Robot-made replicas of Parthenon Marbles could help solve Greece-UK dispute

Greece has repeatedly called for the return of the 2,500-year-old friezes taken from Athens in the 19th century by British nobleman Thomas Bruce

FILE PHOTO: The Parthenon Marbles, a collection of stone objects, inscriptions and sculptures, also known as the Elgin Marbles, are displayed at the British Museum in London October 16, 2014. Hollywood actor George Clooney's new wife, human rights lawyer Amal Alamuddin Clooney, made an impassioned plea on for the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Athens, in what Greeks hope may inject new energy into their national campaign.  REUTERS/Dylan Martinez/File Photo
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A robot-made replica of the ancient Parthenon Marbles ― more commonly known as the Elgin Marbles ― that have been at the centre of a decades-long dispute between Greece and the UK will go on display in London this summer.

Using 3D technology and a surreptitious scan of the original ancient Greek statues on display at the British Museum, the Institute for Digital Archaeology in Oxford has created a full-scale reproduction of the objects.

It is not the first time the institute has used advanced technology to resurrect ancient artefacts. In 2016, it unveiled a two-thirds scale model of Syrian architecture known as 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 millennia old, but it was destroyed by ISIS fighters in 2015.

Made of Egyptian marble, the Palmyra Arch replica was in 2016 displayed in Trafalgar Square in the heart of London.

Of the current Elgin Marbles replica, one is a life-size horse’s head from the Parthenon’s pediment, the other of a sculpted panel from the south side of the temple depicting a scene from the Centauromachy, the mythical battle of the Lapiths against the half-man, half-horse Centaurs.

The carvings made in Italy were created as a prototype for a subsequent copy that the institute wants to carve from a block of marble quarried on Mount Pentelicus, the main source of the stone for the construction of the Acropolis in Athens, from where the Parthenon Marbles were taken more than 200 hundred years ago.

Britain has remained steadfast in the face of Greece’s repeated calls for the 2,500-year-old friezes to be returned, one of the most prominent postcolonial claims for the restitution of imperial spoils.

Archaeologists at the institute used marble from the quarries of Carrara in Italy and the advanced technological wizardry of Robotor ― the machine built to reproduce 3D designs with stone materials ― to replicate the two Parthenon sculptures.

The marbles were stripped from the Parthenon Temple on the Acropolis in Athens by Scottish nobleman Thomas Bruce, known as Lord Elgin, in the early 1800s and shipped to Britain.

He sold the marbles to the British government, which in 1817 passed them on to the British Museum where they remain one of its most prized exhibits.

Greece maintains that the stone carvings were looted ― not given to or bought by the British nobleman ― and that they should be repatriated.

21st December 1961:  Workmen unload a portion of the Parthenon frieze before affixing it to the wall in the new Elgin Marbles room of the British Museum, London.  (Photo by Chris Ware/Keystone Features/Getty Images)

The museum in London has repeatedly refused to return the sculptures, about half of a 160-metre frieze which adorned the 5th century BC monument, saying they were acquired by Lord Elgin under a legal contract with the Ottoman Empire and are part of everyone's "shared heritage".

The executive director of the Institute of Digital Archaeology told The National he was "thrilled" that the robot-made replicas had potentially encouraged the British Museum to repatriate the originals.

"After 200 years of impasse, we are thrilled that our efforts may have played a role in achieving a true seismic shift in the British Museum's position," said Roger Michel.

Chairman of the British Museum and a former Conservative government minister George Osborne said last month he believed there was a “deal to be done” to share the priceless artworks, a sentiment now echoed by Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London.

"We will do whatever we can to support these breakthrough negotiations in the weeks ahead," said Mr Michel.

The hope, he said, is that the museum, home to one of the largest collections of artefacts from around the world ― many of which are at the centre of repatriation claims by their countries of origin ― will take the replicas and return the originals to Greece.

A replica of the Triumphal Arch at Palmyra is unveiled in Trafalgar Square, London, in 2016. The 2,000-year-old arch in the Syrian city was destroyed by ISIS forces in October 2015. Getty Images

The world-renowned cultural institution may, however, be less inclined to accept Mr Michel’s proposal after he ignored their refusal to allow him to scan the pieces.

Along with the institute's technical director, Mr Michel decided to visit the British Museum and scan the marbles anyway, using smartphones equipped with sensors and photogrammetry software that can create 3D digital images.

Once completed, the robot-made replicas of the Parthenon Marbles will also go on display in the UK capital at an as-yet-undisclosed location.

Mr Michel said: "Our fervent hope is that Greece will accept the British Museum's offer of a permanent loan — the most the trustees can do under current UK law — just as the Greeks recently accepted the return of Parthenon sculptures from Italy on an identical permanent loan basis."

In an interview last year, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson ruled out the return of the marbles, saying they were acquired legitimately by Britain and had been legally owned by the British Museum's trustees since.

The restitution of antiquities has been stepped up in the past year, with institutions in the UK and France returning several bronzes to Benin and Italy returning a fragment of the Parthenon Marbles to Greece.

The Libyan government this year formally requested the return of 2,000-year-old columns that were moved from the north African country in the early 19th century and placed in Windsor Great Park near London.

Updated: July 29, 2022, 1:51 PM
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