Technological Advancements and the Parthenon Marbles: the Potential Role of 3D Printing in the Greek Claim Against the British Museum

By Ilaria Bortot

The Parthenon was built in the 5th century on the hill of the Acropolis in Athens in honor of the goddess Athena Parthenos (Athena the Virgin). It was part of Pericles’ rebuilding program after the Greek victory over the Persians, and it was the very symbol of Greek freedom and democracy. The marbles displayed at the British Museum include fifteen of the original ninety-two metopes illustrating scenes from Greek mythology, seventy-five metres of the frieze, and seventeen sculptures from the pediment representing Greek gods and heroes. The never-ending dispute around the marbles began in the 18th century when Lord Elgin, a British Ambassador to the Ottoman Court, which controlled Athens at the time, asked to “collect as much marbles as possible” and take them back to England. Still today, the only document used by the British Museum to base the legality of Elgin’s actions is the “firman”, i.e., a royal decree issued by the ruler that functioned as official permission to carry on a requested action. However, the original copy is lost and the only surviving copy is in Italian. Also, its content is vague and rather open to interpretation, and it creates doubts about whether Lord Elgin acted according to law. Once in England, then, the Parliament acquired the marbles for £35,000 and vested them to the British Museum’s trustees, making them the owners.

The debate for the return of the Parthenon marbles dates to Greece’s independence in 1832; however, the first official claim was only in 1983, and it was formally rejected in 1984. Since that moment, the English government has been denying Greece’s requests as well as those from the international community. For instance, in 2021, the UNESCO Intergovernmental Commission for the Return of Cultural Property to Countries of Origin (ICRCP) voted unanimously for the first time at its 22nd session for the return of the sculptures to Greece, but nothing changed. Instead, the English government based its refusal on five main points. First, according to the common law principle of the nemo dat quod non habet rule, the Crown cannot acquire better title to the marbles than what was acquired by Lord Elgin; hence, if his title was lawful, as they declare, the Crown’s title is lawful, as well. Second, the removal of the marbles from their original location saved them from potential damages caused by lack of care (nonetheless, the British Museum permanently ruined some of the parts when they were heavily cleaned in the 1930s). Third, the museum states that the marbles have become an important part of British cultural heritage due to their long presence in London and the great influence they have had on British neoclassical art. Fourth, the trustees of the British Museum are worried that the return of the Parthenon marbles could set a precedent for global restitution of artefacts to their countries of origin. Finally, the trustees have a strong legal justification in the 1963 British Museum Act, which prevents the museum from disposing of any items except for objects that have been found to be duplicated, damaged, or unfit for retention. While it could be argued that the marbles are morally unfit, as the past decades have shown, the possibility that the trustees would change their position is unlikely. To allow the disposal of the marbles then, the Parliament would need to authorize a new act, but there has been opposition to such an option.

To overcome some of the issues raised by the United Kingdom, the Institute for Digital Archaeology (IDA) proposed to create perfect replicas of the marbles using 3D printing, which is the process of making a three-dimensional object from a digital model. Technological advancements like 3D printing have increasingly proven themselves to be a strong asset for cultural heritage. An important example is how this technology has been used in the reconstruction of destroyed monuments. After ISIS destroyed Mosul, several cultural initiatives and projects were launched in opposition to the terrorist group. One such initiative was the “Missing: Rebuilding the Past” exhibition which was a show by artists incorporating various media, including 3D printing, to feature monuments and artworks that have been lost throughout history. Despite this heritage technically being lost, it is still possible for people to experience it through this technology. Another significant program was the 3D replica by IDA of the Palmyra Arch of Triumph, which was destroyed by ISIS in October 2015. The purpose of this project was to send a message of peace and hope after the terrorist attacks and to show the potential of new technology in the cultural heritage field. In 2016, the 3D marble replica of the Arch of Triumph was displayed in Trafalgar Square. It was then moved after two weeks from London to various sites such as New York, the World Government Summit in Dubai, and the G7 Culture Summit in Florence before arriving in Arona, where the archaeological museum dedicated to Khaled al-Asaad, the Head of Antiquities in Palmyra killed by terrorists in 2015, is located. In this way, the new Arch became a symbol of cultural resistance against ISIS’s atrocities.

In addition to the reproduction of lost monuments and cultural artefacts, 3D printing could also be the answer to several repatriation cases like the Parthenon Marbles, which is what IDA hoped to achieve through the proposed creation of the marbles’ perfect replicas. With this solution, the originals could go back to Greece and be reunited with the pieces already displayed in the Acropolis Museum in Athens, and the British Museum could keep an exact copy while also benefiting from the positive acknowledgement that the return of the marbles would give them from the international community. In addition, 3D printing on ancient monuments has a main legal advantage: it does not cause copyright infringement. According to Article 12 of the Copyright, Design and Patents Act (CDPA) 1988, copyright protects an artwork for the duration of the life of the author plus seventy years. Therefore, the Parthenon Marbles can be easily reproduced because they do not have any copyright protection: in addition, they dated to an era when there was no legal interest in copyright, so they have never had copyright. However, because the marbles are at the British Museum, the museum’s trustees currently have copyright to any of their digital scans meant for marketing or reproduction.  Hence, if the IDA wants to recreate a 3D print of the marbles, legal permission from the trustees is required.

The only issue that 3D printing raises regards the authenticity of the pieces that would remain in London. In other words, how people would react knowing they are admiring copies rather than originals. Using the description of Walter Benjamin, original artworks are surrounded by a sort of metaphysical quality, an “aura” that defines their own unique presence in time and space. A replica, no matter how perfect it might be, will always be missing this special quality. People admire, cherish, and almost worship a work of art not only for its quality and beauty but for its history and what it represents; an artwork is a witness of the past. Therefore, even the most precise and perfect copy cannot reproduce aura, which is entirely based on people’s perception of the object and their feeling towards it. Even though replicas are identical to the originals, people’s view changes once they know they are looking at copies. 3D technology, though, challenges Benjamin’s theory and the very significance that people give to cultural objects. As the example of the Arch of Triumph shows, the 3D replica is still enjoyed and respected because it carries a message of peace and cultural resistance. In addition, museums’ attitudes towards replicas are changing, as well. For instance, the Victoria & Albert Museum, one of the most prominent museums in London, with an average of 4 million visitors per year, has an entire area dedicated to reproductions.

The only issue related to the 3D printing of the Parthenon Marbles, therefore, is merely related to the viewers’ perception of the objects. It is paramount to remember that their story has a much broader and deeper context that dates to colonisation. The British Museum, the Louvre, and any other encyclopaedic museums still have artworks from former colonies in their collections. The latter, however, are now independent nations deprived of their cultural heritage. The Parthenon, in Greece, was a symbol of freedom. It represented the victory of democracy over tyranny. Even after Lord Elgin removed the marbles, it was still used as the scenery to proclaim Greece’s independence in 1832, and it was likewise the symbol of liberation from the Nazis in 1944. Everything about the Parthenon, from the images represented to its story, speaks about Greece and its freedom. It is the national symbol of a country that struggled, and the absence of important pieces like the marbles, using the words of Alexander Herman, “denotes that the Liberation remains incomplete, as if the Greek can only truly perfect this symbol of national freedom once the sculptures are returned”. Perhaps it is true that the Parthenon’s replicas will lack aura; however, the question is whether or not people would value their own amusement over the reunification of the most important national symbol of a country.

About the Author 

Ilaria Bortot is a graduate student in Art Law at the University of York. Her academic interest is focused on the protection of cultural heritage, repatriation issues, provenance research, and the illegal trafficking of antiquities.

Suggested Readings 


  1. Ivan Lindsay, “History of Loot and Stolen Art from Antiquity until the Present Day” 190 (2013).
  2. Alexander Herman, “Restitution: The Return of Cultural Artefacts” 20 (2021).
  3. Herman, supra, 22.
  4. Herman, supra, 23.
  5. Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in Case of Illicit Appropriation, 22nd session Paris, UNESCO Headquarters, 2021DECISIONS
  6. Nemo dat quod non habet literally means “nobody can give what they do not have”. Hence, if a person does not have legitimate title to an item, that person cannot transfer said title to a third person. 
  7. Lindsay, supra, 197.
  8. Lindsay, supra, 197.
  9. William G. Stewart, “The Marbles: Elgin Or Parthenon?”, IAL (2000).
  10. British Museum Act §5 (1963).
  11. The Institute for Digital Archaeology Home — The Institute for Digital Archaeology.
  12. Anya and Andrew Shiva Gallery, “Missing: Rebuilding the Past” (2016). The Missing: Rebuilding the Past – Shiva Gallery.
  13. The Institute for Digital Archaeology
  14. Copyright, Design and Patents Act §12 (1988).
  15. Benjamin W and Underwood, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (Penguin 2008).
  16. Charles Cronin, “3D Printing: Cultural Property as Intellectual Property”, 39 COLUM. J.L. & Arts 1 (2015).
  17. Number of visitors to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, England from 2011 to 2021
  18. Encyclopaedic Museums are large national institutions that were born during the 18th century in Europe. They display cultural artifacts from all over the world so that the visitor can have a comprehensive understanding of human history. However, these museums are usually the result of colonisation, and they still hold items that had been pillaged from former colonies.
  19. Alexander Herman, Restitution: The Return of Cultural Artefacts 25 (2021).
  20. Herman, supra (25).

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