Preserving World Heritage: Where Do the Elgin Marbles Belong?

One important question archaeologists face today is how to best preserve the world’s heritage. Are ancient artifacts safer in more modern museums or should they reside in their country of origin?  The Greeks and British have debated over this issue for years due to some of the world’s most famous artifacts: the Elgin Marbles.

Picture of the present day Parthenon with missing frieze
Photo by: Marissa Kokinis

The story all begins with Lord Elgin. At the time Greece was under the control of the Ottomans and Elgin was the acting British Ambassador to the empire.  Lord Elgin came to an agreement with the Ottoman Sultan to make casts and paintings of the Parthenon sculptures to take back to England with him, but through questionable means Elgin gained permission to “take away some pieces of stone with old inscriptions and figures,” (Sánchez, 2017).  Elgin went on to remove most of the Parthenon’s frieze along with other statues, but after falling into debt he sold the marbles to the British government.  

The horsemen from the west frieze of the Parthenon as displayed in the British Museum

After gaining independence the Greeks asked for the Elgin marbles to be returned, but as of now they remain in the British Museum causing a huge debate.  Those opposing their return argue that Lord Elgin had the legal documents to take the marbles, paid the Ottoman Empire appropriately, and that the marbles have been safely displayed in the British Museum for over 200 years, whereas they could have been completely destroyed had they remained in Greece.  Those in favor of returning the marbles to Greece argue that these marbles are a symbol of Greek heritage and that Elgin did not actually use legal means to obtain the marbles.  Others are concerned the marbles will be damaged if they are returned to Greece, as archeologists say current sculptures at the Acropolis are threatened by air pollution, but Greek archaeologist Alexandros Mantis says that Greece can prove to the British they are capable of taking care of their artifacts by moving these sculptures to the museum and that Greece deserves to have the marbles returned (AFP, 2008).  There are also arguments that the British Museum is more suited to host the Elgin marbles, but the New Acropolis Museum, which opened in 2009, is now fit to host any of the Acropolis’ ancient artifacts.  

The New Acropolis Museum in Athens, Greece

Archaeologists play a large role in preserving the world’s heritage and should participate in debates over questions such as, are there cases where certain artifacts are better preserved in more developed countries? Or if a country requests the return of their artifacts should they be returned even if it might endanger the artifacts? These questions will not be answered overnight, but archaeologists can offer unique opinions on these issues with their knowledge of cultural identity and desire to preserve world heritage.


Sánchez, Juan Pablo. “How the Parthenon Lost Its Marbles.” National Geographic, 28 Mar. 2017,

Silverman, Helaine. Contested Cultural Heritage. New York, NY, Springer, 2014.

King, Dorothy. The Elgin Marbles. London, Arrow, 2007.

Dorment, Richard. “The Elgin Marbles will never return to Athens – the British Museum is their rightful home.” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, 30 June 2009, Accessed 7 Nov. 2017.

Flows, Capital. “The British Museum Should Return The Parthenon Marbles To Greece.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 26 Dec. 2014,


AFP. “Archaeologist says pollution threatening last Parthenon marbles.” ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation), 13 Apr. 2008, Accessed 7 Nov. 2017.


Pictures (In order of appearance):

Parthenon. 7 July 2017.

“Horsemen from the west frieze of the Parthenon.” British Museum, British Museum, Accessed 7 Nov. 2017.

Daniilidis, Nikos. “A nightview of the Parthenon Sculptures of the Acropolis Museum, opposite the Sacred Rock and the actual monument.” Themanews, 29 July 2014, Accessed 7 Nov. 2017.


Additional Resources:

Johnston, Ian. “First-Ever legal bid for return of Elgin Marbles to Greece thrown out by European Court of Human Rights.” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 19 July 2016,


Robertson, Geoffrey. “Let’s do a Brexit deal with the Parthenon marbles | Geoffrey Robertson.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 4 Apr. 2017,


Why are Feathers So Important in the Aztec Culture: Piecing Together the Puzzle

Different civilizations place higher value on various materials and therefore we cannot make assumptions about past cultures based on today’s value system.  While some civilizations from the past deem precious metals like gold, silver, and copper to be objects of higher worth, others find value in a different variety of items.  Archaeologists have determined for example that the Aztecs held feathers as one of nature’s most valuable gifts, as birds appeared to be very important in their culture.  The Aztecs would use brightly colored feathers in headdresses worn by their leaders, including the great Aztec emperor Moctezuma.  Great time and care went into the making of any object involving feathers, as feather-workers spent weeks creating intricate designs to be used in battle shields and adornments, important buildings, cloaks and costumes of the nobles, and religious ceremonies.

The great feathered headdress, supposedly worn by the Aztec emperor Moctezuma himself.  This headdress was believed to be given to Hernan Cortez by the emperor, which is how it presumably ended up in Europe.

The importance of feathers appears to stem from the many references of birds in Aztec culture.  One of the first references to birds in Aztec culture is in the story of how the Aztecs choose the area in which they would build the capital to their future empire.  Legend states that the grand Aztec capital Tenochtitlan was chosen because the first Aztecs wandered and searched for a long time till they witnessed a bird perched on a cactus eating a snake, which is now pictured on the current day Mexican Flag.  The bird in this story is seen in a position of power, as it sits on top of the cactus, peering over the land.  There are also many references to feathers and birds in the Aztec religion.  The Aztecs held many rituals involving human sacrifices to the gods, but birds were also sacrificed during high religious ceremonies.  One of the most important gods in Aztec culture is named Huitzilopochtli, which translates to “Hummingbird of the Left.”  Huitzilopochtli was the god of the sun and of war and the Aztecs believed that warriors who lost their lives in battle would return as hummingbirds, which are characterized by their vibrant feathers.

The Aztec god Huitzilopochtli, generally pictured in artwork bearing the bright colors of the hummingbird and holding his serpent-like weapon.

Quetzalcoatl was one of the other most important gods in the Aztec religion and his name translates to “plumed” or “feathered serpent.” Quetzalcoatl was one of the Aztecs gods of creation, as well as the god of learning and wind.  Many of the important Aztec gods are associated with birds or feathers, leading us to believe that this is one of the reasons that the Aztecs held feathers as such valuable materials.  Only through the analysis of Aztec culture, especially their religion, can we attempt to see the true reason that the Aztecs valued bright feathers and understand that value of a material differs from culture to culture, but that does not make any specific culture more or less advanced because of what they value.


Additional Reading:

Aztec Headdresses. (n.d.). Retrieved September 19, 2017, from

The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. (2016, July 08). Huitzilopochtli. Retrieved September 19, 2017, from


Berdan, F. F. (2014). Aztec archaeology and ethnohistory. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Aztec Religious Ceremonies and Rituals. (2017, May 11). Retrieved September 19, 2017, from

Brittenham, C. (n.d.). Did the Maya and Aztecs take feathers for headdresses from birds other than quetzals? Retrieved September 19, 2017, from

The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. (2017, February 16). Aztec. Retrieved September 19, 2017, from

Aztecs Find a Home: The Eagle Has Landed | EDSITEment. (n.d.). Retrieved September 19, 2017, from

Cartwright , M. (2013, August 1). Quetzalcoatl. Retrieved September 19, 2017, from

Renfrew, C., & Bahn, P.G. (2015). Archaeology essentials: theories, methods, practice. London: Thames & Hudson.

Image Sources:

[Huitzilopochtli represented in the Borbonic Codex. He is carrying a snake like weapon called a Xiuhcoatl and a shield. On his head is a headdress imitating the head of a hummingbird]. (n.d.). Retrieved September 19, 2017, from

[Mexico Aztec Headdress]. (2012, April 28). Retrieved September 19, 2017, from