1801: When Lord Elgin Removed the First Sculptures from Parthenon to Take to England

It was late July, early August 1801 when Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, ambassador of England in Constantinople, took down sculptures from the Parthenon to take to England.

The Scots diplomat was also an art collector. In May 1800, he sent Embassy Secretary William Hamilton to Athens with six artists and craftsmen from Italy to record the ancient monuments of Attica and especially the Parthenon. His original purpose was to get casts from various monuments to decorate his mansion in Scotland.

When international political events led Turkey into an alliance with Great Britain against France, Elgin seized the opportunity to personally benefit and acquire a huge collection of antiquities. In 1801 he managed to get a letter from Kaimakam Segut Abdullah, who at that time replaced Grand Vizier in Constantinople, urging the Ottoman authorities in Athens to allow his people to perform excavations around the Acropolis, provided they did not damage the monuments.

From 1801 to 1804, Elgin’s crews worked on the Acropolis, causing considerable damage to sculptures and the monument itself, detaching and dividing a significant part (about half) of the sculptures decorating the Parthenon, along with some architectural pieces. Removable antiquities were to be packed in boxes and transported by sea to England.

The first metopes from the Parthenon were removed on July 31st – August 1st. In 1802, the first 12 boxes were loaded onto Elgin’s ‘Mentor’ sailboat. The ship, however, sank into Avlemonas of Kythera and it took two years to recover all the crates containing the antiquities.

In 1803, Elgin returned to England and then he was captured in France, as the Amiens Treaty was violated. He returned to his homeland in 1806, where he was criticized by several distinguished compatriots for bringing the Greek sculptures to England.

They accused him of being a common thief and a vandal who through improper means (bribes etc), robbed respected monuments of culture for his own benefit.

The Parthenon sculptures ended up at the British Museum where they have been exhibited to this day. Greek governments of the past few decades have been making efforts to repatriate the priceless pieces of world civilization.