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Archaeologist says pollution threatening last Parthenon marbles (#1774)
A senior Greek archaeologist has warned that the last original sculptures still adorning the Parthenon, Athens' iconic ancient temple, face a major pollution threat and must be removed to a museum.
"There are still 17 original metopes [sculpted plaques] which must be protected because they can no longer endure atmospheric conditions," Acropolis site supervisor Alexandros Mantis said on Friday.
Mr Mantis has proposed that the endangered sculptures be replaced by replicas and kept safe in a new museum located below the Acropolis that is scheduled to open in September.
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He singled out 14 plaques on the Parthenon's western facade which are in a "pitiful" condition, plus two more on the northern side.
One of them is the so-called "Annunciation" plaque featuring two goddesses, which was spared by early Christians when the temple was turned into a church around 600 AD.
Athens' most recognisable landmark and part of the ancient Acropolis citadel overlooking the city, the Parthenon dates back to the golden age of Athenian democracy which began in the fifth century BC
Few sculptures dating from the Acropolis' creation are still on-site, having been gradually removed by Greek archaeologists in the last 30 years during restoration works.
The famous Caryatids, statues of young women that acted as pillars to the Erechtheion temple, were themselves removed in 1979.
The issue was discussed last week by the Greek archaeological council (KAS), the influential 34-member state body that advises the culture ministry on heritage issues.
But the council is frequently split and this case was no exception.
"Mr Mantis has stated his position but the archaeological council has not ruled on the issue," Maria Ioannidou, the archaeologist heading the Acropolis restoration project (YSMA), said.
"A relevant study must be carried out and an international conference must be held on the issue to reach a decision."
The culture ministry's head of ancient monument restoration, Dimosthenis Giraud, also advised caution.
"A detailed study of the issue is necessary," he said.
Sceptics say that removing the Parthenon's last original sculptures would strike a jarring note with hundreds of thousands of tourists who visit the monument every year.
There is also debate over how the move will affect Greece's case with the British Museum for the return of the Parthenon Marbles, the priceless friezes removed in the early 19th century by Lord Elgin, British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire which ruled Greece at the time.
The British have long accused Greek authorities of taking poor care of the vulnerable monument that was exposed to decades of air pollution.
Mr Mantis insists that protecting the sculptures will strengthen Greece's case to have the Parthenon Marbles repatriated from London.
"We must protect our heritage at all costs," he said.
A total of 92 metopes once adorned the Parthenon's outer Doric frieze, the oldest sculptures on the temple dedicated to Athens' patron goddess Athena.
Depicting scenes of battle between gods and giants, men facing centaurs and Amazons, and the Trojan War, most of them are now nearly unrecognisable.
In addition to the changes wrought on the temple when it was turned into a church, it was badly damaged during a Venetian siege in 1687 when a cannon ball exploded in the Turkish powder magazine stored inside the Parthenon.