What are the Elgin Marbles and why are they at the centre of a row between Britain and Greece?

A diplomatic row between the PM and his Greek counterpart has ensued over the Elgin Marbles

The Greek prime minister and Rishi Sunak have been embroiled in a diplomatic spat over talks of the return of the Elgin Marbles to Athens.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis had been expecting to meet Mr Sunak during his visit to London on Tuesday, but was left "baffled" and "surprised" when it was unexpectedly cancelled.

It comes after comments made by Mr Mitsotakis' about the Parthenon Sculptures, which he wants given back to the country from the British Museum.

But what are the Elgin Marbles and why does Greece want them returned? ITV News explains.

What are the Elgin Marbles?

The Elgin Marbles, also known as the Parthenon Sculptures, once adorned the Parthenon atop the Acropolis in Athens.

The 520ft frieze ran around the outer walls of the Parthenon, dedicated to Athena, goddess of wisdom.

Carved between 447-432 BC, the frieze and other sculptures remained largely intact until the temple, which was being used by a Turkish garrison as a gunpowder store, was blown up during a siege in 1687.

The Elgin Marbles, also known as the Parthenon Sculptures, once adorned the Parthenon atop the Acropolis in Athens Credit: PA

Why are the statues in the British Museum?

Much was lost following the explosion in 1687 and about half the surviving works were removed by British diplomat Lord Elgin in the early 19th century, while Athens was still under the rule of the Ottoman Empire.

They have been in the British Museum since 1816.

Most of the other works are in the Acropolis Museum, with scattered fragments in Paris, Copenhagen, Munich and Wuerzburg in Germany, and Vienna.

Who was Lord Elgin?

Thomas Bruce, seventh Earl of Elgin, was a British diplomat and art collector infamous for the procurement of the marbles.

He acquired the rights to remove sculptures in 1802, under the pretense that ongoing conflict between the Turks and Greeks could cause damage to the antiques.

In 1810 he published a Memorandum defending his actions after being denounced as dishonest. 

Why has Greece demanded the marbles be returned?

Athens has been campaigning for decades for the return of the artefacts. The country has long claimed they were illegally acquired during a period of foreign occupation.

In 2009, the Acropolis Museum was built in Athens to house the sculptures that remain in Greece alongside other treasures, providing an in-depth view of the ancient history of the Acropolis and its surrounding religious sanctuaries and civic structures.

The museum contains a gallery dedicated to the marble sculptures, where the missing parts have been replaced by plaster casts.

Mr Mitsotakis has called for the marbles to be returned to Greece on many occasions, even offering to loan some of his country’s other treasures to the British Museum in exchange.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s meeting with the Greek leader was unexpectedly cancelled Credit: Kin Cheung/PA

What has Britain’s stance been on the Marbles?

British officials have rebuffed repeated demands for the objects to be returned to Greece.

The 1963 British Museum Act prevents the institution giving away objects from its collection except in very limited circumstances.

Mr Sunak previously said there are “no plans” to change the law, which blocks the Elgin items from being given to Greece.

The prime minister said the UK had “cared for” the sculptures in the British Museum for generations and they were “shared with the world” at the London site.

British Museum chairman, former Conservative chancellor, George Osborne, has previously said he is exploring ways for the Elgin Marbles to be displayed in Greece, with speculation this could involve a loan deal in which part of the set would be sent to Athens.

Last year, the Horniman Museum agreed to return ownership of 72 treasured artefacts to Nigeria, including its Benin Bronzes, Credit: Cambridge University

What other objects have been controversial in Britain?

The British Museum has a number of contested objects in its collection such as large stone statues from Easter Island and Benin Bronzes.

The museum received a written request for the return of “Nigerian antiquities” from Nigeria’s Federal Ministry of Information and Culture in October 2021.

Representatives of the Benin Royal Palace have also spoken publicly about the Benin collections being returned.

Last year, the Horniman Museum in south-east London agreed to return ownership of a looted collection of 72 treasured artefacts to Nigeria, including its Benin Bronzes, because it is the “moral and appropriate” thing to do.

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