a gold ring decorated with an intricate flower design, a pair of gold earrings, a wooden compass, a wine amphora, three chess pieces, and various objects made from wood and bone.
Unfortunately, no lost fragments of the Parthenon were discovered.
The Parthenon was built in Athens nearly 2,500 years ago as a temple dedicated to the Greek goddess Athena, before being converted into a church of the Virgin Mary of the Athenians, and then an Islamic mosque.
According to one widely accepted retelling of the story, Lord Elgin stole many of the marble sculptures from the Parthenon at the turn of the 19th century with the intention of using them to decorate his private mansion in Scotland. His plans were scuppered when a costly divorce threatened him with financial troubles, so he ended up selling the marbles to the British government for £35,000 (around $650,000 in today’s money). In other interpretations of the story, Lord Elgin benevolently took the marbles back to Britain with the genuine hope of preserving them.
The marbles were transported from Greece to Britain between 1801 and 1812 on numerous ships, one of which was the Mentor, which was recently excavated near Kýthira. The marbles on this ship are believed to have sunk to the seafloor, where they lay for two years before being recovered.
Even at the time, a period of history when the European powers were hellbent on ruthless colonial expansion, the plundering of the Parthenon was a deeply controversial move.
Over two centuries on, the subject is still a point of contention between the British and Greek governments. The Greek government has frequently asked for the priceless antiquities to be sent back to Greece, although the British Museum has turned down the requests. The museum defends its possession of the objects, arguing their acquisition was totally legal, fair, and above board. They also say it’s not possible for the sculptures to be safely returned to the Parthenon.
In a bid to end the stalemate, Greece recently offered to loan new treasures to the British Museum in exchange for temporarily housing the Parthenon marbles in 2021, the 200th anniversary of the beginning of the Greek War for Independence. It remains unclear whether the deal will go ahead.