A fairly nondescript piece of stone could have an impact on the future of the Parthenon Marbles dispute. Last month Heidelberg University decided to return its small fragment of the frieze to Greece.
How the stone, 8 x 11 centimetres, reached Heidelberg remains a mystery. On the front, it is simply cut, with the outline of part of a male foot, and on the back is a modern incised inscription, in Greek, with the word “Parthenon”. It was not until 1948 that archaeologist German Hafner recognised that it was the heel of figure number 28 in block viii of the north frieze.
The fragment was registered in the university’s antiquities collection in 1871, and the most likely scenario is that it was originally acquired as a souvenir by a German visitor in Athens. It has never been displayed at Heidelberg’s Museum of Antiquities.
On 11 January, Heidelberg’s vice rector Professor Angelos Chaniotis issued a statement, saying the fragment would be returned, “guided by the scholarly aim of promoting the unification of the Parthenon as a unique moment of world culture”. It is perhaps no coincidence that the vice rector, a historian, is Greek, although he has lived in Germany for more than 20 years.
Ownership will be transferred to the New Acropolis Museum. Under the arrangement, “the University of Heidelberg expects that the Greek Ministry of Culture will donate another work of art to its collection of antiquities”. Discussions are currently taking place between the university and the ministry on the item which will be presented to Heidelberg. The hope is that the Parthenon fragment will go on display when the New Acropolis Museum opens at the end of the year.
Greece’s Ministry of Culture last month welcomed Heidelberg’s decision, pointing out that the fragment would represent “the first part of the Parthenon frieze returned to Greece.” Although Palermo’s Museo Nazionale offered to restitute its fragment in 2002, in return for another archaeological item, these negotiations have not been concluded. The main collection of Parthenon sculptures outside Athens is at the British Museum.