British soldiers at Amphipolis Tomb

Did British soldiers plunder Amphipolis Tomb in 1916?

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A photograph has emerged depicting soldiers from a regiment of the British Army, proudly holding skulls found around the Amphipolis Tomb in Greece, raising questions about whether they may have plundered the tomb nearly a century ago.

The King's Shropshire Light Infantry (KSLI), a regiment of the British Army formed in 1881, was posted to Thessalonika in Greece in 1915 at the request of the Greek Prime Minister and spent nearly three years fighting the Bulgarians in Macedonia. For the most part, they were based on the Struma front between Lake Doiran and Amphipolis, where they constructed trenches and dugouts and fought numerous skirmishes. However, it seems the battalion did more than just fighting, as photographs have emerged showing evidence of the soldiers entering the famous tomb at Amphipolis, as well as proudly showing off human remains found at the site.

It is already known that the spectacular Lion of Amphipolis, a 5.3 metre-high marble statue that once stood on top of the giant tomb of Amphipolis, was found by British soldiers who were building fortifications at the bridge of Amphipolis in 1916.  The British tried to smuggle the marble parts to England, but their efforts were thwarted when Bulgarians who had just seized Paggaion attacked them. Archaeologist Fotis Petsas, whose work on the history of the Lion of Amphipolis was published in 1976 in "Proodos" newspaper that circulated in Serres, wrote:

"During the Balkan War in 1913, Greek soldiers found the foundations of the pedestal of the monument while digging trenches. The foundations were examined by George Ikonomos and Anastasios Orlandos who subsequently became professors of archaeology. Later, in 1916, during World War I, British soldiers discovered the first parts of the marble lion. Their attempt to transport the pieces onboard a ship were thwarted by an enemy bombing."

The marble statue of the Lion of Amphipolis

The marble statue of the Lion of Amphipolis. Image source: Wikipedia

When archaeologists entered the second chamber of the Amphipolis tomb last month, they found that the marble wall sealing off the third chamber had already been smashed open in one corner, leading researchers to believe that the tomb may have been looted in antiquity. However, the plundering may not have occurred in the ancient past, but by the British soldiers in WWI.

Smashed corner of the second chamber

When archaeologists entered the second chamber, they discovered that the wall sealing off the third chamber had been smashed in one corner. Credit: Greek Ministry of Culture

A little digging around on the website of the British Museum has revealed a little more to the story.  The biography page for Dr Eric Gardner (1877 – 1951), a British medic and amateur archaeologist, who was posted to Greece during WWI, reveals that he took treasures found at Amphipolis and ‘donated’ them to the British Museum. The British Museum writes: “He was based around Amphipolis on the Struma front, where an Archaic-Hellenistic Greek cemetery was uncovered. Donated contents of an Amphipolis grave to the Museum in 1918.”  So was this ‘Amphipolis grave’ the great tomb that is currently being excavated by archaeologists?

British Museum Amphipolis Items

Top Left: Gold mouth piece with repoussé decoration. Top Right: Bronze spiral finger-ring. Bottom: Silver plaque with dotted repoussé decoration. All excavated from Amphipolis grave, 6 th century BC. Given to British Museum by Dr Eric Gardner in 1918. Photo Credit: Trustees of the British Museum

Within the grave, Dr Gardner found a hoard of treasures including gold, silver, and bronze jewellery, finely crafted pottery, a metal hair pin, an iron knife, and a spearhead. It is not known how much he kept for himself, but nine of these items now sit inside the British Museum in London. It is curious to say the least, that in the midst of the media frenzy regarding the current excavation of the enormous tomb at Amphipolis, the British Museum has remained deafly silent on the issue. Perhaps they are afraid of another ‘Elgin Marbles’ scenario in which the world petitions them to return stolen goods to their origin.

Featured image: Officers of the 2 nd King's Shropshire Light Infantry with skulls excavated during the construction of trenches and dugouts at the ancient Greek site of Amphipolis, 1916. Image source:  Ministry of Information First World War Official Collection

Sources:

The King's Shropshire Light Infantry, 1914 – 1918 – Shropshire Regimental Museum

King's Shropshire Light Infantry – Wikipedia

Salonika – The Long Lost Trail: The British Army of 1914 – 1918

Dr Eric Gardner – The British Museum

The Bulgarian army prevented the Lion of Amphipolis from being taken to England – GR  Reporter

Comments

Is the answer to your article's headline 'No'?

The finds Gardner donated to the British Museum are 6th century BC - the finds are helpfully labelled as such on the British Museum website. The tomb currently being excavated has been dated as late 4th century BC. Amphipolis has many tombs outside its ancient walls, and even a couple inside.

Worth also noting that the lead archaeologist on the site is fairly convinced that this tomb within the mound has not been looted.

aprilholloway's picture

Erroneous dating is very common in archaeology. The items in the British Museum could be younger, the Amphipolis tomb could be older, and this would not be unusual at all. What's more, the tomb may be 4th century BC and may contain items dating from 6th century BC or older as it is not uncommon for valuable items to be passed down from generation to generation within a family.  In summary, the dates do not prove or disprove anything. 

The final chamber may not be looted, as it is protected by multiple sealed walls, but someone broke through the 2nd chamber.

There are 400+ known tombs and graves around ancient Amphipolis which cover several hundred years of history. Some have been looted prior to their excavation in the past 60 years, others haven't. I'd suggest one doesn't usually hand down things like a gold mouthguard for a corpse but anything is possible I suppose.

Beyond the general location, there is absolutely nothing linking the 6th century BC artifacts in the British Museum to the late 4th century BC Macedonian tomb found in the Castas tumulus. The archaeologists on site reject the notion of looting, there's not been a hint of WW1-era trenches having been dug to uncover the entrance, the backfilling seems to date to antiquity, there are no shafts going into the tumulus etc etc.

It's not just the dating, it's the misconception that there is only one tomb at Amphipolis so every find without clear provenance must be from that one tomb. It's more likely what the British museum have is a collection of items from several tombs/graves uncovered in 1916.

aprilholloway's picture

You have some fair points and there is no definitive proof at this stage, hence posing a question in the article rather than making a statement. Nevertheless, it is well document that the British tried to smuggle the Lion of Amphipolis, which once sat on top of the tomb, back to England, so they are already implicated to some extent. How far they are implicated is the question.

The lion was in many broken pieces so far away from the tumulus that it was re-erected on the other side of the river some 3km away. The link to the tumulus post-dates these British soldiers being in the area by many decades. Much of what now forms the lion monument wasn't even discovered until the Strymon was dredged from 1929 onwards.

To quote from your piece, "It is curious to say the least, that in the midst of the media frenzy regarding the current excavation of the enormous tomb at Amphipolis, the British Museum has remained deafly silent on the issue."

Hopefully having some accurate and factual information in the comment section should explain why it is not curious in the slightest that the British Museum has not commented on the tumulus, nor on something which has no evidence to support it ever happening. The Amphipolis tumulus has so much mystery already that we shouldn't need to invent more.

The contention that the "tomb could be older" than the late fourth century is very unlikely. This type of tomb with a vaulted stone roof, called a Macedonian tomb from its most frequent location in the Greek world, does not appear before the late fourth century. It is more likely to be later. While there are examples of heirloom objects being deposited in monumental tombs (the heroon at Lefkandi, for example), I know of no example in which sixth century objects are buried in Macedonian tombs. I agree with your other commenters that it is more likely these objects were plundered from an unrelated sixth century graveyard.

All that I have written in my comment on the previous article (Opinion only) applies here.

We (especially colonialists) do not have the right to desecrate these graves.  We need to correct some of the mistakes of the past not continue to make them.

If I were to spend some time in the countryside in the British Isles or that of any other country,and I came across an important find, I wouldn't bring it back to Athens to "donate" it to the Athens Archaeological or any other museum, for that matter. I would approach the local authorities instead.

Tsurugi's picture

Yes, and I'd think most British people would do the same today. But that is today, and we're not talking about today, we're talking about 1915, a different era entirely, in which archaeology as we know it had barely gotten started and was not much more than systematic tomb raiding.
Also, 1915 was in the middle of WWI, and Greece at the time was in the midst of political upheaval(so some things, at least, were the same then as now), having a pro-Allies PM, but a pro-Central Powers king who tried to stay "neutral". The British soldiers in the pic were there at the request of the Greek Prime Minister and were engaged in fortifying the Macedonian front against the advance of the Central Powers.

Nevertheless, it does seem that the right thing to do at this point is to return the items to their country of origin. The Brits took them from tombs in Greece, so return them to Greece.

...then again, if they were taken from the tomb of an associate of Alexander, who invaded, conquered, and looted a rather large portion of the ancient world, perhaps the items rightly belong to old Persia, perhaps? Of course, Persia no doubt looted them from some other place....this could get complicated.

Wait, I know. We'll just say that ownership of items only transfers to the looters if they are also in the process of conquering militarily the land from which the loot was taken. Persia looting conquered nations, fine. Alexander looting Persia, no problem. But Brits looting Alexandrian tombs in Greece is totally invalid since the Brits were not invading and conquering Greece at the time. Therefore, those items were stolen and should be returned at once to the proper owners, i.e., the nation who looted them fairly from a conquered foe.

You would do that, and so would I, but many wouldn't.
Very often we read stories in newspapers about tourists taking home pieces of ancient structures, like in Pompeii or Rome. That is a total disgrace, but people still do it...

One thing about the Elgin marbles, which were mentioned higher up: those were not "stolen" but bought from the Turks, who "ruled" Athens at that time. The British had black on white, written permission to take the marbles to England. There's nothing illegal about it.
Anyway, if every museum in the world had to return foreign objects to their country of origin, we wouldn't have many musea left...

The debate about the Parthenon marbles is now dated if it is centred on the question whether Elgin acted in good faith or not, or whether the marbles are best displayed in London or Athens. The first issue may have had some validity in 1810, but even then, Elgin was told in Greece: "Look after them well, because when the time comes we shall come asking for them back".

The fundamental issue is that these particular items form part of a monument and this particular monument is the epitome of a whole civilisation, and not just any civilisation, but that which has formed the cornerstone of western culture. It's symbolic value is therefore unsurpassed.

It is a disgrace what these soldiers did. You can see the immaturity in their faces. If in fact they ransacked this or any other grave allot of history may have been lost.

Let us home they did so the whole story will end. The current excavation has been compromised by politics.

There are at the present time laws protecting archaeological sites. Are there laws regarding the return of looted artifacts to their nation of origin? If so, the artifacts need to be returned to the Greeks.

It is imperative that the British Museum returns the Ancient Greek artefacts. Its disgraceful that the new museum in Athens has to have fake replacements due to the fact that the British Museum holds the originals. If you British people cared so much you should actually take a stand for the return of these antiquities and protest.

Why should they be returned? Britain legally acquired the items, they paid for them, they had a written agreement to transport them out of the country. If they hadn't, the marbles would probably not even exist anymore today! Athens is beautiful, and the new museum is great, but don't forget that they only started preserving and restauring monuments in the 1970's, 150 years after the British bought the marbles!
The state of the ruins in Athens in the early 1800's was the biggest shame of Europe, and luckily they changed their ways a lot.

Very interesting comment "if Elgin would not buy the marbles, they would not exist today".

1. Please recall that Elgin and his Turkish patrons destroyed FOREVER at least 20% of the marbles during resection and transportation. The Turks had nothing to lose since their empire was about to collapse.

2. The marbles survived 2500 years of raids by the most barbaric and destructive thugs. They were primarily damaged by the British [who vandalized] and the Venetians [who bombarded the monument].

Who keeps the relics is unimportant. Civilization cannot be stolen. Do you really feel good seeing someone who destroys the relics to bring a souvenir at home?

No, taking souvenirs home is unacceptable and makes me very sad. But, in "old" cases such as the Elgin marbles etc:

1) they were not stolen and brought home as souvenirs, they were officially bought; England paid for them
2) if every museum had to return all its items to their country of origin, museums all around the world would be a really boring place...

I can remember in a lucid dream a lifetime in Minoan Crete several millennia ago. What I can remember is exact in detail the daily life in Minoan times. I can recall speaking the language of that time, presumably Eteocretan(?). If earlier past lifetime memories of classical civilizations are true, reincarnation studies and the data and historical facts they contain could of much value in Archaeology, ancient linguistics, and presently unknown early science and technology.

There are many people who are alive today, who are reincarnated individual from MANY early ancient civilizations. Their earlier lifetimes can contain much historically valuable information. Reincarnation data could be useful in the retrieval of much lost and unknown facts relayed to earlier people, the Etruscans, Minoans, and Olmecs are examples of these. Reincarnation studies could be of great use in Archaeological research.

Yet again Hellenic heritage STOLEN by brits who take it back to their evil homeland. The HELLENIC Government must demand their return. They were looted, stolen and never given, sold or traded.

As to the Parthenon those items were illegally sold by the criminals who at that time stood over the people, killing and destroying at leisure. They should also be returned

Mr. Kemos, The Romans during their Empire were much more concerned with taking Hellenic artifacts and art objects in their time; the recent new exploration of the Antikythera wreck points this up, as the wreck is a Roman first century B.C./BCE date, and filled with art work from the newly Roman Imperial prize of Greece. Rome had centuries and intense desires with which to explore the Hellenic region. The amount of Greek items found in the Roman Imperial cultural area is proof of Roman activity in artifact collecting.

It never ceases to amaze me how enemies of Hellenism, people whose own histories have a dirty stench, belittle a great people. The English upper class and the trolls who support them are thieves and our heritage will be retrieved. Count on it

As to the evil blood sucking Romans who invented NOTHING and stole everything, murdered Christ... what else need be said?

Why blame the Romans? They did it at the incessant calls from Jews to crucify him. Pilate in all actuality did not want to crucify him. All this if you believe in this stuff.

i wonder Tom how can you believe that lie?who pay the British government? when? name profs i wan to see truly to believe that what you say is true.
if British pay the turks....... thats fault.... i am sorry but wrong people you pay the thieves that make all these years the British museum looter thats the truth wanted or not.... no matter what you believe the Greek government did never get money for that as a rent but the same time you had that treasures for free the Greek government pay the loan that the England of 1819-20 gave them...a loan over 150 years to be repaid by the high interest that England put on those.....
honestly i want you to see the truth nothing more i dont try to say something bad but see how the england treat to that country to the one hand over interest and the other had their treasures.
is the unfair......
and one more thing
i wonder what if i go back in 1800 and pay to get the Stonehenge and move some how the half in another country . what the England and Brittish people say about 150-200 years later.....with that my point dear Tom is that the national treasures have no price and is illegal.
i want to see the truth my friend not the one side..

I want to see the truth too, Hellboy, and not only the lies that Greek people have come up with to discredit the British because they feel bad and frustrated about past decisions.

To make a long story short...

- part of the sculptures were not on the Parthenon anymore, but were scattered around since the 17th century; with the techniques existing in the early 1800's, they would never have been able to put them back up again (now we can, but they didn't know this back then)
- half of the scupltures are now lost, amongst other things due to the lack of interest in them by the Greek people; Athens only started renovating and protecting the Acropolis in the 1970's (!)
- you say that the "Greek government never got any money for the marbles", but at the time of Lord Elgin, there was no Greek government... Athens was part of the Ottoman Empire until 1829.
- with the Turks using the Parthenon as a target practise, we are lucky that Elgin took the marbles, otherwise they might not have survived at all
- the Turkish "governor" of Athens (Kaimmakam Seyid) gave them written permission to remove the marbles and take them to England
- Lord Elgin and his team paid 5 guineas a day for the removal of the marbles, a small fortune, plus an additional £39'000 for the permission to have them leave the country
- even if Lord Elgin didn't have permission to take them (which he did), the British Museum has legally acquired them afterwards. Taking the marbles from the BM would be theft.

And related to all this: it would create a really bad precedent. If the UK would "have" to give back the marbles, all countries in the world would start claiming other pieces of art. If all musea in the world had to return all their art to their land of origin, those museums would be a rather boring place to be...

Empires rise and fall and British will be remembered for their class...

They are pirates they where always been. Their queen has a diamond stolen from India in her Crown, should we speak about what they stole from Egypt ?

Thiefs!

i think i have a solution!!!! in USA they have museums full with exhibits doing the simple...they bring some collections from other museums- Hellenic or Egyptian or Chinese- without those exhibits to considered as stolen or something.they took it for several weeks or years-in some cases-
the correct is to see what bad did the oldest generations and fix it!
as you mention the Turks dint care so that's how the world lost one of the most magnificent statues the ivory-gold statue of Athena who it in the Parthenon!so they did not give a dime for the building!
i can tell you that the Turks were like smugglers they took over your country and start to sell it or destroy it.
i don't want to fight! excuse me if look like that i did not meant to do it!
my idea and my opinion is that all the archeological stuff that have been taken-from what ever the country have them now or for what ever the cause or the money that taken- back to the mother country because this is the heritage!
Thank you for your opinion and the talking!

Tsurugi's picture

I agree it would be great if it could be that way, Hellboy.

The British Museum has responded to the accusations re Eric Gardner's having donated looted artefacts from the Amphipolis tomb. See the letter they composed here http://www.marblesreunited.org.uk/2014/10/british-museum-responds-to-acc...

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