“Greeks can hardly agree on the time of day – but they all agree on the return of the μάρμαρα, marmara, (marbles)” David Hill jokes over the phone.
The 76-year-old former chair of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and architect of the National Soccer League (NSL) – a precursor to the A-League, is also a prolific author having penned 11 books mainly on history and culture.
However, Hill has gained widespread global recognition for his unwavering advocacy for the return of the Parthenon Sculptures to Athens. Pessimism has given over (to some) optimism of late.
“More has happened on the return of the Parthenon Sculptures in the last two years than during the last 200 years,” Hill says.
50 years ago today
In 1973 a young David Hill arrived in Athens for the first time, beginning what would become a lifelong ritual. As he approached the Parthenon, he was struck not only by its beauty, but also by its human scale. Unlike the imposing structures of other ancient civilizations, the Parthenon spoke to him of civic engagement, public property, and the work of citizens. As a temple to the goddess Athena, it was also a temple to humanity and democracy. This moment sparked Hill’s enduring advocacy for the return of the Parthenon Sculptures, a cause he has championed for five decades.
His wonder turned to anger when he learned that the Parthenon Sculptures were violently hacked off the Parthenon to be looted by Lord Elgin in the 1800s, with the complicity of Greece’s Ottoman colonial overlords. Elgin, broke and in debt, eventually sold the artefacts to the British Museum where they have remained ever since. Today, the Parthenon Sculptures, serve as a forceful symbol of cultural exploitation and colonialism.
“I was with friends, and we visited the Parthenon, they explained that Elgin had taken these beautiful statues, in those days, some of the west frieze was still on the Parthenon, as were some of the pediment statues, and the metopes.”
Hill vowed to fight for their return, and his advocacy began in 1973, as he stood in front of the Parthenon, gazing up at its perfect columns and imagining the sculptures that had once adorned them.
That same year, Hill saw what the English then called the Elgin Marbles in the the dusky British Museum, “I saw the Parthenon Sculptures like prisoners in the British Museum and it offended my sense of justice.”
In the British Museum they cast a shadow on the ethical principles of those involved in their theft.
Melina Mercouri, actor, and winner of Best Actress Award at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival for her role in the film “Never on Sunday” was minister for culture when Hill first met her. Mercouri, who was awarded the Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French government and the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding by the Government of India became Hill’s inspiration. She made the Return of the Parthenon Marbles a global issue. Hill met her in 1982 when he was working as an adviser for the NSW Premier Neville Wran. He says he was “blown away” by Mercouri’s Oxford Union Debate in 1986 and proceeds to read out Mercouri’s second to last paragraph.
“‘You must understand what the Parthenon Marbles mean to us. They are our pride. They are our sacrifices. They are our noblest symbol of excellence. They are a tribute to the democratic philosophy. They are our aspirations and our name. They are the essence of Greekness‘”.
“She says it all in that paragraph,” he sighs.
A change of heart – maybe
Hill took on the role of executive director of the British Committee for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles in the early 2000s. From 2005 to 2016 he became the inaugural chairman of the International Association for the Return of the Parthenon Sculptures. He refused to back down in the face of British intransigence, and in 2016 he called for international legal action. Now he hopes that legal action may be unnecessary.
“Things have changed dramatically in the last two years. We’ve seen nothing like that in 50 years.”
Hill makes an intriguing observation about the chairman of the British Museum, George Osborne, the former Conservative chancellor of the exchequer.
“Osborne, is a major conservative, we were stunned when he publicly said that a deal could be done regarding the return of the Parthenon Sculptures.”
“Now we have negotiations directly between the chairman of the British Museum and the prime minister of Greece – it’s unprecedented and encouraging.”
“Britain’s two major conservative newspapers, The Times, and The Telegraph wrote, ‘We’ve had it wrong’ and I don’t think they can go resile from that position.”
Until two years ago even UNESCO, ‘sat on the fence’, regarding it as matter for the British and Greeks to resolve.
“UNESCO suddenly criticised the British and urged them to negotiate for the return of the Sculptures.”
Hill says that the British public is also behind the return of the Parthenon Sculptures, now with three to one in support of their return.
Legal threat – a catalyst
Hill’s push for legal action caused much consternation among the Greeks. “Even in the highest levels of government in Greece some saw it as a declaration of war.”
The call for legal action began 10 years ago, when the then Greek prime minister Antonis Samaras had become “so frustrated that there was no progress made” on the campaign for the return of the marbles since the 1980s when Mercouri commenced the effort.
Prime minister Samaras brought together a committee of Greek Ministry for Culture advisers, and “eminent lawyers” to look at the legal options of fighting for the Sculptures’ return.
The chairman of the committee, a former Greek ambassador to Germany, that Hill describes as an “urbane, intelligent, and a sensitive human being” was frightened of litigation.
“He said that if there’s no other way, ‘I’d rather them not come back’ – I never understood that.”
Hill never anticipated the complex and formalistic nature of Greek legal culture.
“You understand that better than me, I don’t get it,” he laughs.
“If you can’t agree on a matter, submitting it to judicial scrutiny and determination is regarded as a civil thing to do.”
His intention was not to be “provocative,” and he adds “we had strong advice”.
“We invited eminent international lawyers, the Australian Jeffrey Robertson, Amal Clooney, who is married to George Clooney, the actor, and Professor Norman Palmer, from London University and I took all three of them to Greece at the request of Samaras in 2014.”
Hill suggests that the British government’s recent change of stance may have been prompted by the possibility of legal action. “Maybe the threat of legal action was enough to make them shift… I don’t know, it acted as a catalyst to get something done.”
Mounting pressure from campaigners, combined with the potential cost and negative publicity of a legal battle, may have forced the government to reconsider its position. He remains cautiously optimistic, noting that the fight for the sculptures’ return is far from over.
Hill highlights the 2001 case of then Australian Prime Minister John Howard, who demanded the return of Aboriginal human remains from the Natural History Museum in London. Howard and British Prime Minister Tony Blair worked together to amend the Human Tissue Act and health laws relating to human remains, which has set a precedent that continues to be relevant today.
“That came about because the Australian government and the Tasmanian Aboriginal Community funded the litigation.”
Sculptures spearhead global repatriation of cultural artefacts
The fight to repatriate cultural artefacts plundered during the height of western colonialism is now a pressing issue on the global stage. At the forefront has been the long campaign to return the Parthenon Sculptures to Athens.
“Enlightened museum practise recognises, repatriation is a good idea in special circumstances, so there’s nothing new, it’s just a spreading and a growth in enlightenment and enlightening thinking.”
The Vatican, Hill says, has just agreed to return a collection of Parthenon marbles back to Athens, and the Heidelberg Museum in Germany has returned a fragment of a foot from the North Frieze of the Parthenon to the Acropolis Museum.
“We are seeing, the repatriation of important items of cultural property, around the world there are fragments of the Parthenon Sculptures in the Louvre, Copenhagen, and Heidelberg sent theirs back.”
“The Louvre has a very important panel from the sacred east freeze, and it also has an important Metope they are not just fragments they are very important parts of the puzzle.”
Up that Hill
Hill the global advocate is also a lay archaeologist of course. He recently coordinated an expedition in the Argolid Peninsula in Peloponnesus to unearth the remains of Troezen, an ancient city, famed birthplace of the mythical hero Theseus, who slew the Minotaur, the half man half bull, kept in the Labyrinth under the palace of King Minos of Crete. The Minotaur fed on Athenian youths and maidens sent as sacrifices to Crete, chosen by lot.
The veracity of Theseus’ existence is debated but Troezen, a Mycenaean city dating from the 6th century BC reveals clues of some truth as the base of the legend.
Hill was joined by the prominent archaeologist, Professor Reinhard Stupperich from Heidelberg University.
“We employed techniques such as satellite imaging to survey the site” says Hill, leading to encouraging discoveries.
The copiously titled, Preliminary Report on the Architectural Survey Conducted in Troezen, Peloponnesus, was published in 2020 in Thetis archaeological magazine.
He is also completing another book.
Hill’s erudite confidence suddenly slips.
A tinge of defeat common to a writer about to crash into a deadline comes to the fore.
“I need to get on with it… it’s on history again.”