The saga of the missing marbles
Greece's hopes of forcing Britain to return the Parthenon Marbles by 2004 have hit a new snag.
Not long after Greece won the right to host the 2004 Olympics, organizers here began dreaming of another kind of victory.Skip to next paragraph
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For almost two decades, Greece had been trying to force Britain to return its most cherished antiquities statues and friezes that once adorned the Parthenon. What better way to pressure London, they reasoned, than to build a museum to showcase the Parthenon Marbles and open it just in time for the Games?
But, in an ironic twist, the museum itself is being criticized as a threat to Greece's heritage. On the site where the New Acropolis Museum is being built, archaelogical ruins have been discovered, opening the latest chapter in an an epic cultural saga.
"The ruins are very, very important.... There isn't anything like this anywhere in Athens," says Thanos Papathanassopoulos, a Culture Ministry official who has joined forces with a handful of local residents, historians and archaelogists to protest the museum's construction.
Fearing that the ruins of an early Christian settlement will be sacrificed in the campaign to recover the lost marbles, they are filing suit against the government.
The excavated museum site is packed with foundations of buildings and houses built between the 2nd and 7th century, a period archaelogists say is sparsely represented in Athens. The site also includes ancient roads, a circular marble fountain or well, and two nearly complete tiled floors. Acropolis Museum director Dimitrios Pantermalis the site is unusual because it contains ancient wells and water-reservoirs, rare in the parched city.
Protesters say it isn't worth destroying parts of the site to make way for the $100 million museum.
But others say the new exhibition space is vital to efforts to bringing back the 2,500-year-old marbles.
"I think the new museum is absolutely crucial because it takes away the last remaining argument about returning the marbles the argument that the Greeks wouldn't take care of them, or that no one would see them, that they'd have nowhere to put them," says Anthony Snodgrass, a retired Cambridge archeologist who heads an international campaign for the marbles' return.
In the new museum, which would also display other archeaological treasures, the space designed for the marbles would be left mostly bare, with labels marking the spots where the missing sculptures would be displayed. Greeks hope that,with thousands of visitors seeing those empty spaces during Athens' moment on the world stage, the pressure on Britain will reach a breaking point.
Late last month, Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis gave his British counterpart, Tony Blair, a letter outlining proposals for either returning the marbles permanently or sending them to Greece on a long-term loan. It was the first time Athens had taken the case directly to Downing Street.
Italy, which also owns a fragment of the marbles, said last month that it plans to return part of a statue of Peitho, goddess of persuasion and seduction to Greece in a 99-year loan.