The Elgin Marbles, by Dorothy King

Ruins, rhetoric and restitution
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This sorry book gets off to a very bad start. Actually, it is about the Parthenon marbles as a whole, not merely those marbles currently in the British Museum which may properly be called "the Elgin Marbles". Lord Elgin (Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl) does not enter the story - or rather, Dorothy King's version - until two-thirds of the way through. The question of whether, as it claims, the Elgin Marbles constitute "archaeology's greatest controversy" is both ambiguous (greatest ever? Or greatest current?) and substantively moot.

After that bad start, it gets almost unbelievably worse. There are so many elementary errors of fact, transcription and description in the opening historical chapters that it is hard to credit that the author really did get both an undergraduate and a graduate degree in classical archaeology from a reputable university. For small instance: there was no democracy at Athens before 508/7 BC. Hope was precisely what did not emerge from Pandora's box - in fact pithos or jar. "Erechthonios" should be "Erichthonios", "epastatei" is not ancient Greek, "yolk" for "yoke" would be funny were it not painful. And so on...

Her publishers, moreover, have let her down rather badly. It is becoming a cliché to lament the absence of modern equivalents of editors such as the legendary Maxwell Perkins. But Dr King seems to have had no editorial guidance whatsoever.

Apart from faults of fact and style, there is a fundamental flaw in the book's conception. It is a very bad idea to write what purports to be history in the form of all-too undisguised propaganda. Nor is it a good idea to seek to counter what she takes to be the defamation of Lord Elgin by an equal and opposite defamation of his adversary Edward Clarke - or of anyone else whose common crime is not to agree that the Elgin Marbles should be where they now are.

The heart of the author's case resides in its final chapter, "The Debate over the Elgin Marbles: who owns them, and where do they belong?" Unfortunately for King, as is the way with matters of urgent political concern, events have moved on since she submitted her final draft. The British Committee which she crudely lumps with the despised "restitutionists" is now the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles. There's a huge difference.

"Restitution" implies a legal and moral status quo that has been impaired and can and should be rectified. Restitution must be to someone or some body, the state of Greece or "the Greek people". But when the sculptures were removed by Elgin's team in the 1800s, what was then left of the Parthenon after the 1687 explosion found itself in Ottoman Greece. Though there was a Greek people, it was a very different Greek people from that of 2006, who are constituent members of an independent sovereign state within the EU and subscribe to the articles of Unesco under which the overall programme of conservation on the Acropolis of Athens has been conducted since 1977.

It is that state which is responsible for constructing a dedicated museum near the Acropolis to house the reunited Parthenon marbles. Easily the largest single collection of the diaspora marbles is in the British Museum, but there are significant pieces elsewhere. To avoid the obfuscatory issue of "ownership", and the overdetermined issue of how can one pay restitution to a state or people that no longer exists, it is more fruitful to speak now of "reunification", not "restitution". Though even that is unsatisfactory, since all that can be reunited is what's left - and, so far as the sculpture goes, not on the Parthenon itself.

Besides, what we mean when we say "the Parthenon" is itself an issue, not a given. Even a non-philosopher like me can see that it can hardly be the same building as erected almost 2500 years ago. The moral-political issue of reunification must turn ultimately not on emotion, but on the scholarly issues of the study, conservation and communication of understanding of the available remains of this extraordinary building.

The Parthenon is "as much a modern icon as an ancient ruin" (to quote Mary Beard, author of the best short book on the subject); it is or contains "the most important ancient sculpture to survive from classical antiquity" (Ian Jenkins, writing then as the assistant keeper with responsibility for the Elgin Marbles); and it may even be "the Western world's biggest cultural cliché" (Peter Green's pugnacious formulation). At any rate, it's famous for being famous, but its fame is in no way helpfully explicated by a defective work such as that under review here.

Paul Cartledge is a Syndic of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, and a member of the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles