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Dr. J's Illustrated
Road to the Recovery
of Ancient Buildings


How many of us are surprised when we tour Greece (virtually or otherwise) to find that 5th century BC ruins are lying about waiting for us to inspect them even though 2500 years of human history and natural process intervenes between us and them? No, ancient Greece has not been kept under a bell jar - indeed, it is amazing that so much of this long-lost culture has been uncovered even though the land has been continually inhabited and developed since antiquity. Excavation and restoration programs have done wonders in the face of the natural and man-made changes wrought over these last two and one-half millenia. Here is a brief introduction to the subject of exactly what kind of stumbling blocks stand in the way of rediscovering the grandeur of these mute witnesses to history. Originally, I wrote this lecture only about the buildings on the Acropolis, but other places in Greece offer excellent material as well.
athens51MID.jpg (8566 bytes)Presently, the biggest program in the works concerns the Restoration of the Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens. Cranes, such as the one in this 1995 picture of the inside of the Parthenon, are used to hoist newly hewn marble pieces cut to replace those lost to time, war and treasure-seekers. Marble is being quarried from the same mountain  - Mt. Pendeli - that supplied the original building material between 447-432 BC. The nine miles distance between source and destination makes that ancient accomplishment all the more astounding.IMG0078.jpg (3071 bytes) 9601.jpg (2903 bytes)The other buildings on the Acropolis are also being restored to their fifth century appearance. Here is the Temple of Athena Nike under wraps in 1998 (left) and without scaffolding in 1996 (right).

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In 1687, the Venetians attacked the Turks (just like in Othello!), who were garrisoned on the Acropolis. Venetian strikes exploded an arsenal of gunpowder stored in the Parthenon, taking the roof off, destroying 28 columns and most of the interior cella, and starting a fire that burned for 2 days. The cannonballs shot from Philopappos Hill (right) also left their mark (left).

 natural calamities

Several buildings on the Acropolis have also suffered damage from natural causes. The Propylaia was damaged severely in 1645 when lightning struck another Turkish gunpowder store (if that can be chalked up to "natural causes"), and the Parthenon moved an inch off its foundation during an earthquake in 1981. But such earthquake and storm damage is common to antiquities in Greece:

athens96MID.jpg (7149 bytes)IMG0021MID.jpg (10695 bytes)On the left is a close-up of what remains of the Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens (NOT on the Acropolis, though). The column in the foreground fell during a terrific rainstorm in 1852. On the right, an earthquake toppled these columns of the Temple of Zeus in Olympia (NOT Athens), leaving perfect rows of tinker-toy-like column drums of the building which once housed a Wonder of the Ancient World, the chryselephantine (gold and ivory) statue of Zeus.

17MID.jpg (7920 bytes)5MID.jpg (9282 bytes)In 1450 BC, a fantastic volcanic explosion caused a significant amount of havoc in the ancient world. The recently dug-up town of Akrotiri, on the island of Santorini, was buried under 150 feet of pumice rock that rained down on the island during the eruption - about 1500 years before Vesuvius buried Pompeii and Herculaneum.

metal harvesting

heph2MID.jpg (9077 bytes)The Hephaesteum, in the Athenian Agora, is the best preserved Doric Temple in all of mainland Greece because it became a Christian Church very early in late Antiquity (about AD 200). But in Medieval Times, its iron clamps were harvested from its joints so that the metal could be melted down to make weapons and ammunition. Chisel holes are clearly evident along the length of the crepidona, or top step of the foundation.

sacred vandalism

9817MID.jpg (8988 bytes)Although the church's efforts preserved the building itself, the art work was not as fortunate. The metopes of the Hephaesteum dramatize Theseus' fight against the Minotaur (half man/half bull), a fact that caused this building mistakenly to be called the Theseion for generations. But Theseus has lost his head to a chisel in all the metopes, while the Minotaur suffered no such insult: in the eyes of the church, it was worse to be a pagan than a monster.

environmental issues

Earthquakes, thunderstorms, lightning strikes, cannonball assaults, gunpowder explosions, re-structuring, treasure-seeking and willful mutilation have certainly taken their toll on the buildings on the Acropolis in Athens.  But more damage has been suffered in the past fifty years than in the preceding two millenia: air pollution caused by automobile exhaust is literally eating away the marble of Athens' ancient shrines.

IMG0098MID.jpg (3391 bytes)athens26MID.jpg (8022 bytes)This Caryatid (left) - a marble column shaped like a woman - was taken from the south porch of the Erechtheum to England by Lord Elgin in the early 19th century and therefore escaped the fate of her five ravaged sisters, who now look like melted wax images whose detail has worn away. In 1979 they were moved inside a nitrogen-filled tank inside the Acropolis Museum. The columns seen today holding up the Erechtheum's South Portico (right) are plaster replicas.

removal of antiquities

Lord Elgin took much more away from the Acropolis than just the one Caryatid. Below is a sampling of the Parthenon sculptures, popularly called the Elgin Marbles, that the British Museum bought from Elgin in 1816. Dr. J's Illustrated Parthenon Marbles page offers a bigger selection and fuller commentary.
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pedimental sculpture frieze metope

Much ancient sculpture has been lost permanently because of such interest, and much has just been relocated by subsequent invaders: for example, in 86 BC Sulla removed two of the Corinthian-style columns from the Temple of Olympian Zeus built by Hadrian for the Temple on the Capitoline in Rome.

To reinvent the Acropolis in Pericles' model, archaeologists are engaged in collecting and cataloguing the fragments scattered about andathens21MID.jpg (11742 bytes) putting the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle back together. In the photo on the right is a small sampling of the outrageous number of marble fragments that patiently await the conservators in their quest to reconstruct the Propylaia.

botched past restoration attempts

athens15MID.jpg (8765 bytes)Mr. Tanoulas, director of the Propylaia Restoration Project, points out grievous faults caused by an earlier reconstruction attempt by Balanos which modern conservators must repair before the current work of restoration can occur.   On the left athens19MID.jpg (6677 bytes)Mr. Tanoulas points to holes drilled in the marble to aid in lifting them. These were foolishly left open to the air, and pooled water damaged the marble. He also used iron clamps, which subsequently rusted, expanding and cracking the marble. In antiquity they knew better - they coated their iron clamps with lead. Balanos also erred by "reconstructing" this Ionic column capital (on the right) from marble fragments really belonging to four distinct column capitals.
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A series of three photos showing conservators reconstructing a piece of the Propylaia entablature: (1) a crane is used to hoist one piece of marble onto another for refitting; (2) titanium rods have replaced any iron implanted by Balanos and cement has been poured into any remaining holes; (3) a perfect fit!

copyright 2001 Janice Siegel, All Rights Reserved
send comments to: Janice Siegel (jfsiege@ilstu.edu)

date this page was edited last: 11/26/2005
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