Elgin's casts of Parthenon marbles reveal details since lost from statues

Esther Addley
Photograph: Dylan Martinez/Reuters

As the man who removed many of the Parthenon marbles in circumstances that are still disputed, Lord Elgin’s association with the famous sculptures remains controversial, to say the least.

But the British aristocrat’s work at the site in the early 19th century was not merely acquisitive. As well as taking away about half of the surviving sculptures before eventually selling them to the British Museum, Elgin also employed specialist craftsmen to create detailed plaster casts of many of the artworks that he left behind on the great Athens monument.

Now analysis of those casts has revealed details that have since been lost on the original sculptures, casting fresh light on an almost forgotten technique that could reveal further insights about some of the most celebrated monuments in classical art.

Research by Dr Emma Payne, a specialist in classics and archaeological conservation based at King’s College London, shows that in 1802, when Elgin’s men made their casts, the sculptures of the west frieze of the Parthenon were in markedly better condition than they are today.

“Elgin’s casts could be important records of the state of the sculptures in the very early 19th century before modern pollution would hasten their deterioration,” said Payne.

By comparing the casts with present-day 3D scans of the west frieze – which was removed from the monument in 1993 and is now in the Acropolis Museum in Athens – she revealed features that are now lost, including the faces of some of the sculptures, and chisel marks showing they had intentionally been chipped away by Victorian-era vandals.

While it has long been known that the casts preserve some lost sections, Payne’s research showed that the copies were more accurate than expected, with most of the casts deviating by barely a millimetre from the originals.

As a result, she showed that Elgin’s copies are the best-preserved 3D record of what Dr Ian Jenkins, a senior curator of ancient Greece at the British Museum, says came to be considered “the most beautiful manmade sculptures on earth”.

Payne also analysed a second set of casts, commissioned by the British Museum in 1872. She was able to show that more damage was caused in the intervening seven decades than in the 120 years that followed, meaning that a century of traffic pollution did less harm than Victorian vandals. Her research is published in Antiquity magazine.

Payne’s scans also confirm that in some cases, the people who created the Elgin moulds had attempted to recreate pieces that were already missing by that time, resulting in some crude additions.

Payne told the Guardian she had been surprised by how accurate her computer-aided analysis had shown the copies to be. “Certainly the results very much emphasise the skill of the casters, and it shows that there is still information that we can potentially learn about the Parthenon sculptures from these 19th-century studies that haven’t really been looked at in detail.”

Notably, she said, other large excavations of the period, including at Delphi and Olympia, had also made moulds of the artworks they uncovered – which could potentially yield their own secrets.

Payne said: “This work helps us to understand the important role that such casts can still play as 3D time capsules, but we need to study them very closely to understand exactly what it is they preserve.”

Asked if a fresh recognition of the casts’ value might lessen the controversy around Elgin’s involvement, Jenkins said: “In my view Lord Elgin rescued the sculptures, and I do think that this recording of the west frieze is all part of his great sense of reverence for the ancient past.”

Unusually, he said, the names of the cast-makers had been recorded where those of other skilled craftsmen were not “because they were seen to be producing something which was essentially art”.

The temple had already suffered significant damage by the time Elgin made his casts. It was damaged by fire in the 3rd century AD, and some sculptures were deliberately damaged when it was converted to a church in the early Christian era, around AD600. By the 13th century it had been converted to a mosque by the Ottomans, and in 1687 was being used as a gunpowder store when an explosion caused significant damage to parts of the building.