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

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...

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...

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.

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