The Acropolis Museum: Losing Its Marbles

The Rosetta Stone of Egypt, the Koh-i-Noor Diamond of India, the Parthenon Structures of Greece—time and time again, artifacts find themselves in the hands of a place other than their origin. Better known as the “Elgin Marbles,” these Greek treasures were named after Britain’s Lord Elgin who acquired the pieces from Athens in the early 19th century as an ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, going on to sell them to the British Parliament—of which they still reside in today (Sánchez 2017). The cultural patrimony of objects like the Parthenon Structures for the Greeks fuels a long-held debate about whether or not artifacts that are separated from the group or country they originated from “belong” to their respective origins. Who is the keeper of one’s history? Who should be? Where does this history—these artifacts—belong?

The horsemen of the north frieze of the Parthenon housed in the British Museum, all sixty riders arranged in ten ranks.

While there’s great controversy surrounding the truth of the dealings between Elgin, the British Parliament, and the Ottoman authorities, many Greeks argue that the occupying power at the time of the structures’ acquisition did not hold the authority to “give away such a central part of Greek cultural heritage anyway” (Stone 2018). The Director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, argued that the sculptures give the “maximum public benefit” by remaining in the heart of England (Ward 2014). The trustees of the British Museum often defend these claims by expounding on how their museum’s large and diverse public gains “insight into how ancient Greece influenced and was influenced by the other civilizations that it encountered” (Stone 2018). However, if the purpose of exhibiting artifacts that hold cultural significance to countries other than one’s own is to educate the public on other heritages and their histories without having to travel across the world to do so, why not simply create replicas to use and return the original pieces? It only seems just to return the original Parthenon Structures, created by ancient Athenians themselves, back to the people who actually designed and built them.

A marble caryatid, the one missing piece of the six women figurines that previously supported the Erechtheion on the north side of the Acropolis in Athens.

Representatives of Britain often argue that, even in the British Museum, “the Parthenon sculptures in London are an important representation of ancient Athenian civilization in the context of world history” (Selwood 2018). Yet with the advent of Brexit this coming year, what does this mean for the structures’ cultural importance and historical meaning in the greater context of Europe if they will soon reside outside of the European Union after Britain leaves? Controversially, Britain also loaned a part of the Elgin Marbles, a headless statue of the river god Ilissos, to the State Hermitage Museum in Russia, raising tempers among the Greeks since the pieces were to be shipped to another country—one outside of the EU—but still not to be returned to their rightful home in Athens (Ward 2014). By becoming more conscious of and creating more discourse about the historical and cultural importance of the objects that represent one’s past, we are taking steps to protect and appreciate the geographical heritage of some of the world’s greatest artifacts by bringing them back to their origins.


References Cited

Juan Pablo Sánchez

2017 How the Parthenon Lost Its Marbles. National Geographic. Electronic document,, accessed November 16th, 2018.


Jon Stone

2018 Greece demands UK open negotiations over the return of the Elgin Marbles. Independent. Electronic document,, accessed Novemeber 17th, 2018.


Janine DeFeo

2011 Which Museums Have the Right to Own World Heritage? Mic. Electronic document,, accessed November 17th, 2018.


Victoria Ward

2014 Why are the Elgin marbles so controversial—and everything else you need to know. The Telegraph. Electronic document,, accessed November 18th, 2018.


Ian Jenkins

1994 Greek Architecture and its sculpture in the British Museum. British Museum Press, London, ENG.


Image Sources:

Wally Gobetz

2006 The Horsemen of the North Frieze of the Parthenon. Flickr. Electronic document,, accessed November 18th, 2018.


Trustees of the British Museum

2018 The Parthenon Collection. The British Museum. Electronic document,, accessed November 18th, 2018.


Further Readings:

Dominic Selwood (2018)

How Brexit has revived controversy over the Elgin Marbles in Britain. Independent.


Paul Cartledge (2018)

Pressured to Return the Elgin Marbles, Should the British Museum Finally Give Way? Frieze.

The Debunking of Androcentric Archaeology by the Priestesses of San José de Moro

When most people think of archaeology, the picture that comes to mind is more-often-than-not one closer to that of Indiana Jones than to that of Lara Croft. Despite both characters existing on a fictional spectrum, this observation of how such popular media culture is represented and absorbed by the general public is an example of a much bigger problem within the field of archaeology itself: androcentrism and the male bias.

A mask of copper, a symbol of status, found near the skull of one of the Moche priestess-queens.

Excavations of the Moche civilization in San José de Moro, Peru that inhabited the area between 1 CE and 800 CE have been taking place for decades. But in the past 27 years, up to eight notable tombs have been discovered in what was once thought of as a society consisting of only male warriors, priests, and kings. Tomb after tomb, archaeologists’ preconceived notions of the civilization’s societal composition were put to the test and quickly fell apart. In 2006, archaeologists were shocked to come across a lavishly decorated tomb on the El Brujo site filled with the remains of—you guessed it—a woman. The findings from a burial analysis of her mummified skeleton and the artifacts deposited in her grave—buried with wooden scepters wrapped in copper, a large crown with an image of a puma, and several tattoos symbolizing sacred figures including snakes, spiders, trees, and stars—led archaeologists to believe that she lived as a high priestess or even a queen of the Moche people. She was later referred to as the Lady of Cao, her burial’s discovery only to be followed by seven additional discoveries of other burial sites of women. The mummies adorned extravagant headdresses and beaded necklaces, were buried next to sacrificed victims, and were surrounded by grand artifacts including scepters and goblets that indicated that they, too, were of higher status and had possessed a more prominent role in the Moche society.

A reconstructed 3D-printed replica of the face of the Lady of Cao, a female priestess-queen of the Moche civilization.

The impact of androcentrism in archaeology is thoroughly and explicitly exemplified in the long-held assumption by archaeologists that the Moche society was ruled only by male figures; with further analysis of the burial sites, findings implied that the buried Moche women belonged to a higher social class, further breaking the notion that the Moche civilization exclusively comprised of higher orders of men and, rather, included—or more often comprised of—women as social elites.

The tomb of the eighth Moche priestess to be discovered, buried 1,200 years ago with an array of artifacts that indicates her high social status.


The discoveries of the priestess-queens of the Moche remind us that we must stay aware of our presumptions and biases as they often bring us to incorrect conclusions. As archaeology is still developing when it comes to including, recognizing, and rewarding women, the male bias is especially important to keep in mind when considering historical archaeological conclusions about the role of gender in ancient societies and cultures. With an awareness of the biases of not only ourselves but also those of archaeologists before us, we can make sure that we are not discounting any potentialities on a matter of assumption or misinterpretation of evidence and that we are, instead, taking into consideration all possibilities in order to accurately restore the archaeological record.


Renfrew, Colin, and Paul Bahn 2010 Archaeology Essentials. 2nd ed. Thames & Hudson, New York.

Excavated Tombs of Peru’s Moche Priestesses Provide Archaeologists with Troves of Artifacts, Data

Lady of Cao Comes to Life: Face of Peruvian Priestess Reconstructed from 1,700-Year-Old Mummy

Where Women Once Ruled: Excavated Tombs of Moche Priestesses Provide Archaeologists with Troves of Artifacts

Male Bias in Anthropology

Moche Civilization

Mask Image Source

The Lady of Cao and the Royal Tomb Images Source


Additional Readings

Tomb of a Powerful Moche Priestess-Queen Found in Peru

1,500-year-old Ruins Shed Light on Peru’s Mysterious Moche People