The Robot Guerrilla Campaign to Recreate the Elgin Marbles

Few cultural disputes inflame British passions more than the disposition of the Parthenon Marbles. Public debate about the statuary has raged since the early 1800s, when the sculptures and bas-reliefs, which date from 447 B.C. to 432 B.C., were stripped from the Parthenon and other Classical Greek temples on the Acropolis of Athens by agents of Thomas Bruce, a Scottish statesman and seventh earl of Elgin. The marbles were purchased — some say looted — by Elgin during his time as ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, the occupying power; they have resided in the British Museum since 1817.

Greek campaigners have repeatedly called on Britain to repatriate the works, arguing that the Turks were a foreign force acting against the will of the people they had invaded. The works, commonly known as the Elgin marbles, would instead be exhibited in Athens, in a purpose-built museum at the foot of the Acropolis. In May, the country’s culture minister, the archaeologist Lina Mendoni, said in a statement to the Guardian, “Lord Elgin used illicit and inequitable means to seize and export the Parthenon sculptures, without real legal permission to do so, in a blatant act of serial theft.”

But officials at the British Museum have staunchly rejected the requests. Backed by a succession of British governments, the museum has justified retaining the marbles on the grounds that Lord Elgin acquired them legitimately; it claims that taking the relics to London helped to safeguard them from neglect and the corrosive effects of Athens’ acid rain and that they are part of a shared heritage, and thus transcend cultural boundaries.

“We are open to exploring any potential loan,” a British Museum spokesperson said, “with formal acknowledgment of the lender’s title to objects and a commitment to return objects a standard precondition.” But Greece will neither acknowledge the lender’s title to the objects, nor will it abide by the “standard precondition.”

Mary Beard, a professor of classics at the University of Cambridge and a British Museum trustee, is on the fence about the marbles. “I see the good arguments for returning them and also the good arguments for keeping them,” Dr. Beard said. In her book, “The Parthenon,” published in 2002, she wrote that the temple has come to stand for deracination, dismemberment, desire and loss.

“For me,” she has said, “the Parthenon sculptures raise some of the biggest questions of cultural property, ownership and where works of art ‘belong.’”

Roger Michel, executive director of the Institute of Digital Archaeology, believes the long-running dust-up can be resolved with the help of 3-D machining. His University of Oxford-based research consortium has developed a robot with the ability to create faithful copies of large historical objects. In 2016, in Trafalgar Square in London, the organization unveiled a two-thirds scale model, made of Egyptian marble, of a Syrian monument called the Monumental Arch of Palmyra, also known as the Arch of Triumph. The original was built by the Romans and was thought to be two millenniums old, but it was wantonly destroyed by Islamic State fighters in 2015.

Andrea Berlin, an archaeology professor at Boston University, said the institute’s efforts to resurrect lost antiquities could have the effect of changing the relationship between viewers of a monument and what it stands for.

Copy that

The marble quarries near Carrara in the Apuan Alps in Italy, where the marble for the Elgin replica

On June 29, at a workshop in Carrara, Italy, the 3-D printing machine began carving a highly detailed copy of one of the Parthenon marbles on display at the British Museum: a life-size head of a horse. Fashioned out of local marble, the copy is the prototype of a copy to be carved from a block of marble quarried on Mount Pentelicus, the main source of the stone for the construction of the Acropolis. A week later, Mr. Michel said, the robot will hew a copy of a second Parthenon marble: a metope, or sculpted panel, of the Centauromachy, a mythic battle between the civilized Lapiths and bestial Centaurs at the wedding feast of Peirithous and Hippodamia.

In Mr. Michel’s mind, the copies are intended for the British Museum. “Our sole purpose is to encourage repatriation of the Elgin marbles,” he said. “When two people both want the same cake, baking a second, identical cake is one obvious solution.”

The rub, he said, is what constitutes “identical” in this context. “If we take the British Museum at its word, the only attributes of the marbles that matter to the museum are its physical qualities and the extent to which they reveal the history and aesthetics of antiquity.”

In March, after the museum refused a formal request to scan the pieces, Mr. Michel and Alexy Karenowska, the technical director of the Institute, showed up in the Duveen Gallery of the British Museum as visitors and resorted to guerrilla tactics. While security staff looked on, the two used standard iPhones and iPads, as many of the latest models are equipped with Lidar sensors and photogrammetry software, to create 3-D digital images.

Lidar is a type of time-of-flight camera that sends waves of light pulses out in a spray of infrared dots to measure distances as small as a fraction of a millimeter. Photogrammetry extracts the geometric information from an image and, with overlapping photos of an object, converts the data into a virtual computer model.

The 3-D images of the marble horse head were uploaded into the carving robot, which shaved the prototype over four days. Mr. Michel said that the final models — both of Pentelic marble — would be completed by the end of July, after which they are to be exhibited at an as yet undisclosed location in London.

Roger Michel, executive director of the Institute of Digital Archaeology in Banbury, Oxfordshire.
The first stage of the carving process takes about a week, after which is a finishing stage, done by by hand.
Dr. Karenowska mixed machinable wax for the rapid prototyping of sub-structures.
Alexy Karenowska, the technical director of the Institute for Digital Archaeology.

Later this summer, Mr. Michel plans to have the robot fabricate two more copies and touch them up to show how the originals would have looked, with any absent pieces restored and damage repaired.

In the late 1930s, British Museum masons skinned some of the marbles. During an ill-judged cleaning operation, much of the patina was literally scraped away with wire brushes, copper chisels and coarse carborundum, also known as silicon carbide, a harsh abrasive cleaning agent that was deemed inappropriate even back then. The intention was to scrub the honey-hued marble alabaster white to convey classical perfection. “Our replicas will have some degree of color restoration, especially skin tones,” Mr. Michel said. The paint is to be applied by hand, in collaboration with Greek experts, to “immunize somewhat from academic criticism.”

As enticing as the Parthenon undertaking may sound, some archaeologists who have supported repatriation expressed unease, noting that the institute and its Palmyra model have been heavily criticized by scholars regarding the source of funding, the lack of public consultation and the whiff of British imperialism.

“Who exactly is asking for this replication?” Colleen Morgan, an expert in digital archaeology and heritage at the University of York, said of the Parthenon effort. “What population does this replication serve? What are the political implications?” She added: “When artifacts become symbols of nationalism and of state power, we need to be very careful about who we are working with and for, and to what end.”

Dr. Mendoni of the Greek Culture Ministry did not respond to a request for comment on the imitation works. The Greek government’s apparent reluctance to weigh in troubles Bernard Means, director of the Virtual Creation Lab at Virginia Commonwealth University. Dr. Means said he would only have attempted such a project with the consultation and full support of Greece. “Otherwise,” he said, “the effort is suggestive of that colonial mind-set, where those who appropriated objects without the informed consent of the colonizers feel they have the right to do with the objects as they please — often in the guise of science, and even if well-intentioned.”

Missing some marbles

The Parthenon in 1875.Credit…Interfoto/Alamy

The Parthenon, designed some 2,500 years ago by the sculptor Phidias, was the quintessence of Hellenic architecture: perfect lines, tall Doric columns along the sides and friezes in high and low relief that convey a Panathenaic procession, an ancient Greek festival to celebrate the city’s patron goddess, Athena, as well as four Ionic columns supporting the roof of the opisthodomos, the back room of the temple.

For 1,000 years, the temple was left more or less intact. When Christianity gained a foothold in the eastern part of the Roman Empire, the Parthenon became the Church of the Parthenos Maria (Virgin Mary), then a mosque and finally a Turkish gunpowder depot.

In 1687, during a siege by the Venetians, the munitions exploded, killing hundreds of people, tearing off the roof of the building and shattering 28 columns, parts of the frieze and the internal rooms. For the next century or so, the rubble provided doorsteps and hearthstone for the local populace and mortar for the building trade, while the Turkish garrison used the carved figures for target practice. By the time Lord Elgin took up his diplomatic post in Constantinople, some 40 percent of the temple’s original sculptural decoration had been destroyed.

A vaguely worded license from the Ottomans authorized Lord Elgin’s men to remove “some pieces of stone with old inscriptions, and figures.” Although there was no explicit permission to cut sculptures off the Parthenon, Elgin apparently took an expansive view, carting off about half of the surviving sculptures on the Athenian citadel. His trove included 17 life-size figures from the temple’s pediments, 15 of the 92 metopes that adorned the exterior of the building and roughly half — a 247-foot portion — of the sculpted frieze that once ran around the inside.

The earl had planned to have these ancient treasures grace Broomhall, his country house in Scotland. But one shipment, aboard the H.M.S. Mentor, was delayed when the ship foundered off the Greek island of Cythera in 1802. Many crates were lost overboard, and it took more than two years to salvage them from the sea.

The Elgin Room of the British Museum in an undated photograph taken during the Victorian era.Credit…Keasbury-Gordon Photograph Archive, via Alamy
Thomas Bruce, third Earl of Elgin, in a portrait by François Harrewijn circa 1738. He was ambassador to the Ottoman Empire at the time the marbles were stolen.Credit…ART Collection/Alamy

During the course of his aristocratic adventure, Elgin was arrested in France as a prisoner of war and imprisoned for three years, and he lost his fortune, his wife and the tip of his nose (either from syphilis, allegedly, or the mercury treatments he took for asthma). In 1816, the cashpoor Elgin sold the marbles to the British Parliament for 35,000 British pounds — the equivalent of at least £3.6 million, or $4.35 million, today — about half the amount he had spent to secure and transport them. The artifacts were then passed into the trusteeship of the British Museum.

The campaign to recover the marbles began almost as soon as they were taken down from the Parthenon, and some of the earliest detractors were Lord Elgin’s peers. In 1811, the poet Lord Byron ridiculed him in the poem “The Curse of Minerva”: “England owns him not: Athena, no! thy plunderer was a Scot.”

Mr. Michel, a former public prosecutor for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, is one of the British Museum’s more outspoken and caustic critics. At times, his standoff with the diffident British establishment seems like something out of a Jeeves and Wooster farce.

“It’s all a bit sad, hanging on to these last vestiges of colonial grandeur like Miss Havisham with her wedding dress,” he said in an email. “These battered and broken pieces of whitewashed stone offer little that can educate anyone about the art of Ancient Greece. At the same time, they hold the same nostalgic emotional power for Greeks as any beloved but tattered family heirloom that has somehow passed into the hands of strangers.”

The push for Western nations to return cultural artifacts to their countries of origin has been gaining momentum. This spring, a museum in Palermo, Italy, permanently returned to Athens a fragment from the Parthenon showing the foot of the Greek goddess Artemis. Although the British government has been under increasing pressure to give back the marbles, the British Museum has avoided the conversation. Its defenders contend that restitution would set a disturbing precedent and that major museum holdings everywhere would be in jeopardy.

“This is an argument that will run and run,” said Daisy Dunn, a British classicist. “It’s hard to see how a solution that satisfies both parties will ever be found.”

Return to lender

A security guard at the Parthenon gallery at the British Museum.Credit…Tom Jamieson for The New York Times

Although the British Museum is unlikely to yield, many archaeologists say the case for the return of the relics is strong and persuasive.

“The building from which they were looted is still standing,” said Tim Schadla-Hall, an archaeologist at University College London who specializes in the public understanding of archaeological heritage. “They should be returned to Greece.”

He added, “A more relaxed approach to genuineness and authenticity is acceptable today and is already accepted by most of us as consumers of the past.”

Producing quality facsimiles of the great sculptural works of antiquity and the Renaissance was a Victorian obsession, and London museums are crammed with plaster casts of Classical originals. Foremost among these are the lofty Cast Courts at the Victoria and Albert Museum, which holds models of Trajan’s Column, Michelangelo’s David and the tomb of Henry VII of Luxembourg, all of which are to size.

Dr. Karenowska says that museums achieve no purpose if they are filled with beautifully preserved objects that only serve the interests of a closed-door academic minority. “Looking after the material remnants of the past is only a small part of preserving its memory and cultural habitat,” she said. “When you look at, or even touch, an ancient object, you are making a connection with something that is a physical witness to an earlier time.” Western culture tends to privilege original objects, Dr. Karenowska says, largely out of a desire to make physical connections with the past.

Boris Johnson, left, then the mayor of London, during the unveiling of the replica Palmyra arch in Trafalgar Square in 2016.Credit…Frank Augstein/Associated Press
Marble from the Marmi di Carrara yard in Italy is washed.

This is why Dr. Dunn doubts that a solution that pleases both the British Museum and the Greek government will ever be achieved. The biggest hurdle, she said, is that the words “copy” and “replica” still mean “second best,” even if that is not necessarily the case. “However strong the intellectual argument, semantics prevail,” Dr. Dunn said.

The production of remarkable copies was unlikely to end the stalemate over the Parthenon marbles, she added: “It is hard to imagine anyone who wants the marbles to remain at the British Museum being satisfied with something produced in part by robots, when the originals represent to them the high point of human artistry.”

Can the broader British public be convinced that exact copies are as good as or indeed better than the originals? Dr. Karenowska suggested that Britons think of reproductions as 3-D photographs: They are not there to pretend to be original but, like Colonial Williamsburg in the United States, to draw attention to just how interesting those originals are.

Mr. Michel quoted a passage from “The Velveteen Rabbit,” a British children’s book from 1922 about a stuffed rabbit that yearns to become real through the love of his owner. “Real isn’t how you are made,” the book reads. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but really loves you, then you become real.”

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