Lord Elgin loses his marbles at Mycenae ….

Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, 11th Earl of Kincardine, was born in 1766, educated at Harrow and Westminster, at St Andrews and also in Paris. He joined the army in 1785 and rose to the rank of Major-General by 1835 but saw no military action. He began a diplomatic career in 1790 and was an Envoy to Brussels in 1792; Envoy Extraordinary at Berlin in 1795; Ambassador at the Porte (Constantinople) in 1799. He died in 1841 in Paris, deep in debt as a result of his expenditure on the Athens’ marbles (aka the ‘Elgin Marbles’) and other monuments (the marbles were sold to the British Museum in 1816 for £35,000, about half their true value then).


Lord Elgin by Anton Graff around 1788

It was in 1799, when Elgin took on the role of ambassador in Constantinople, that his mission to collect antiquities began. He was in no doubt that part of his term in this office included the study of antiquity and said so much to the Select Committee of the House of Commons when offering the country his collection of sculptured marbles from Athens. He considered this aspect of his ‘diplomatic’ work a ‘service to the arts’ (yeah, right) and he appointed William Richard Hamilton, his private secretary, and his chaplain, the Rev Philip Hunt, for the purpose of this mission. Hunt was appalled to see the damage to the  Parthenon on the 5th century BC Acropolis at Athens caused by both the Turks and visiting ‘tourists’ from other countries and took the matter up with Elgin.


Julian Fellowes (who wrote Downton Abbey) as Rev Philip Hunt in the TV film, Lord Elgin and Some Stones of No Value

Elgin originally planned only to draw the marbles but managed, by bribery and threats, to persuade the Ottoman government in Athens to give him permission to remove the marbles to England and this was to cause much consternation. Lord Byron’s Childe Harold was to turn public opinion against Elgin and his insistence that the removal of the marbles was for preservation purposes – and we all know about the ‘Elgin Marbles’ debate so we won’t go there (in fact, the preferred name in some circles nowadays is the Athens’ marbles or the ‘Parthenon Marbles’ but Elgin didn’t restrict his ‘acquisitions’ just to the Parthenon – see one of the six the larger-than-life Caryatids from the Erechtheum on the Acropolis for example).


One of the Caryatids (‘Elgin Marbles’) at the British Museum (height: 2.3m, 7.5ft) – the other five are at the Acropolis Museum in Athens

Then to Greece and Mycenae (I’ve told you about Mycenae before, July blog, but click here for my co-authored book on the subject). In August 1801, Elgin sent Hunt, together with the topographical draughtsman, Giovanni Battista Lusieri, to investigate the Argolid of the Peloponnese of Greece and report back their findings. Hunt found the 1250 BC citadel of Mycenae and did contemplate the removal of the Lion Gate and wrote to Elgin on the 3rd September 1801:

“No description can convey an adequate idea of the massive stones which compose its [Mycenae’s] walls. The Ancient Greeks supposed them to have been the work of the Cyclops, as well as two colossal Lions in bas-relief over the Gate Way; and which still remain in this original situation. The block on which they are sculptured is too gigantic, and too distance from the sea to give any hopes of being able to obtain so renowned a monument of the Fabulous ages.”

Wall and Lion Gate. Citadel of Mycenae

The Lion Gate – the height of the doorway opening from the floor to the bottom of the lintel is about 10 ft (2.95 m) and the lintel (Hunt’s ‘block’) is said to weigh some 20 tons – good luck with moving that lot!

Lion Gate (Mycenae)_JPG

The Lion Gate in the late 19th century

Hunt was responsible for the shipping of parts of the Athens’ marbles to England (some sank on the ship,  Mentor, but were recovered three years later at much expense). So Elgin would have had the Lion Gate added to his collection and now perhaps it would be prominent in the British Museum if he had his way – had it not been for its sheer size, weight and distance from the sea. Doesn’t bear thinking about – today the entrance at the Mycenaean citadel would certainly not be the same without the lions, but that detail would not have bothered the likes of Elgin.

Elgin did remove some ‘bits’ from the ‘Treasury of Atreus’, a tholos tomb down the road from the Mycenaean citadel (see my ‘Tombs of Mycenae’ blog, July) but fragments of the tomb’s entrance columns reproduced in the British Museum were ‘acquired’ by Lord Sligo sometime shortly after 1810.


Entrance columns/pillars from the Tresaury of Atreus (British Museum)


Next week: Still travelling – Thomas Spratt RN and the ‘Fellows Marbles’ from Lycia (no, not just Elgin….)

Artemus Smith’s Notebooks

I continue my research of the notebooks of Dr Artemus Smith, archaeologist of great courage, determination and fiction. Here is another extract:

An acquaintance of mine, Jock McTaggarty, is a boxing promoter. I had sent him one of my students who was keen to take up the sport. McTaggarty telephoned me with some concern asking whether I was sure the lad was a genuine student. I enquired as to why he should ask such a question. He replied that the student had been for a medical and he, McTaggarty, had received the results and was obliged to relay them to the student. MacTaggarty then informed me that he had called the boy in and said to him:

 “You realise you’ve got Sugar Diabetes.”

 The boy replied, “Nice one. When do I fight him?”



The Grand Tour

NO, NOT an England rugby tour.  The Grand Tour was a tour of parts of Europe in antiquity. It began around the 16th century, with Fynes Moryson being one of the first Grand Tourists in 1591. However, it was not until the 18th century that it became fashionable. By this latter date such travel had become part of the elite youth’s education and social image. It was a fusion of tourism and social status. The popular countries to visit were France and Italy, travelling via Germany, Switzerland and Austria. Paris was fashionable, but Rome was warm and cultural. Italy was in the Mediterranean, which was central to the four great empires, Assyrian, Persian, Greek and Roman, which made Italy a more popular venue for the Oxbridge and classically educated aristocrats. Makes sense.


Fynes Moryson (1566-1630)

The tutors that accompanied these young gentlemen had little control over them and, although the initial idea behind the Grand Tour was education, some aristocrats focused more on simple enjoyment. This meant few made records of their travels (probably just as well in some cases). The more committed traveller did publish reports but these were more on the lines of advice in travelling rather than educational information about the particular country. As far as education was concerned, the Grand Tourers devoted more time to the art than to the politics, society and economy of the cities that they visited. Several Grand Tourist liked their portraits painted in Rome by the Italian painter, Pompeo Batoni (he did a good business).


Grand Tourist Francis Basset by Pompeo Batoni in 1778

Some of the less youthful Grand Tourers were more interested in acquisitions. Wealthy aristocrats who had both the time and finance to travel to the exotic ancient world gathered up remains of the past. They were the gentlemen collectors and Thomas Bruce, the Earl of Elgin (1766-1841), fits into this loose category. Arguably, he was a contributor to the preservation of the heritage of the past rather than knowledge, although Sir Arthur Evans gave some credibility to the wealthy ‘traveller’ with his intensive excavations and reconstruction work (even though criticized in some quarters) at Knossos. Some aristocrats intended to collect ancient memorabilia to show off in their stately residences, and they are not to be confused with scholarly researchers of the 18th and 19th century. Others were happy to donate their collections to museums in exchange for some recognition, such as Edward Daniel Clarke (1769-1822) and John Marten Cripps (1780-1853). They brought back from overseas 183 crates of ‘goodies’ in 1802 and the library of Jesus College, Cambridge, benefited from this collection. This library was the ‘museum’ in Cambridge before the Fitzwilliam Museum was completed in 1840. Clarke in particular was held in high regard for his donations and was awarded an LL.D from Cambridge University and thereafter a Professorship.  There was also Charles Wateron (1782-1865), an expert in taxidermy, who returned from South America in 1802 with his tropical animals, not just for the benefit of future generations but also for political satire.


 Edward Daniel Clarke 

Learned travellers, such as Robert Pashley and Thomas Spratt (I’ve told you about him before), although not interested in treasures as such, were not averse to removing the occasional item. Pashley brought back to England a sarcophagus and Spratt an altar, a lid to a sarcophagus and various small engravings and statuettes which were donated to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and the British Museum. Pashley’s and Spratt’s motives were of a scholarly interest, and it could be said that anyone with an interest in antiquity is acquisitive by nature. Certainly Pashley’s and Spratt’s values would not be in question as they did not keep their acquisitions but allowed them to be preserved for public viewing and future prosperity.


Sarcophagus (2nd Century AD) brought back from Crete by Thomas Spratt, now in the British Museum (height: 130.5 centimetres, length: 266 centimetres, width: 150.3 centimetres)

The Grand Tour was in decline by the beginning of the 19th century, mainly due to the French Revolution (1789) and Britain’s subsequent war with France (1793-1815). As a result, Greece (then part of the Ottoman Empire) became the most popular destination for the Grand Tour travellers from 1790 onwards. However, the Grand Tourers were not all decadent aristocrats and some were looking to classical Greece for inspiration.


Map of the Grand Tour 

Sir William Gell (1777-1836) wrote about his travels in Greece and his publications were described by Plouviez (Straddling the Aegean, 2001) as “the first really practical travel guides since Pausanias [2nd century AD].” But it was not all 5 Star luxury – Gell (The Itinerary of Greece, 1810) was very specific about the needs for a visit to Greece:

“The most necessary article for a traveller is a bed, which should of course be as portable as possible. A piece of oil-cloth to cover it, when it is rolled up in the day, and to place under it at night, would be useful. A carpet about eight feet square is of service to sit upon. A knife, fork, spoon plate, drinking cup, and some kind of vessel for boiling water, seem almost the only necessary additions. A light umbrella as a shed from the sun would always be found very agreeable, and would be more serviceable if it were fitted to an iron spike, by which it might be stuck into the ground. Curtains suspended to sides of the room by cords, are very useful to exclude insects while the traveller sleeps. If these are made of silk, and tucked under the bed as soon as it is made, the night’s rest will not be disturbed; many will prefer mosquito curtains, but they are not to be depended upon. When a family travels to Greece, it would be advisable to carry a thick curtain, by which a room may be separated, if necessary, into two parts.”

gell Sir William Gell


Next week: Lord Elgin loses his marbles at Mycenae

 ASIDE: Bagpuss Revisited

Those of you who read my Bagpuss theory last week and are Monty Python fans may be interested in Jonathan Morris’ biography of Michael Palin wherein he says of famous dead parrot sketch: “It was hardly Cleese’s, Chapman’s [they wrote it] or Palin’s fault that the ensuing years the parrot sketch would come to be a mite overanalysed. One overexcited critic has in all seriousness interpreted the parrot sketch as a parody of the Christian belief in eternal life.”  Yeah, right.


Artemus Smith’s Notebooks

I continue my research of the notebooks of Dr Artemus Smith, archaeologist of great courage, determination and fiction. Here is another extract:

My colleague, Dr Emille Netley-Smythe, said that his son came home from school the other day and said, “Dad, I’ve got a part in the school play as a man who has been married for 25 years.”

Emille replied, “Never mind, son, maybe next time you’ll get a speaking part.”



Homer and the Bagpus theory

NO, NOT Homer Simpson, but Homer the 8th century BC oral poet who composed the Iliad and the Odyssey. So what were those poems really all about? Well, about a war and a warrior’s belated return home – not much else really. Or was there? If you want to believe all that has been written about Homer and his ‘philosophy’ in the last few decades you might be surprised. However much scholars want to write about, analyse and interpret Homer and his Trojan War, at the end of the day he was a creative poet intending to entertain his audience. homer

Homer – see, not Homer Simpson

Trevor Bryce (The Trojans and their Neighbours, 2006) commented, “… he [Homer] himself may well have been amused, or bemused, at how much scholarly ink and breath have been expended on the search for the truth behind his tales.”

Sometimes writers make ideas up for controversial purposes or just for something to publish. Others genuinely believe their theories (and in many cases, justifiably so). With Homer we’ll never know the truth as he has been dead for nearly 3000 years – and, of course, some rely on that!


“What shall I concoct today?”

An interesting example of a writer’s philosophy is the anonymous researcher who considered the truth behind the children’s character, Bagpuss and his acquaintances (reference to this and Oliver Postgate’s end comment were from ITVs 100 Best Children’s Programmes). The researcher was of the learned opinion that Bagpuss is the existentialist hero and a dreamer; Professor Yaffle represents the intellectual (as a carved wood figure he shows that traditional forms of knowledge are stagnant); the mice and the organ mouse are the proletariat; Madeleine the rag doll is the maternal figure representing folk wisdom; Gabriel the toad sings songs containing messages, perhaps associated with Gabriel, the messenger from God (maybe telling us that religious teaching is far removed from the truly spiritual); and Emily is frequently associated ‘by critics’ with God or at least a ‘Godot’ type figure.


Bagpus – existentialist hero and a dreamer?

The intrepid researcher concludes: “So far we have only examined one possible deconstruction of Bagpuss. Bagpuss himself could be seen as inhabiting the earthly realm, while Emily moves on the divine plane, but this is a very traditionalist view. A modern, more psychoanalytical interpretation might be that the ‘real’ world as we know it is the outside world inhabited by Emily. Bagpuss and his friends occupy the inner world of consciousness, and represent not forces within society but within the mind of a human being. Not just one human, in fact. Bagpuss could be said to exist within the mind of each one of us, a creative force that lies dormant but full of potential. He only needs to be awakened. Or something.”

Yeah, or something. If you don’t believe me (or didn’t see the programme – it was a few years ago) it can be found on Google – click here


Professor Yaffle –  the intellectual, “as a carved wood figure he shows that traditional forms of knowledge are stagnant”

So what d’yer reckon? A possible analysis? Well, unlike Homer, the creator of Bagpuss, Oliver Postgate, was still alive at the time of this ‘research’ (sadly he died in 2008) and the producer of the programme asked him to comment on this interpretation and reveal the truth behind his tales of Bagpuss.  He said the tales were simply about a stuffed cat and his friends …. !!

 Oliver1Oliver Postgate (1925-2008) – remember ‘The Clangers’?

What say you, Homer?


Next week:  The Grand Tour – let’s go for a ride …

Artemus Smith’s Notebooks

I continue my research of the notebooks of Dr Artemus Smith, archaeologist of great courage, determination and fiction. Here is another extract:

My very good friend, Professor Izzie Goldberg, was telling me of his worries about his son’s gambling and lack of attention to his religious commitments. He told me that he said to his son the other day, “Don’t forget Yom Kippur starts on Sunday.”  His son shouted back as he left the house, “Put £20 on it to win for me, Pops.”


Gladiator: Hollywood fact or fiction?


THIS WAS, indeed, a good yarn.  Well, actually, it’s practically just a remake of The Fall of the Roman Empire with Stephen Boyd (in Crowe’s role) as the hero Roman General-come-gladiator called Livius (who?), Christopher Plummer as Commodus (yes, Sound of Music’s Capt von Trapp as the baddie!), and Alec Guinness as the Emperor, Marcus Aurelius.


‘NEVER BEFORE …’ maybe – but certainly again

So, back to Ridley Scott’s 2000 epic and reality: both Marcus Aurelius and Commodus were father and son and real Emperors of Rome but that is really where facts stop – oh, other than Commodus was certainly a nasty oik, but that’s about it. As for Crowe’s Maximus Decimus Meridius, well,  there was a Maximus (of the Quintilian family) who, along with his brother, Condianus, were two of Marcus Aurelius’ favourite and most virtuous generals in the war against Germania. They were both consuls and Aurelius entrusted them with the civil administration of Greece.  Unfortunately, Commodus murdered both Maximus and Condianus, but that doesn’t make for such a good Hollywood yarn (and the film wouldn’t have lasted as long).

Marcus_Aurelius_Metropolitan_Museum       Marcus Aurelius AD 121-180

Alternatively, Crowe’s character could have been based on Marcus Nonius Macrinus who was also a general and favourite of Marcus Aurelius but he died in later years and a wealthy man. No other comparisons there then. Meridius tomb was found in 2008 on the banks of the Tiber near the via Flaminia, north of Rome.

tomb Tomb of   Marcus Nonius Macrinus

However, Marcus Aurelius never offered Maximus (or anybody) the protectorate of Rome, nor did he consider returning it to a republic (in fact, he gave Commodus joint imperial power at the age of 14/15!).  Aurelius died of an illness in Vindobona (Vienna) and there was never any suggestion that he was killed by Commodus.


Commodus AD 161-192 

Commodus often fought in the gladiatorial arena but was not despatched there by an heroic avenger (his opponents were never allowed to actually kill him!).  He was poisoned by his favourite concubine, Marcia (a woman scorned!), and thereafter strangled by a ‘robust youth’ (believed to be a chap called Narcissus, another of his favourites – he was obviously a serious bad judge of character).  His sister, Lucilla, as she did in the film, did not live to witness his death, she had already attempted to do away with him but failed and so he had her exiled, then killed.  That’s show business …. or not.


Thumbs up forJoaquin Phoenix as the beastly Commodus in the film

At the beginning of the battle scene , Quintus comments to Maximus of the Germanic ‘barbarians’: “People should know when they’re conquered.” Then in true Hollywood style they are conquered. In fact, the Germanic tribes were never conquered by the Romans. If you look at a map of the Roman Empire (below), Germania is conspicious by its absence from within its Empire boundaries – the boundary is the Rhine.


Map of the Roman Empire at its height circa 2nd century AD

Talking of the battle scene, it was a real forest fire and filmed in the UK at Bourne Wood near Farnham in Surrey. The Director, Ridley Scott, heard that the men from the Forestry Commission were planning to remove the forest and so he persuaded them to let him do it for them!


And there was the forest …. gone

P.S. If you want to understand the ending of the film better – the Elysium Fields – have a read of Virgil’s Aeneid (book 6).


 Maximus in Elysium Fields


Next week: Homer and the Bagpus theory

 Artemus Smith’s Notebooks

I continue my research of the notebooks of Dr Artemus Smith, archaeologist of great courage, determination and fiction. Here is another extract:

My good friend Sir Humphrey Bottleneck arrived at my rooms yesterday in a state of shock having nearly been killed in an automobile accident. He had caught a taxi cab from the station and leaned over to ask the driver a question and gently tapped him on the shoulder to get his attention.

The driver screamed, lost control of the cab, nearly hit a bus, drove up over the kerb and stopped just inches from a large plate window.

For a few moments everything was silent in the cab. Then the shaking driver said to Sir Humphrey, “Are you OK? I’m so sorry, but you scared the daylights out of me.”

Sir Humphrey apologised to the driver and said, “I didn’t realise that a mere tap on the shoulder would startle someone so badly.”

The driver replied, “No, no, I’m the one who is sorry, it’s entirely my fault. Today is my very first day driving a taxi cab. I’ve been driving a hearse for 10 years.”

Art Smth

The development of societies with archaeological interests

ANTIQUARIAN SOCIETIES are not old societies, they are societies for the study of the past (antiquity). Well, they are also old societies. One of the first to be set up was The Royal Society (of London for the Improvement of Knowledge) in 1660 (supported by the newly crowned Charles II) for the purpose of scientific learning. It still exists today, as does the Society of Antiquaries of London which was set up in 1707 at the Mitre Tavern in Fleet Street, with Humphrey Wanly as its first ‘chairman’. It received its Royal Charter in 1751. In fact, William Camden was a founding member of this Society in 1572, but it was suppressed by the Scottish born king, James I, in 1604, possibly because it encouraged English nationalism.


 William Camden 1551-1623

The Society of Antiquaries was a ‘poor relation’ to the Royal Society which had greater resources of wealth and patronage. The former suffered various set backs including suggestions that its ‘board’ intended to subordinate itself to the Royal Society and, in 1792, its president, the Earl of Leicester, was accused of being a drunkard and a ‘brainless caput’ in a letter from Douce to Kerrich, 17th April, 1792 (Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge) and by 1840 its members were deeply concerned about the Society’s purpose. However, it carried on in the shadow of other societies.

a heirich

Heinrich Schliemann addressing the Society of Antiquities on his discoveries at Mycenae (The Illustrated London News, March 31, 1877) – I had the privilege of addressing the Society of Antiquaries on my work on Thomas Spratt RN in October 2013 after receiving my Fellowship of the Society

The Society of Dilettanti was set up in London in 1732 by Sir Francis Dashwood with the intent on focusing on classical antiquities, although, with its aristocratic and gentlemen Grand Tour members, it rather had an emphasis on dinning – Horace Walpole said of its members, ‘… the nominal qualification is having been in Italy, and the real one, being drunk’.  It did produce some publications (three volumes of Antiquities of Athens and three volumes of Ionian Antiquities between 1762 and 1840) and kept alive an interest in classical antiquities.


Sir Francis Dashwood 1708-1781

The Royal Geographical Society was a learned society, founded in 1830 for the advancement of geographical science, under the patronage of King William IV and it was given a Royal Charter by Queen Victoria in 1859. Although not involved in archaeology as such, its later members were to take on a keen interest in the topic and equate it to landscapes studies. The Royal Geological Society had been formed in 1807.


Main Hall, Royal Geographical Society – impressive, eh!

In 1843, the Archaeological Association was formed but due to internal squabbling it soon split into two of the more important organizations: the British Archaeological Society and the Archaeological Institute, producing the Journal of British Archaeology and the Archaeological Journal, respectively.

The publisher, George Macmillian, was determined to keep up a following for the ancient Greek world and, in 1879, set up the Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies. Its purpose was to assist and guide English travellers in Greece and encourage exploration and excavation of ancient sites. Thereafter, in 1886, the British School [of archaeology] at Athens (BSA) was established, then, on the island of Crete, an annexe was set up at Knossos in 1926 – although the BSA had been involved with Knossos since the establishment of the Cretan Excavation Fund in 1899.


Library, British School at Athens (I’ve been there – it’s fantastic!)

Many county based societies for local history and archaeology appeared during the 19th century. But although these societies were limited in their appeal they did attract large memberships and, in some cases, from elite personnel. In fact, the Sussex Archaeological Society (1846) was criticized for snobbism for its open courting of the aristocracy (9.5% of its first year’s members were titled). Can’t image why!


Michelham Priory, owned by the Sussex Archaeological Society

Regardless of the varying internal politics (and, in some cases, external derision) of these societies, they gave credence to the new ideal of archaeology. Yet even now there are some who still frown upon the thought of 19th century ‘archaeologists’ when considering today’s methods which is a little unfair based on the fact that all new ideas have to start somewhere. It is not as if the ‘science’ relied entirely upon itself – Pitt Rivers, in 1884, acknowledged the need for assistance in other scientific fields such as geology, palaeontology and physical anthropology.

ppitt rivers

Lt-General Augustus Henry Lane-Fox Pitt Rivers 1827-1900 (go see his museum in Oxford – its great!)

The other importance of these societies is that, either by way of talks or publications in their journals, they brought to the fore the activities of some of these travellers and publicised their findings which otherwise would have little value. And their existence gave me something else to study!


Next week: Gladiator: Hollywood fact or fiction?

Artemus Smith’s Notebooks

I continue my research of the notebooks of Dr Artemus Smith, archaeologist of great courage, determination and fiction. Here is another extract:

My good friend Professor Schwartzburger said to me the other day, “I have just bought a new hearing aid. It cost me two thousand pounds, but it’s state of the art. It’s perfect.’

 “Really,” I replied, “what kind is it?”

Twenty past twelve.”

  Art Smth