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More Treasures Retrieved from Lord Elgin’s Ship Which Sank with the Parthenon Marbles

More Treasures Retrieved from Lord Elgin’s Ship Which Sank with the Parthenon Marbles

A remarkable collection of artifacts has been discovered by marine archaeologists revisiting the Mentor shipwreck. Mentor was a ship that sank in 1802 near the island of Kythera in Greece while controversially transporting precious artifacts including the world-renowned Parthenon marbles to England.

According to Haaretz, the cargo of coins, jewelry, Egyptian statues, and many other artifacts were discovered by the team of marine archaeologists led by the Greek Culture Ministry's Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities, Dimitris Kourkoumelis.

Some of the artifacts found aboard Mentor, Lord Elgin's ship that sank off Kythera while carrying Parthenon marbles from Piraeus to London in 1802.

Some of the artifacts found aboard Mentor, Lord Elgin's ship that sank off Kythera while carrying Parthenon marbles from Piraeus to London in 1802. ( Petros Vezyrtzi )

Although many precious items were looted and recovered from the sea a long time ago, there is still a lot left to discover around the famous wreckage. The ship’s amazing story has been described before on Ancient Origins.

Lord Elgin, the ship’s owner, was responsible for acquiring the antiquities England’s elite were interested in at the time. As Dhwty wrote : “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.”

“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. […] 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 September 15, Lord Elgin’s vessel 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 […] a total of 12 men were on board the ship.” [via Ancient Origins]

Portrait of Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin. 1788.

Portrait of Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin. 1788. ( Public Domain )

Dhwty continues: “On September 16, 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 transit that the captain realized that the ship was taking on 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.”

The ship sank to the depth of 23 meters (75.5ft.), but all the passengers and crewmembers were rescued by a vessel named Anikitos. However, the 16 boxes of antiquities sank to the bottom of the sea. To remedy this problem, Lord Elgin hired sponge divers from the island of Kalymnos, and the precious marbles were salvaged from the wreck and shipped to the UK through Malta.

Parthenon marbles on display at The British Museum.

Parthenon marbles on display at The British Museum. ( Andrew Dunn/ CC BY SA 2.0 )

But not everything was recovered. Thus, a team of marine archaeologists discovered parts of an Egyptian statue and a piece of an ancient Egyptian inscription which sheds light on the origins of the marble. As Dimitris Kourkoumelis recently told Haaretz: ''In Egypt, especially Alexandria, they were selling ancient stone statues of Egyptian pharaohs that were used as ballast on the ships. Afterwards, when they reached port, they would take out the ballast and sell the statues to collectors.''

Fragment of Pharaonic statue that was found with the shipwreck. It dates to the New Kingdom period (1570-1070 BC).

Fragment of Pharaonic statue that was found with the shipwreck. It dates to the New Kingdom period (1570-1070 BC). (EUA - Petros Vezyrtzis/ GR Reporter )

Apart from this, the team of researchers found an instrument probably used by William Leek, a famous British topographer, who made the topographical map of Zea in Piraeus and drawings of the Parthenon. They also found several artifacts that belonged to the passengers and crew of the ship which can still be tied to specific individuals. The divers discovered a compass, part of an hourglass and calipers, glassware such as vessels, cups, and bottles, porcelain, three pistols and many bullets, flints, a cannonball, and watches that were manufactured in London.

In the next season, Dimitris Kourkoumelis’ team hopes to explore Mentor’s bow and uncover more antiquities. They believe there are still more Parthenon marble fragments which were broken and left behind.

A pistol underwater archaeologists found aboard the ship Mentor.

A pistol underwater archaeologists found aboard the ship Mentor. ( Petros Vezyrtzi )

It has been 200 years since the tragedy on the sea, yet the topic of the Parthenon marbles is still very controversial. In 1816, Lord Elgin sold the marble treasures to the British Government and they became part of the British Museum’s collection. However, nowadays, Elgin is regarded as a thief by many Greek people.

They see him as a criminal who stole their heritage. Many of the original Parthenon marbles can be found in London and some are in the Louvre in Paris. Greek exhibits mostly consist of plaster casts of the precious marbles, but there is an ongoing attempt to recover the lost treasures from abroad.

An idealised view of the Temporary Elgin Room at the Museum in 1819, with portraits of staff, a trustee and visitors.

An idealised view of the Temporary Elgin Room at the Museum in 1819, with portraits of staff, a trustee and visitors. ( Public Domain )

Top Image: Underwater archaeologists explore the wreck of Mentor, Lord Elgin's ship that sank off Kythera due to the heavy weight of the Parthenon marbles. Source: John Fardoulis and Alexandros Tourtas

By Natalia Klimczak

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