Elgin had no authority to dismantle structures or desecrate graves.
Professor Rudenstine’s revelations also confirm what many have already concluded. Namely that whatever the second firman or the purported Italian translation of that letter authorised Elgin or his party to do, it was not to dismantle the structure of the Parthenon, but instead was written in terms that limited the extent of the activities sanctioned. That is to erect scaffolding to allow measuring and moulding, and digging among the rubble of the ‘Temple of the Idols‘, as the Parthenon was known.
Questioning the limit of Elgin’s authority in removing sacred items is not fanciful and is hardly new. The question of the extent that Elgin’s written authority allowed him to lawfully obtain his collection was so important that it took up one part of the four-part Select Committee Inquiry & Report in 1818. But even before then and particularly in 1815 when Elgin presented his petition to Parliament there was great controversy about the propriety of his actions abroad. Hansard, the record of debates in the Westminster Parliament gives us some idea of the strength of feeling that Elgin’s actions aroused.
On the record for 15th June 1815 we see a response to Elgin’s petition by Sir John Newport the Honourable Member for Waterford who: “thought, that a full inquiry ought to be made into the manner in which the collection had been acquired. He was afraid that the noble lord had availed himself of most unwarrantable measures, and had committed the most flagrant acts of spoliation. It seemed to have been reserved for an ambassador of this country to take away what Turks and other barbarians had always held sacred. It was the duty of the House to ascertain the truth of these matters; for otherwise, in case they should consent to purchase the collection, they would evidently sanction acts of public robbery.” LINK
No letter of permission was ever been presented to Parliament as authority to excavate and plunder artifacts and sacred relics from churches, graveyards, or other places outwith the citadel of Athens. This is evident from the new firman translation which is appended to the Report of the Select Committee LINK and from the letters of Mary Nisbet. The extent of excavation allowed did not run to graveyards and was confined by the firman to foundations where they were allowed to “discover inscriptions which may have been covered in the rubbish“.
Even taking into account the fact that the Porte was keen to please Britain and Elgin benefited from this by a generous interpretation of the firman, which Hunt in evidence said, caused the Voivode: “rather to extend than contract the precise permissions of the fermaun.” the terms of the firman can in no way be construed as a charter for grave robbery.
The various Memorandums LINK and Hunt’s letters LINK describe the unearthing a funereal urn, on which Hunt says was inscribed ‘Aspasia’. Epaminondas Vranopoulos believes that this belonged to the famous courtesan Aspasia, said to be the most influential woman in ancient Athens. The urn certainly contained the remains of a very important person, as Hunt waxes lyrical about the quality of the outer marble urn, the inner alabaster urn, and the myrtle wreath of gold that the buried lady had worn. Yet he mentions nothing of the woman’s remains other than to refer to a deposit of burnt bones, which, presumably would have been decanted without ceremony onto a rubbish heap.
Hunt’s letters describing these acts, written by a supposed man-of-god, are tantamount to a confession of grave robbery and sacrilege. Elgin profited from this unashamed grave robbing, the proceeds of which were carefully catalogued including “Some hundreds of large and small earthenware Urns or Vases, discovered in digging in the ancient Sepulchres round Athens“. This despicable plunder formed a large part of the booty offered to Parliament for a price. The irony of a doctor (albeit of divinity), Hunt, looting the Sepulchral Stele of Hippocrates and Elgin trying to sell it to Parliament is beyond parody. LINK
Perhaps, not surprisingly, the many altars, hundreds of Athenian funereal urns, sepulchral columns and grave markers that formed a major part of Elgin’s collection were not discussed in detail by the Select Committee. The ghastly trophies gained by excavating graveyards, tombs and sepulchres was probably too disgusting a topic for discussion by the politicians of the day, as they represented a sacrilege too far.
However it should be emphasised that the British Government bought a collection. A collection that when first detailed and offered for sale by Elgin in a letter to the Right Honourable, Charles Long, MP, Paymaster of the Forces, dated May 6 1811,– who acted as the price negotiator between Elgin and the then Prime Minister, Spencer Percival (1809-1812) — only consisted of two subject heads: “Drawings and Casts“ and “Sculptures and Inscriptions now in England“. The first offer made by the Prime Minister for this limited collection was in the sum of £30,000, which Elgin declined.
The second offer to sell was made by Elgin by way of a petition in 1815 and this was for a much enhanced collection. The Select Committee Report of 1816 states that since the 1811 offer made by Mr Percival: “Eighty additional cases have been received the contents of which, enumerated in Mr Hamilton’s evidence now form part of the Collection“. And it was for this detailed, catalogued, collection that the Select Committee increased Mr Percival’s original offer by £5,000 and Parliament accepted this recommendation and settled with Elgin for this amount. LINK
As Parliament bought a collection of items from Elgin it must follow that if any single part of this catalogued collection was unlawfully acquired then the whole collection would be contaminated by this illegality. What were, by some distance, the most despicable acts carried out by Elgin and his party have largely been overshadowed by the controversy over the Parthenon marbles, but there is no reason why in these more enlightened times these criminal acts should remain ignored. Historically, criminal grave robbery on an industrial scale has been obscured by an exercise in semantics centring on the firman.
Grave robbing. Has been going on for as long as man has buried his dead. Most grave robbery was done to obtain the valuables such as gold and other jewellery buried with the corpse but another variation of this practice was known as body-snatching where the corpse was taken and sold for examination by anatomists. The latter practice was justified to some extent in that it furthered the study of the human body to the benefit of medical science, while the former category has no redeeming features. Elgin and his party carried out large scale grave robbery in the pursuit of the valuable goods buried with the dead and often simply for the container that the dead person was buried in.
In fairness to Elgin it should be pointed out that many Victorian aristocrats considered themselves as superior beings among their own people, and believed that their own race were superior to other ethnic groups, who were considered as little better than animals. In 1852 one such aristocrat who felt no qualms about desecrating graves–usually from pre-Christian times or those of foreigners–held a party with specially-printed invitation cards exemplifying this barbarism; Lord Londesborough’s invitation card stated: “At Home, 144 Piccadilly. A Mummy from Thebes to be unrolled at half-past Two“.
Perhaps the most famous item looted from a sacred burial site is the Rosetta Stone. This highly engraved temple stele was plundered by French Army Captain, Pierre-Francois Bouchard at Rashid, Egypt in 1879. British Army Captain Tomkyns Hilgrove Turner in turn captured it from him and brought it home with other loot on the frigate HMS Egyptienne. King George III as head of the armed forces claimed it as booty and presented it — with marks on the side reading “Captured in Egypt by the British Army in 1801” — to the British Museum in Bloomsbury, London.
In my letters to the police chiefs in Fife and London I refer to a bronze crane at Broomhall, Fife, family home of the Earls of Elgin, which is also said to have been “captured”, at the Imperial Palace in China. Of course a large bronze sculptured bird was not flying over the Chinese Emperor’s palace grounds, nor was the large (black basalt slab of over three-quarters of a metric tonne in weight) Rosetta stone floating like a balloon, that they had to be captured.
Captured is used as a euphemism to describe all manner of sacrilegious acts of theft carried out by Imperial armies. It sounds more civilised, but cannot disguise what it really is — theft.