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The Elgin Marbles on display at the British Museum, London. Source: Justin Norris / CC BY 2.0

Lost in Time Faces Revealed on the Elgin Marbles

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The Elgin or Parthenon Marbles are among the most controversial artworks in the world. 19 th century plaster casts of the sculptures have been analyzed using 3D images and have revealed new details about the works. This is helping researchers to better understand and appreciate some of the greatest art produced in the classical period.

The Elgin Marbles are a collection of sculptures and friezes that date from 5 th century BC, Athens, and were once a symbol of the power and culture of the city. They were removed from the Acropolis in Athens by Elgin, a British aristocrat, and taken to London in 1802. They have remained in the British Museum and since the 19 th century the Greek government has demanded their return.

Molds of the Elgin Marbles

Elgin took about half of the marbles away from the Acropolis, but he “also employed specialist craftsmen to create detailed plaster casts of many of the artworks that he left behind on the great Athens monument,” reports The Guardian . More casts were made in 1872, on the orders of a British diplomat in Athens, Charles Merlin. These casts have been kept in London ever since because there were worries that the casts would become worn or damaged. Furthermore, the original sculptures are believed to have deteriorated badly and features of the original artworks have been lost. According to The Daily Mail , the marbles “could still potentially represent the best-preserved three-dimensional record of the friezes.”

Top: Elgin cast, made 1802. Middle: Merlin cast, made 1872. Bottom: original sculpture. Note the loss of the figure’s face since creation of Elgin’s cast. (Dr Emma Payne, 3D imaging conducted courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum and Acropolis Museum / Antiquity)

Top: Elgin cast, made 1802. Middle: Merlin cast, made 1872. Bottom: original sculpture. Note the loss of the figure’s face since creation of Elgin’s cast. (Dr Emma Payne, 3D imaging conducted courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum and Acropolis Museum / Antiquity)

An expert using 3D imaging techniques was able to create digital images of the casts that mainly came from the West Frieze of the Parthenon. Dr. Emma Payne, a classical scholar from King’s College London, examined the casts made on the orders of Lord Elgin, and those commissioned by Charles Merlin. Subsequently, a 3D scanner was used to create a model of the original sculptures, which since 1993 have been on display in a museum in Athens. According to The Daily Mail , Payne then begun “overlaying the resulting images to highlight any differences between the three.”

Faces Discovered Using Groundbreaking Technology

Dr. Payne, who is also trained in archaeological conservation, went on to analyze the digital images. From the plaster cast copies she was able to identify that many details of the original sculptures had been lost. Specifically, the specialist was able to identify faces that are missing from the originals in the Athenian Museum and have not been seen since the Victorian era . Sadly, she was also able to see that 19 th-century vandals had apparently deliberately damaged the faces of some of the sculptures.

Chisel marks on the head of figure 15 of the West Frieze VIII, which is missing on original sculpture but present in Elgin’s casts. (Dr Emma Payne, 3D imaging conducted courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum and Acropolis Museum / Antiquity)

Chisel marks on the head of figure 15 of the West Frieze VIII, which is missing on original sculpture but present in Elgin’s casts. (Dr Emma Payne, 3D imaging conducted courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum and Acropolis Museum / Antiquity)

Payne has been able to establish that the casts were much more accurate than expected.  The Daily Mail reports that “in fact, most of the casts were found to deviate from the original sculptures by no more than 1.5 millimeters.” This means that the plaster casts are excellent records of the artworks. Those who cast the molds had a very high reputation at the time, and they were often regarded as producing new works of art, not merely copies.

The greener area is more like the original marbles than Elgin’s cast is. The black head represents an area present in the Elgin casts now missing on the original sculptures. (Dr Emma Payne, 3D imaging conducted courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum and Acropolis Museum / Antiquity)

The greener area is more like the original marbles than Elgin’s cast is. The black head represents an area present in the Elgin casts now missing on the original sculptures. (Dr Emma Payne, 3D imaging conducted courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum and Acropolis Museum / Antiquity)

Modern Pollution Fails Artwork

Based on the scans of the West Frieze, it seems that the artworks were in better condition in 1802 than they are today. Making a comparison between the scans of the originals and the copies, it appears that modern pollution has done more harm to the artwork than all previous centuries before. Payne told The Guardian that “Elgin’s casts could be important records of the state of the sculptures in the very early 19th century before modern pollution would hasten their deterioration.”

She also compared the Elgin casts from 1802 and those made in the 1870s. She established that more damage had been done to the Elgin Marbles in the intervening 70 years. This is more so than all the years subsequent and before they were moved to the museum in the 1990s. The expert also found that the Merlin casts are more accurate than the Elgin molds.

Casts Reveal Secrets

The analysis of the scans revealed that those who made the Elgin casts sought to add missing features. However, her work also showed the great skill of those who made the casts and that the casters had made excellent copies of the artworks. This proves the value of these casts for researchers. Payne stated, “this work helps us to understand the important role that such casts can still play as 3D time capsules,” according to The Guardian . Many molds have also been made of works from Delphi, Olympia and elsewhere, and these casts can provide valuable information on these historic sites and their art.

3D model of the figure from the North Frieze (original on the left, Elgin’s Cast on the right). The Elgin cast appears to feature an effort to reconstruct the missing portion. (Dr Emma Payne, 3D imaging conducted courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum and Acropolis Museum / Antiquity)

3D model of the figure from the North Frieze (original on the left, Elgin’s Cast on the right). The Elgin cast appears to feature an effort to reconstruct the missing portion. (Dr Emma Payne, 3D imaging conducted courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum and Acropolis Museum / Antiquity)

The research could become important in the controversy over the Elgin Marbles. The cast shows that Elgin was not only someone who acquired the works but also by ordering the casts to be made, he greatly helped with preservation of the artworks. Through the centuries, the Parthenon had been badly damaged by fire, vandalism and an explosion, and the British aristocrat believed that he was saving the marbles from further harm. Payne’s groundbreaking research is published in Antiquity.

Top image: The Elgin Marbles on display at the British Museum, London. Source: Justin Norris / CC BY 2.0

By Ed Whelan

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These are Parthenon Marbles on dispay at the British Museum.

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