A trove of treasures, from ancient Egyptian statues to coins and amphorae with stamped handles, has been found inside the wreck of the Mentor, one of the ships used to transport the Parthenon marbles from Piraeus to England. The overburdened frigate sank in 1802 southwest of the island of Kythera. Even 200 years of depredation by looters failed to find all its secrets, which are now being uncovered by marine archaeologists.
The precious marble slabs themselves were saved from the depths at the time: Lord Elgin lost no time ordering their salvage. In correspondence with the local vice consul of Great Britain seeking assistance, he wrote “she had on board some quantities of boxes with stones of no value, but of great consequence for me to secure”.
Now a team of marine archaeologists headed by the Greek Culture Ministry's Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities, Dimitris Kourkoumelis, has revisited the Mentor and excavated more of the hull, which had been badly damaged by looting and many salvage operations over the years.
“We have uncovered the remainder of the hull, sections of the hull and prow, a mere quarter of the ship,” Kourkoumelis told Haaretz, adding that unfortunately the rest of the hull had been completely destroyed during the 19th and 20th century, by treasure hunters seeking more marbles that were rumored to have remained on the seabed.
Lord Elgin takes the Parthenon frieze
Thomas Bruce, the seventh earl of Elgin, was a Scottish aristocrat who was named British ambassador to the Ottoman court in Constantinople in 1801. Acting on a paper obtained from the pasha, whose abstruse language has been studied ever since with Talmudic fervor, Elgin, had parts of the Parthenon marble frieze pried loose from the Parthenon, the ancient temple of Athena on top of the Acropolis, and loaded onto his ship, the Mentor.
On the September 15, 1802, the Mentor set off to Britain, carrying the marbles along with a cargo of priceless antiquities. The first port call was the island of Malta.
Favorable winds brought the ship to Cape Matapan, the southernmost point of mainland Greece. Then a strong easterly wind developed, forcing it to spend the night there.
But the next morning, the captain realized that the ship was taking in water.