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From Athens to Andytown, it’s the same old thieving story

By Squinter

THE British Museum has loaned out one of the Elgin Marbles for the first time ever. The State Heritage Museum in St Petersburg will display a headless carving of the river god Ilissos until mid-January, at which time the precious artefact will be returned home. Or else it’ll go back to the British Museum. One or the other.

Let’s just quickly run over what we’re talking about here. The Elgin Marbles are Classical Greek sculptures, shipped to England around 1812 by the 7th Earl of Elgin, Thomas Bruce. The works, sculpted in the studio of the Greek master Phidias in the 5th century BC, were part of the temple of Parthenon situated on the Acropolis of Athens. Bruce claimed to have received permission to excavate and remove the items from the High Porte, effectively the cabinet of the Ottoman Empire, which ruled Greece at that time. The permit cannot be found in the voluminous and virtually intact Ottoman archive.

Bruce sold the Marbles to the British government in 1816 and they were handed over to the British Museum, where they are now displayed in the elaborate and purpose-built Duveen Gallery.

Naturally enough, the Greeks would like their ancient art returned. Other countries which looted treasures from the Acropolis – Germany, Sweden, the Vatican – have returned them to be displayed at a magnificent new Acropolis Museum, opened in 2009 with the aim of displaying all the wonders of the ancient site in their historical context. The return of the Marbles has been strongly supported time and again in opinion polls by the British public. Actors George Clooney and Matt Damon expressed their support for repatriation on the launch earlier this year of the film Monuments Men. Indeed, George’s new bride, Amal, has been retained by the Greek government as a legal advisor in their continuing efforts to right a 200-year wrong.

The British Museum is not for budging, though. But bowing to the sensitivity of the issue, it doesn’t call the items the Elgin Marbles, no, no. That’s too redolent of the past, and of the truth. Instead it refers to them as the Parthenon Sculptures. It was much the same desire to excise an inconvenient past that led to Windscale becoming Sellafield and Long Kesh turning into the Maze.

The British legacy of looting is felt in Andytown as well as in Athens. Perhaps not as keenly, but it is felt nevertheless. British soldiers routinely stole from homes during raids, and they were particularly apt to take from clothes lines any item of clothing that took their fancy, either for themselves or female family members. Rent and coal money was taken from fireplaces, jewellery and other items of value were taken from drawers, anything that was vaguely political or Irish was taken to be placed in living rooms in Birmingham and Liverpool as a trophy of their Irish tour – Long Kesh harps were particularly prized.

Squinter has decided to write to George and Matt to ask them to sign up to his campaign to have the stolen items returned to Belfast. The clothes the Brits can keep because let’s face it: Wrangler flares and Gilbert jumpers are no longer the fashion items du jour. But we’d quite like our valuables back, please. And if the money was paid back in full – with interest – many families across This Here Pravince would have a very merry Christmas indeed.


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