The Mentor Shipwreck and the Disastrous Journey of the Parthenon Marbles to Britain
The British Museum in London is one of the largest and extensive museums on earth, containing approximately eight million works—objects taken from all over the world during the time of the British Empire. One of the most famous and controversial artifacts in its possession is a set of sculptures known variously as the Elgin Marbles, the Parthenon marbles, and the Parthenon sculptures; Greece has long been campaigning for their return to their homeland.
Many are perhaps familiar with the story of the Parthenon, which started its life as a Greek temple dedicated to the city’s patron goddess, Athena. Over the millennia, the structure was converted into a Christian church by the Byzantines, and subsequently into a mosque by the Turks. The Turks also used the Parthenon as a gunpowder storage magazine, which blew up during the Venetian siege of the city in 1687. It was in the early 19th century that sections of the Parthenon were taken to Great Britain.
The Parthenon sits within the Acropolis in Athens, Greece. Source: BigStockPhotos
Who Was Lord Elgin and How Did He Get His Hands on the Parthenon Marbles?
The man responsible for this task was Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin. In 1799, Lord Elgin was appointed the ambassador to the Sublime Porte in Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman Empire. Lord Elgin is said to have intended to improve the knowledge of Classical art in Great Britain by providing his home country with casts of Greek monuments hitherto known only from drawings and engravings.
Portrait of Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin. 1788. Public Domain
Thus, he assembled a team of architects, painters, draftsmen and molders under the leadership of the Italian G.B. Lusieri, and began work in Athens in 1800. According to the British Museum, it was the “continuing destruction of classical sculptures in Athens” that “persuaded Elgin to remove for posterity what sculptures he could.” Though Greece has argued that this was just a façade to justify the stealing of its treasured artifacts.
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In the following year, Lord Elgin obtained a firman (license and letter of instruction) from the Ottoman government as a diplomatic gesture to the British in gratitude of their defeat of the French in Egypt (which was also a part of the Ottoman Empire). According to the firman, Lord Elgin’s men would not be obstructed by the Turkish authorities in Athens in their scholarly work. In addition, Lord Elgin was allowed to ‘take away any pieces of stone with inscriptions or figures’.
Parthenon Galleries on display at The British Museum, London, UK. Tilemahos Efthimiadis/Flickr
In 1802, Lord Elgin and his men had taken away ‘pieces of stone with inscriptions or figures’ that filled 16 boxes, and were preparing to ship them back to London. On the 15 of September, Lord Elgin’s vessel, named Mentor, set off from the Greek port of Piraeus, with the first port of call being the island of Malta. Apart from the 16 boxes of artifacts, or marbles, a total of 12 men were on board the ship.
The Mentor Shipwreck
On the 16 of September, a favorable wind had taken Mentor to Cape Matapan, the southernmost point of mainland Greece. A strong easterly wind, however, forced the ship to spend the night there. The next morning, Mentor continued its journey. It was during this leg of the transit that the captain realized that the ship was taking water. Although he decided that it would be best to make for harbor on the nearest Peloponnesian coast, no one in the crew was familiar with the geography of that area, and so it was thought that the best solution was to seek port on the nearby island of Kythera.
In the afternoon on the same day, Mentor reached the shores of Cape Avlemonas. Two anchors were cast, though they failed to catch the bottom. Several maneuvers were then performed in order to prevent the ship from crashing into the rocks on the coast. This attempt failed, and Mentor crashed into the rocks of Cape Avelemonas and sank into the sea. Fortunately for the men on board, they were rescued by the crew of the vessel Anikitos, which was sailing under the Austrian flag. The 16 boxes of antiquities, however, sunk to the bottom of the sea.
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Retrieving Artifacts from the Mentor Shipwreck
When Lord Elgin heard about the disaster, he had a retrieve and salvage mission organized. Through a monumental effort involving the authorities and residents of the island of Kythera, as well as British and other diplomatic personnel, the Parthenon sculptures were successfully salvaged from the shipwreck, and eventually made their way to the British Museum. When the Mentor shipwreck was revisited in 2011, no additional pieces from Lord Elgin’s collection were found.
However, divers who explored the Mentor shipwreck in 2015 found three amphorae handles from the 3rd century BC and a small stone vessel. That discovery inspired another expedition by marine archaeologists in 2016, which brought many more artifacts to light, such as ancient coins, jewelry, and Egyptian statues. The divers in that expedition also found a compass, part of an hourglass and calipers, glassware, porcelain, bullets and three pistols, flints, a cannonball, and watches that were manufactured in London.
Elgin Marbles/Parthenon Marbles on display at The British Museum. Wikimedia Commons
Continued Controversy Surrounds the Parthenon Sculptures
Between 1930 and 1940, the Parthenon sculptures in the British Museum were cleaned with wire brush and acid, causing permanent destruction of their ancient surface. In 1983, Melina Mercouri, Minister of Culture for Greece, requested the return of the sculptures, and the debate over their return has raged ever since. Recently, the Greek government has made another attempt to retrieve the Parthenon marbles by offering to consistently loan some of Ancient Greece’s best archaeological treasures to British institutions if the museum would finally return the precious sculptures.
Today, the Parthenon sculptures remain one of the most controversial objects in the British Museum, with some arguing for the repatriation of the artifacts to Greece and others claiming that the sculptures ought to remain in London. Similarly, opinion is divided regarding Lord Elgin, the man behind this operation. For some he was the savior of the endangered Parthenon sculptures, while to others he was a looter and pillager of Greek antiquities.
Parthenon marbles on display at The British Museum. Wikimedia Commons
Featured image: Marine research and excavation in the wreck area of the Mentor in 2011 and 2012. Credit: Kytherian Research Group
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Available at: http://krg.org.au/mentor/
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Leontsinis, G., 2010. The Wreck of the Mentor on the Coast of the Island of Kythera and the Operation to Retrieve, Salvage, and Transport the Parthenon Sculptures to London (1802-1805). [Online]
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Available at: http://www.marblesreunited.org.uk/2012/11/a-lecture-on-the-mentor-shipwreck/
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Available at: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/404
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