After 60 Years, Damage Caused by British Museum Restorers to the Elgin Marbles is Finally Made Public
In early June, Britain’s culture secretary, Chris Smith, appeared before Parliament to answer questions about the Elgin Marbles, the 2,500-year-old sculptures removed from the Parthenon by Lord Elgin and acquired by the British Museum in 1816 (see Jacob Rothenberg, “Lord Elgin’s Marbles,” AO 01:02).
“They have been kept in very good condition,” Smith said of the marbles carved under the direction of the master sculptor Phidias. “Very great care has been taken of them ever since [their acquisition].”
But just a week after Smith’s testimony, Oxford University Press published a revised edition of the classic study Lord Elgin and His Marbles, by historian William St. Clair. Citing a 1939 British Museum internal report, previously suppressed by museum officials, St. Clair reports that between 1938 and 1939 museum curators botched an attempt to clean a number of the marbles by scrubbing the sculptures with abrasive copper scrapers. Not only were the marbles’ surfaces damaged, but the tool marks of Phidias’s crew and patches of fifth-century B.C. paint—the marbles were originally painted—were obliterated.
Wealthy art dealer Lord Duveen ordered the cleaning to coincide with the opening of a new gallery in the British Museum bearing his name, specially built to display the marbles. The problem is, Duveen incorrectly assumed that the marbles were originally white (by the 1930s most of the paint applied by Phidias and his team had peeled away). The marbles weren’t dirty, however; their honey-brown exterior was a natural patina acquired over a centuries-long aging process.
By the time museum officials realized the damage that had been done—the declassified 1939 report noted that the head of the moon goddess Selena’s horse (above) had been essentially “skinned”—they attempted a cover-up by re-staining many of the marbles with colored wax, St. Clair writes.
In an interview given in May 1939, the museum’s chief cleaner, Arthur Holcombe, admitted that “to get off some of the dirtier spots [he had] rubbed the Marbles with a blunt copper tool.” He believed that the metal wouldn’t abrade the marbles “because the copper is softer than the stone.”
Several months before Hol-combe’s comments, however, the British Museum Standing Committee reported that “through unauthorised and improper efforts to improve the colour of the Parthenon sculpture[s] for Lord Duveen’s new gallery, some important pieces had been greatly damaged.”
For nearly 60 years, British secrecy laws, which allow official documents to be withheld from the public for 30 011years, kept the scandal hush-hush. (A British Foreign Office report, titled “Treatment of Elgin marbles: use of copper wire brushes to clean the marbles thus damaging the surface,” mysteriously disappeared.) Arguing that the museum’s 30 years of confidentiality had expired, St. Clair repeatedly pressed museum officials to release the classified 1939 museum report. In 1996, after much wrangling, the museum finally complied.
According to spokesman Andrew Hamilton, the museum is inviting a panel of scholars, restoration specialists and other experts to assess the lasting damage to the Elgin Marbles—which Hamilton believes isn’t nearly as dire as St. Clair claims. “The [British Museum] trustees admitted at the time there had been over-cleaning in some areas of sculpture,” Hamilton told London’s Daily Telegraph in June. “But we think Mr. St. Clair is exaggerating the damage.”
Nevertheless, the publication of St. Clair’s book is sure to incite the passions of those clamoring for the marbles’ return to Greece. Those who believe that the sculptures ought to stay in the British Museum have always argued that the marbles have been safe there, spared from vandalism and Athens’s corrosive smog, which has eaten away at many of the city’s monuments. In the
Whether the marbles remain in the British Museum or are returned to Greece is still the subject of lively debate. Although St. Clair’s charges won’t decide the issue one way or the other, they do bolster the argument of the Greek government, which for years has demanded that the marbles be returned to Athens.
Erected 1,000 years before Egypt’s earliest pyramid, the Mnajdra temples, on the southern coast of Malta, are now in danger of collapse. These monuments, the world’s oldest freestanding stone structures, were built of coral and limestone—in unusual figure-eight-like arrangements. Although little is known about the activities that took place in the temples, excavations in the 19th and 20th centuries have revealed much about ancient building methods. Now, however, damage caused by rain, salt, vandals, tourists and vibrations from nearby construction work has weakened the temples’ walls. Thus the World Monuments Fund has included them on its 1998–1999 list of the world’s 100 Most Endangered Sites. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared the temples a World Heritage Site in 1992. The World Monuments Fund can be contacted at 949 Park Ave., New York, NY 10028, or on-line at http://www.worldmonuments.org.
The New Nubia Museum
Saving a Civilization from the Waters of the Nile
The flat, dry landscape along the road to Aswan, Egypt, 400 miles south of Cairo, is broken abruptly by a stunning structure towering over the edge of the city—by day, a desert-brown fortress; by night, a golden palace. This is the first glimpse of the new Nubia Museum, built to house treasures from a 5,000-year-old civilization inundated by the rising waters of Lake Nasser.
Ancient Nubia extended from Aswan, the traditional southern boundary of dynastic Egypt, to modern Khartoum, in the Sudan. From the fourth millennium B.C., Nubians supplied the Near Eastern and Mediterranean regions with exotic goods traded from central Africa: ivory, incense, ebony, leopard skins, ostrich feathers and, on the darker side, east African slaves (the slave trade continued until the 19th century). Nubia also became known for its rich copper and gold mines (“Nubia” may derive from the Egyptian word for gold, nbu) and for its warriors (one Egyptian name for Nubia, Ta-Seti, or “Land of the Bow,” honors the skill of Nubian archers).
Thus the Nubians acquired a patina of romance in ancient literature. According to the Bible, Moses took a Kushite (Nubian) wife. And Alexander the Great was said to have visited Nubia, in disguise, to see for himself this land of gold, archers and beautiful women.
Who were the Nubians? Nubians were often depicted in Egyptian tomb paintings as having short, curly hair and dark brown or black skin—like black Africans—whereas a red-brown paint was used for the skin of Egyptian men, and a yellow pigment for Egyptian women. The Greeks and Romans referred to Nubia as Ethiopia, the Land of Burnt Faces, because of the natives’ dark skin.
No Nubian texts survive from before the first millennium B.C., so Nubia’s ancient history, enmeshed with Egypt’s, is also largely recorded from an Egyptian perspective. Even the earliest evidence of a distinctive Nubian civilization—royal graves excavated at Qustul, about 150 miles south of Aswan—shows the influence of Nubia’s powerful rival to the north. Although these graves date to about 3100 B.C., just before the formation of the Egyptian dynasties, their burial goods included stone vessels, amulets and copper adzes imported from Egypt.
During Egypt’s Old Kingdom (2700–2190 B.C.), relations between the two nations involved mainly trade and the establishment of Egyptian-run copper and gold mines in Nubia. Egypt also sought to control her rival’s economic resources by building fortresses deep into the heart of Nubia. Pharaoh Senusret III (1874–1855 B.C.) erected a stela at Semna, near the third cataract of the Nile, establishing Egypt’s southern boundary and forbidding any “Negro” (Nubian) from crossing it “except a Negro who shall come to do trading with a commission.”
With the collapse of Egypt’s Old Kingdom, Nubia experienced a brief independence. But then, in what was to become a recurring pattern, a resurgent Egypt of the Middle Kingdom (2040–1674 B.C.) reduced northern Nubia to vassal status. In the 17th century B.C., with the Middle Kingdom in decline, a new Nubian kingdom emerged with its capital at the modern Sudanese town of Kerma. When Egypt came to be ruled by Asian pharaohs, the so-called Hyksos Dynasty (1674–1553 B.C.), the Kerma kingdom sided with these foreign kings. The wealth of Kerma’s kings is reflected in their extravagant burials: Lying on gold-covered beds surrounded by burial goods, kings were laid to rest, unmummified, under huge, circular earthen mounds the size of football 013fields. They also built separate tombs for their beloved horses.
But the pendulum swung again: A reunited Egypt under the New Kingdom (1552–1069 B.C.) began a systematic colonization of Nubia, building a great number of temples staffed with Egyptian priests. (Now in the Nubia Museum, the gypsum mummy mask above, once covered with gold leaf, dates to the New Kingdom period, when Nubians took up Egyptian religious practices; traditional Nubian burials did not involve mummification.) These attempts to Egyptianize the Nubians, however, were not conflict free: A stela from the reign of Thutmose III (1479–1425 B.C.) records that, on a morning hunting expedition, the king “carried off a rhinoceros by shooting (arrows) in the southern country of Nubia” and then immediately headed off to put down a Nubian uprising.
The floruit of Nubian culture and influence came in the eighth century B.C. A kingdom with its capital at Napata, in southern Nubia, conquered Egypt and ruled as the 25th Dynasty (750–664 B.C.). Seeking to revive a version of the ancient Egyptian theology that the Nubians had assimilated centuries earlier from their New Kingdom rulers, the Nubian pharaohs, particularly Piankhy (747–716 B.C.) and his brother Shabaka (716–702 B.C.), built or renovated numerous temples, both in Nubia and at the sacred Egyptian cities of Memphis and Thebes. On a large basalt slab (known as the Shabaka stone, now in the British Museum), Shabaka had his artisans carve text describing the creation of the world by the Memphite god Ptah. This text, the pharaoh claimed, was a copy of an ancient religious document found at Memphis.
This temple-building tradition was continued by Pharaoh Taharqa (690–664 B.C.), shown above in a diorite representation (now in the Nubia Museum), wearing a crown that was originally covered with gold foil. The only Nubian king mentioned in the Bible (2 Kings 19:9; Isaiah 37:9), Taharqa encouraged his artists to model their work on the masters of Egypt’s Middle and Old Kingdoms. In his 17th year (c. 674 B.C.), Taharqa defeated the invading army of the Assyrian king Esarhaddon. Three years later, Esarhaddon returned and drove the Nubian dynasty out of Memphis. “Taharqa,” boasted Esarhaddon, “I wounded five times with arrowshots and ruled over his entire country.”
After the Assyrian conquest, the Nubian kings were left with Nubia, which they ruled, under various dynasties, for 1,000 years. The most powerful of these dynasties—the Meroitic kingdom, with its capital at Meroe, in southern Nubia—ruled from the third century B.C. to the fourth century A.D. Meroitic merchants traded along caravan routes east to the Red Sea and south into central Africa. It was the Meroitic people who, for the first time in Nubian history, wrote down their language, in an alphabetic script—though this language has not yet been fully deciphered.
In the sixth century A.D., missionaries from Egypt and Byzantium converted much of Nubia to Christianity. Two rival Christian kingdoms, one in the south and one in the north, survived until Arabs invaded in the 14th century and converted the Nubians to Islam.
The physical remains of this storied past were threatened in the 1960s by the Aswan High Dam—which created the 300-mile-long Lake Nasser, flooding much of ancient Nubia and forcing the relocation of about 100,000 people. Prior to the dam’s completion, a massive rescue operation was conducted to preserve as much of Nubia’s heritage as possible. Conservators painstakingly dismantled ancient temples, block by block, and reassembled them on higher ground; the great temple built by Ramesses II at Abu Simbel, with its four 65-foot-high statues of the enthroned pharaoh, was saved from the flood waters. This rescue operation recovered thousands of ancient and modern objects, which for decades were stored in warehouses. These objects are now prominently displayed in the Nubia Museum, which opened in November 1997.
Built at a cost of about $22 million, the museum contains Stone Age rock carvings, beautifully wrought statuary from the dynastic periods, and blue-glazed amulets and ceramic incense burners showing the influence of Greek cults. A large-scale model of the temple complex at Philae (8 miles south of Aswan)—the actual structures were moved to safer ground—provides a reminder that relations between Egypt and Nubia were not always hostile: One of Philae’s temples, to the Nubian god Arensnuphis, was built in the late third century B.C. in an extraordinary act of cooperation by Ptolemy IV, the Greek ruler of Egypt, and King Arkamani of Nubia.
There’s much more: illuminated manuscripts and delicate frescoes from early Christian communities; brilliant colored glass and sacred parchment writings from the Islamic period; and dioramas and exhibitions illustrating scenes from Nubian life, ancient and modern. This new museum, a civilization in miniature, conducts us effortlessly through the great sweep of Nubian history.
Head of Empress Sabina
c. 136 A.D.
Excavating in Carthage in 1874, a French team uncovered an ornate gray-marble statue of Vibia Sabina (88–136 A.D.), wife of the Roman emperor Hadrian. The empress is depicted wearing two tunics clasped to her body and a cloak draped carefully over her left shoulder. The excavators also found pieces of Sabina’s coiffure, with the locks of her hair chiseled into a pattern of snakes. These elements suggest that the statue’s North African sculptor worked from earlier Greek representations of Ceres, goddess of grain and the harvest.
In 1875 Sabina embarked on the ship Magenta for Toulon, France. Not far from the Toulon harbor, a cache of gunpowder aboard the ship caught fire and exploded, sinking the Magenta. Most of the Sabina statue, her gray marble charred by the explosion, was saved and transported to the Louvre. But her head went down with the ship.
Three years ago, a French maritime expedition, using magnetic imaging, located the Magenta and recovered Sabina’s head (above).
It too was severely blackened by the explosion and a piece of the nose had chipped off. But the head was otherwise in excellent condition; archaeologists surmise that heat from the explosion tempered the marble, protecting it from corrosive seawater.
Grandniece of the emperor Trajan, Vibia Sabina married Hadrian in 100 A.D., just as she was entering her teens. After Hadrian became emperor in 117, the two often traveled together throughout the empire. The marriage was childless, however, prompting some ancient sources to report that relations between husband and wife were unhappy. Rumor, probably groundless, even ascribed Sabina’s death in 136 to poisoning by Hadrian.
But the archaeological evidence tells another story: In the years before Hadrian’s own death in 138, a period in which he became fascinated with ancient Greek culture, the emperor abundantly memorialized his late wife on coins and in statuary—here, curiously, in an image of a Greek fertility goddess.
Tools of the Trade
Going Under the Knife in Roman Period Britain
In 1996 British archaeologists broke into a 2,000-year-old burial chamber near Colchester, England, about 40 miles northeast of London. The tomb contained the remains, archaeologists then believed, of a Celtic chief and his family surrounded by their worldly effects—including an amphora, clay vessels and the remnants of a wooden board game.
But one of the burial goods was puzzling: a set of small iron and copper implements. Last year, excavators from the Colchester Archaeological Trust, in collaboration with experts from the British Museum, identified these tools as a highly sophisticated set of surgical instruments. Apparently the chief was buried not only with family members but with his attendants, among them his personal physician.
The set consists of (from left to right in the photo above) two iron scalpels, a saw, two blunt hooks, a sharp hook, two pairs of forceps, three iron needles, a bronze scoop probe and an unknown instrument too corroded to identify. Although these instruments probably belonged to a native Briton, they resemble Roman sets of surgical tools that became standardized around the turn of the era—and the scoop probe (second from right in the photo above) is probably a Roman import.
Our ancient sawbones, perhaps versed in Roman surgical techniques, would likely have used these instruments to perform operations on tonsils, varicose veins, hemorrhoids and cataracts, among other things. Ralph Jackson, a British Museum expert on Roman instruments, told Discover magazine that Roman medical texts advise surgeons to perform tonsillectomies with a scalpel and a sharp hook. The Romans treated cataracts by passing a needle through the side of the eye and smashing the lens, Jackson said: “Although you’ve taken away the lens, you at least allow light to come through, and this brings back some degree of vision.”
The Colchester grave dates to the 50s A.D., when the Romans began to settle in Britain. Our doctor may have learned his trade from Roman army surgeons, but his iron tools (rather than the usual Roman bronze) and his burial in the Colchester grave suggest that he was a native healer-priest, perhaps even a Druid, attached to a ruling Celtic clan.