The frieze and sculpture from the pediments of the Parthenon, the temple dedicated to Athena, were taken from the Acropolis to England in 1806 by the British aristocrat Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin. These sculptures, carved by the mastercraftsman Pheidias, are known as the Elgin Marbles and reside in the British Museum. Lord Elgin has been much maligned for this act and at the time was labeled a vandal by Lord Byron and others. In 1983, the Greek government demanded the return of the marbles, a request which the British Museum has refused.

The removal of the sculptures should be seen in the context of its time. In 1795, Elgin engaged Thomas Harrison, a rising young architect, to build a new mansion, Broom Hall, for his bride. Elgin agreed that Harrison could build it in the classical style. In 1799, Elgin was appointed ambassador to Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman Turks, and Harrison asked him for copies and casts of Greek art and architecture, newly fashionable in Britain.

Elgin placed his secretary in charge of this request, and the latter engaged a painter and craftsmen to record, measure and make casts of ancient Greek monuments, including parts of the Parthenon. The task was made harder by the fact that the Turks, who were in control of Greece, were using the Acropolis as a fortress, and many of the structures were badly damaged. While Elgin's men were engaged in their work, the British Embassy chaplain at Constantinople, who was visiting Athens, wrote to Elgin and urged him to obtain permission from the Turks to allow his men to remove the sculptures. They were then shipped off as prespective ornaments for Broom Hall.

Elgin left Constantinople in 1803, but his return home was delayed by his detention in France. When he reached England, he found his wife had left him, and the marbles were the subject of bitter controversy. Badly in need of money, he sold the artifacts at a considerable loss to the British government.