Day 6·Q&A

Greece wants its marbles back from the British Museum — and this digital archeologist has a solution

A digital archaeologist is using robots to make replicas of the Parthenon Sculptures in hopes the British Museum will decide to display them, and return the originals to Greece. The museum says it will allow the sculptures to be temporarily displayed elsewhere but they must be returned.

Roger Michel believes the museum should return the Parthenon Sculptures and display his replicas instead

A man looks at the Parthenon Marbles, a collection of stone objects, inscriptions and sculptures, also known as the Elgin Marbles, at the British Museum. (Dylan Martinez/Reuters)

With the help of 3D machining, a digital archaeologist is trying to persuade the British Museum to replace ancient sculptures taken from Greece with replica marble carvings.

Roger Michel and his team at the Institute for Digital Archaeology (IDA) in Oxford, England, have programmed a robot that can produce realistic copies of historic objects like the Parthenon Sculptures, also known as the Elgin Marbles. 

Michel believes the British Museum should display his imitation works and return the original Parthenon Sculptures to the Greek government.

The sculptures were taken to England two centuries ago by British Ambassador Lord Elgin, who chiseled them off the Parthenon in Athens. They've been on permanent display inside the museum in London since 1817.

Despite growing calls for their repatriation, the British Museum has refused to return them to Greece. 

"We will loan the sculptures, as we do many other objects, to those who wish to display them to other public around the world, provided they will look after them and return them," said a British Museum spokesperson in an emailed statement.

A man stares at a robot carving an ancient sculpture replica while in a workshop.
Roger Michel stares at a robot used to create 3D replicas of the Elgin Marbles while at the Institute for Digital Archaeology. (Submitted by Roger Michel/IDA/Robotor)

Michel said he was denied permission to scan the sculptures by the museum, so he and his team scanned the sculptures using 3D digital imagery software on tablets and smartphones while museum security looked on. 

"We regularly receive requests to scan the collection from a wide range of private organizations — such as the IDA — alongside academics and institutions who wish to study the collection, and it is not possible to routinely accommodate all of these," a British Museum spokesperson said. 

Now, those scans are being used to make the robot-guided sculptures.

In an interview with CBC Radio's Day 6, Roger Michel spoke with host Saroja Coelho. Here is a part of their conversation.

How do you decide which artifacts you will replicate with this robot? 

In this case, we look to find the most iconic objects within the Parthenon Sculptures collection: the horse that gave rise to the horse in the Staunton chess set. It's a universally recognized component of these sculptures. The metaphor that we're reproducing shows the great battle between humans and centaurs.

I think we wanted to make sure we selected things that were easily recognizable, so that folks could make that visual comparison and could see for themselves the kind of quality we were producing with this process. 

In what ways have you sought to collaborate with the historical owners of these pieces before you replicate artifacts? 

Our very first conversation, of course, was with the Greek Embassy in London. 

We listened very carefully to the kinds of things that seemed important to the stakeholders here, because as with all of our projects, the stakeholders come first. We're in their service. 

The goal here is to do something that will promote the interest of Greece and Britain and get these objects back home where they belong. 

A robot carves a 3D replica of a horse's head in a workshop.
A robot carves a 3D replica of a horse's head as part of the 2,500-year-old sculptures of the Parthenon Marbles. The work is being done at the Institute for Digital Archaeology in Oxford, England. (IDA/Robotor)

You had to scan those originals at the British Museum. How did you manage to do that? 

I believe we've operated entirely within the visitor guidelines of the British Museum, which does permit 3D scanning from the floor. We worked with the guards who were there. They, on occasion, held folks back. We got a lot of co-operation from the floor staff at the museum, and we didn't break any rules and we got the scans we needed. 

A close-up of the face of Roger Michel is shown. Michel is a digital archaeologist.
Michel and his team at the Institute for Digital Archaeology are using robots to create 3D exact replicas of the Elgin Marbles. (Tobias Morgan)

What would you say is the significance behind these sculptures? 

These objects are the most iconic heritage assets of Greece. They are akin to the Statue of Liberty in the United States, the Crown Jewels in England. The value of these objects goes far beyond their art historical value. These are symbols of the Greek [Hellenic] Republic. 

The Greeks seem to want to have, from the British, some confession of wrongdoing. And, there really wasn't wrongdoing here. The reality is that at the time when Elgin visited Athens, it was under the control of the Ottoman Turks. They had been in control of Athens for centuries — 400 years. This was for the government to deal with at that time. 

The history here does not suggest the British are the bad guys. Maybe the British were what happened afterwards, retaining these objects long after they understood the value to the Greeks? Then, yes, there was wrongdoing. 

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Ultimately, you want the British Museum to return those valued originals to Greece and display your replicas. How open do you think they're going to be to doing that? 

They're already displaying replicas in lots of situations in the British Museum — it's not like this is a new concept. The reality is that the reconstructions will afford the museum opportunities that just don't exist with the original material. 

If you want to teach somebody about the Italian Renaissance, you don't take them into a room with a bunch of cardboard jewels that have had all of the paint peeled away and the canvases flashed. When they look at these Parthenon sculptures in the British Museum, all the colour is gone, 30 per cent of the material is gone. 

These are not representative of what antiquity looked like, and that's what they're showing them. They're still mired in that romantic movement of the early 19th century. They want to show ruins. They don't want to show true artworks.

The reconstructions will give them that flexibility to show these things, either in their state of conservation currently or as they originally appeared — truly reflective of the art of antiquity. 

Crowds of people look at sections of ancient sculpture at the British Museum.
Crowds of people view sections of the Elgin Marbles displayed at the British Museum in London. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

The chair of the British Museum recently said that he was open to possibly loaning the Elgin Marbles to the museum in Athens. Why do you think that there's so much reluctance to permanently part with these artifacts? 

The answer is that England has a very complex relationship with its colonial past. The sun, they say, never sets on the British Empire. That was true of the 19th century.

Even now, England has mixed feelings about giving up these trappings of its colonial glory. Britain has made antiquity part of its national narrative, just not historically accurate. 

Written by Bob Becken. Radio segment produced by Cassandra Yanez-Leyton and Yamri Taddese. Q&A has been edited for brevity and clarity.


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