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Opinion

The Elgin Marbles must be returned. And so must Wales’ absent artefacts

03 Dec 2023 5 minute read
Mold Gold Cape / Clogyn Aur yr Wyddgrug. Image: Mark Ramsay

Stephen Price

The Elgin Marbles, or Parthenon Sculptures as their correct owners would quite rightly prefer we call them, are back in the news again.

This time, the 200 year spat between the UK and Greece left the establishment’s position looking even more pathetic, with Rishi Sunak abruptly cancelling a planned meeting with Greek Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis over the latter’s intention to raise the subject of his country’s stolen goods.

The UK’s post-Brexit reputation could have done with some boosting, but Rishi and his puppetmasters are towing the company line as ever. It seems mummy never told them to give back the toys they stole.

Decolonisation

On Wednesday, Greek Foreign Minister George Gerapetritis said: “The demand for the reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures is a demand that arises from law, from history and from universal cultural values.”

Why Greece should have to demand I don’t know. In this more enlightened age of consent and decolonisation, to simply ask should be enough, shouldn’t it?

The unified voices from Greece are inspiring. They’re not going to let this one go, and ultimately they will win, so wouldn’t it be a lot easier all round if the men in power just grew up and got on with it.

Facsimile of part of column 579 from the Red Book of Hergest

Wales has a lot to learn from the Greek people’s persistence. Especially since we, too, have so many of our most important artefacts currently being denied to us. Some in that very same British Museum even. Anyone else noticing a pattern?

The Mold Gold Cape, or Clogyn Aur yr Wyddgrug, a ceremonial cape made of solid sheet gold, is perhaps our most famous missing piece.

The cape, found by workmen at Bryn yr Ellyllon (Hill of the Elves) in 1833 was acquired by the British Museum in 1836 and is considered to be one of the most important archaeological finds in the UK, with worldwide significance.

International significance

Calls have been consistently been made by politicians, such as Plaid’s Mabon ap Gwynfor and Liz Saville Roberts, as well as the former librarian of the National Library of Wales, Andrew Green for the cape’s return. Plaid’s Elfyn Lwyd made the case for the sake of Wales’ ‘collective memory’.

Surprisingly, however, the repatriation of our historical artefacts does not form part of any current Welsh Government strategy.

Sadly, and not surprisingly, the Mold Gold Cape is far from alone in its cultural significance, and its notable absence.

The Red Book of Hergest, or Llyfr Coch Hergest, is another treasure of both national and international significance that is currently missing from the reach of its intended audience. Its current home – Jesus College of Oxford University. I suppose it’s better than Oxford Brookes, but why is it not in Wales?

Considered one of the most important medieval scripts written in the Welsh language, or any language for that matter, it preserves a collection of prose and poetry including the Mabinogion, historical texts and a series of Triads – fragments of Welsh folklore, mythology and history.

Who else should be the custodians but the Welsh?

Rhyd y Gors Shield. Image: Joy of Museums

Collective memory

Other artefacts housed in the British Museum include the magnificent Rhyd y Gors Shield, the Moel Hebog Shield and the Llanllyfni Lunula – a crescent shaped ornament thought to be a ceremonial piece.

The British Museum isn’t alone in its display and storage of Welsh plunder either – with important items from Wales held in National Museums Liverpool, as is the case with the Trawsfynydd Tankard, and Oxford University yet again which holds the Red Lady of Paviland – considered by many to be the equivalent of Wales’ Parthenon Sculptures.

And it’s not just England that is denying Wales of its collective memory.

A letter from Owain Glyndŵr to the King of France written in 1406 currently resides in the French National Library in Paris but one might argue over its rightful home in this case. Maybe. Let’s put that one on the back burner.

For now, like Greece, we are most certainly being denied the cultural and economic benefits of our very own property.

Rightful custodians

A museum was built especially to house the Parthenon Sculptures at the foot of the Acropolis. There could be no more fitting place for them. The Greek people deserve to be reunited with their ancestral treasures without having to catch a plane and leave the EU. Greece also deserves the tourist footfall and economic benefit.

Wales, too, has the expertise and facilities to house ours. We also have the will.

We shouldn’t rejoice at having our artefacts visit us on tour, or have to battle our way to London or Paris to catch a fleeting glimpse. The stories told in Wales, that grew in Wales, belong in Wales – not out of sight and out of mind.

We shouldn’t, also, forget that a plea for return is largely symbolic. It is about the respect of our will, and respect of our status as equals.

In our plea, we must not lose focus on the artefacts we do have here – a potent, inspiring collection from St Ffagan’s, to Brecon, to Llandudno and Llanberis. Visit them at every opportunity you can.

Our ancestors channeled an energy when creating the Mold Gold Cape, the Rhyd y Gors shield and the Red Book of Hergest. That energy and history is currently being denied to the pieces’ rightful custodians.

What wonders or even movements might they inspire, if only we all had the opportunity to see them close up; to feel that they are truly ours again; to channel an ancestral energy just waiting to be recharged.


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Sarah Good
Sarah Good
2 months ago

I could not agree more. The Parthenon marbles are cultural relics of Greece and should be returned immediately. As should all of our stuff.

Frank
Frank
2 months ago

If England had to give everything back to the rightful owners they would not have a pot to pee in let alone no land to stand on. They make up rules so they can claim treasures and we are daft enough to go along with it!!! Come the day of independence we will be expecting a 25% share of everything. Having said that they have probably stashed it all away out of sight already.

Steve Duggan
Steve Duggan
2 months ago

Without a doubt the Marbles belong in Greece and it’s time the British museum and UK government realised this. As for the items that belong to Wales, we all now why they were kept away from us. If you deny a country access to it’s heritage you keep it bound. Our history, our language and really our very identity have been attacked and subdued for centuries. Not because they maybe a threat to the power in London but because by recognising our nationhood it could lead to greater calls for independence and if that happened we might prevent the plunder… Read more »

Elen Wade
Elen Wade
2 months ago
Reply to  Steve Duggan

The campaign for a referendum for Welsh independence to be in England should begin. The result would be a resounding “yes”.

Arthur Owen
Arthur Owen
2 months ago

The cloak was discovered by some Welsh workers who were busy breaking it up to share when the local vicar intervened,he informed the British Museum and the rest is history.There were no Welsh museums at the time,what should he have done?

Bethan
Bethan
2 months ago
Reply to  Arthur Owen

Why were there no Welsh museums? You don’t find that strange? If not a museum, of then somewhere official and safe to store valuable artifacts? Nowhere in the whole of Wales? If that’s true then that says a lot about the status of our country at the time and if not, then there’s no reason it couldn’t have been kept within our borders.

I’m convinced. Give us our cape back, and all our other national treasures.

Frank
Frank
2 months ago
Reply to  Arthur Owen

Yes, Wales was as pi** poor then as it is today hence the need to break the gold up just to exist. Our neighbours are hell bent on keeping the situation exactly the same. What are they afraid of? Notice the English did not find the need to break it up to exist.

Sarah Good
Sarah Good
2 months ago
Reply to  Arthur Owen

So the local vicar intervened and gave the benefit to the English museum. Two years alter Swansea museum opened. The right thing to do would be to transfer it there. But when has the English Museum been about doing the right thing?

Elen Wade
Elen Wade
2 months ago
Reply to  Sarah Good

The right thing to do is to return it to Flintshire. It shouldn’t be anywhere near Swansea, or Cardiff.

Gareth
Gareth
2 months ago

I know what will happen, they will say ” we are all British” and items from Cymru are “British”, therefore they have taken nothing, as these items remain in Britain, so it has been in the past,and only pressure from our unionist Gov can help change this, I have my doubts it will happen.

Christine Jones
Christine Jones
2 months ago

Welsh Government should be banging down the doors within Whitehall and across the English Establishment to return our property. The fact that the Red Lady is not on display within our nation is a disgrace and an act of historical and archaeological defilement.

Maglocunos
Maglocunos
2 months ago

Cytuno’n llwyr. Thieves (and imperialists) shouldn’t be allowed to benefit from their crimes

Stub Mandrel
Stub Mandrel
2 months ago

Excellent article.

Riki
Riki
2 months ago

You know everything is messed up when the “British” museum is located in England. They aren’t even British!

David
David
2 months ago

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