In a landmark deal, an Italian museum is lending a marble fragment taken from the Parthenon’s eastern frieze to Greece. The announcement comes amid renewed scrutiny over Britain’s claim to the 2,500-year-old sculptures, which have been housed in the British Museum since 1817, following their excavation in Athens by the Scottish nobleman Lord Elgin.
The fragment, which depicts the right foot of the draped figure of Artemis, the Greek goddess of the hunt, is currently held at the Antonino Salinas Regional Archaeological Museum in Palermo, Sicily. It was sold to the University of Palermo by the widow of Robert Fagan, the British consul for Sicily and Malta, following his death in 1816. It’s unclear how Fagan originally acquired the artifact.
The Antonino Salinas Regional Archaeological Museum said on Wednesday that it had signed an agreement with the Acropolis Museum in Athens for a four-year loan in exchange for a loan of a marble statue of Athena dating back to the 5th century BCE and a terra cotta vase dating from the mid-8th century BCE.
The museum said in a statement that the ultimate goal of the loan program is an “indefinite return” of the fragment to Athens. Doing so could encourage other foreign institutions to help reunify all Parthenon fragments in Greece, according to the museum.
“The return to Athens of this important artifact of the Parthenon goes in the direction of building a Europe of culture that has its roots in our history and in our identity,” Sicily’s councilor for cultural heritage and identity, Alberto Samonà, said.
Half the surviving marbles excavated from the Parthenon temple between 1801 and 1804 under the direction of Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, are held in the British Museum in London.
The U.K. government has resisted successive appeals from Greece for their repatriation. The Greek government has said that marbles were looted, a claim that the British Museum has repeatedly denied. Greek politicians have also rejected the British Museum’s claim that it was better for the marbles to stay in London for conservation reasons.
In November, Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis attempted to broker a deal for the marbles’ return in exchange for a loan of some of Greece’s archeological treasures to the British Museum. The British prime minister, Boris Johnson, said in a statement that the sculptures were acquired under legitimate circumstances during the Ottoman occupation and would remain in Britain.
The Palermo fragment was previously loaned to Athens in 2002 and in 2008, but this is the first time both parties have pursued a permanent arrangement. As a frequent target of antiquities looting, Italy has been active in international repatriation efforts.
“Sending back to the context of its origins a small, but significant, fragment belonging to the Parthenon has a very strong symbolic value,” Samonà told the Guardian. “It is also a response to the international debate [about the Parthenon Marbles]. But I don’t want to get into that debate. For us, this is a gesture of friendship—Greece and Sicily are two areas of the Mediterranean that share a common story.”