Editor’s Note: This article was adapted from its original form and updated to include new information for Smithsonian’s Mysteries of the Ancient World bookazine published in Fall 2009.
During the past 2,500 years, the Parthenon—the apotheosis of ancient Greek architecture—has been rocked by earthquakes, set on fire, shattered by exploding gunpowder, looted for its stunning sculptures and defaced by misguided preservation efforts. Amazingly, the ancient Athenians built the Parthenon in just eight or nine years. Repairing it is taking a bit longer.
A restoration project funded by the Greek government and the European Union is now entering its 34th year, as archaeologists, architects, civil engineers and craftsmen strive not simply to imitate the workmanship ofthe ancient Greeks but to recreate it. They have had to become forensic architects, reconstructing long-lost techniques to answer questions that archaeologists and classical scholars have debated for centuries. How did the Athenians construct their mighty temple, an icon of Western civilization, in less than a decade—apparently without an overall building plan? How did they manage to incorporate subtle visual elements into theParthenon’s layout and achieve such faultless proportions and balance? And how were the Parthenon’s builders able to work at a level of precision (in some cases accurate to within a fraction of a millimeter) without the benefit of modern tools? “We’re not as good as they were,” Lena Lambrinou, an architect on the restoration project, observes with a sigh.
If the Parthenon represents “the supreme effort of genius in pursuit of beauty,” as the 19th-century French engineer and architectural historian Auguste Choisy declared, lately it has been looking more like a construction site. Ancient masonry hides behind thickets of scaffolding, planks and steel poles. Miniature rail tracks connect sheds that house lathes, marble cutters and other power equipment. In the Parthenon’s innermost sanctuary, once the home of a massive ivory-and-gold statue of Athena, a gigantic collapsible crane turns on a concrete platform.
Though heavy equipment dominated the hilltop, I also found restorers working with the delicacy of diamond cutters. In one shed, I watched a mason toiling on a fresh block of marble. He was one of some 70 craftsmen recruited for the project from Greece’s sole remaining traditional marble school, located on the island of Tinos. His technique was exacting. To make the new block exactly match an old, broken one, the mason used a simple pointing device—the three-dimensional equivalent of a pantograph, which is a drafting instrument for precisely copying a sketch or blueprint—to mark and transfer every bump and hollow from the ancient stone to its counterpart surface on the fresh block. On some of the largest Parthenon blocks, which exceed ten tons, the masons use a mechanized version of the pointing device, but repairing a single block can still take more than three months. The ancient workers were no less painstaking; in many cases, the joints between the blocks are all but invisible, even under a magnifying glass.
The Parthenon was part of an ambitious building campaign on the Acropolis that began around 450 b.c. A generation before, the Athenians, as part of an alliance of Greek city-states, had led heroic victories against Persian invaders. This alliance would evolve into a de facto empire under Athenian rule, and some 150 to 200 cities across the Aegean began paying Athens huge sums of what amounted to protection money. Basking in glory, the Athenians planned their new temple complex on a lavish, unprecedented scale—with the Parthenon as the centerpiece. Surviving fragments of the financial accounts, which were inscribed in stone for public scrutiny, have prompted estimates of the construction budget that range from around 340 to 800 silver talents—a considerable sum in an age when a single talent could pay a month’s wages for 170 oarsmen on a Greek warship. The Parthenon’s base was 23,028 square feet (about half the size of a football field) and its 46 outer columns were some 34 feet high. A 525-foot frieze wrapped around the top of the exterior wall of the building’s inner chamber. Several scholars have argued that the frieze shows a procession related to the quadrennial Great Panathenaia, or the festival “of all the Athenians.” By incorporating this scene of civic celebration, the scholars suggest, the Parthenon served not merely as an imperial propaganda statement but also as an expression of Athens’ burgeoning democracy—the will of the citizens who had voted to fund this exceptional monument.
When the current restoration effort began in 1975, backed by $23 million from the Greek government, the project’s directors believed they could finish in ten years. But unforeseen problems arose as soon as workers started disassembling the temples. For example, the ancient Greek builders had secured the marble blocks together with iron clamps fitted in carefully carved grooves. They then poured molten lead over the joints to cushion them from seismic shocks and protect the clamps from corrosion. But when a Greek architect, Nikolas Balanos, launched an enthusiastic campaign of restorations in 1898, he installed crude iron clamps, indiscriminately fastening one block to another and neglecting to add the lead coating. Rain soon began to play havoc with the new clamps, swelling the iron and cracking the marble. Less than a century later, it wasclear that parts of the Parthenon were in imminent danger of collapse.
Until September 2005, the restoration’s coordinator was Manolis Korres, associate professor of architecture at the National Technical University of Athens and a leading Parthenon scholar who had spent decades poringover every detail of the temple’s construction. In a set of vivid drawings, he depicted how the ancient builders extracted some 100,000 tons of marble from a quarry 11 miles northeast of central Athens, roughly shaped the blocks, then transported them on wagons and finally hauled them up the steep slopes of the Acropolis. Yet all that grueling labor, Korres contends, was dwarfed by the time and energy lavished on fine-tuning the temple’s finished appearance. Carving the long vertical grooves, or flutes, that run down each of the Parthenon’s main columns was probably as costly as all the quarrying, hauling and assembly combined.
Today’s restorers have been replacing damaged column segments with fresh marble. To speed up the job, engineers built a flute-carving machine. The device, however, is not precise enough for the final detailing, which must be done by hand. This smoothing of the flutes calls for an expert eye and a sensitive touch. To get the elliptical profile of the flute just right, a mason looks at the shadow cast inside the groove, thenchips and rubs the stone until the outline of the shadow is a perfectly even and regular curve.
The ancients spent a lot of time on another finishing touch. After the Parthenon’s exposed marble surfaces had been smoothed and polished, they added a final, subtle texture—a stippling pattern—that Korres says dulled the shine on the marble and masked its flaws. With hundreds of thousands of chisel blows, they executed this pattern in precisely ordered rows covering the base, floors, columns and most other surfaces. “This was surely one of the most demanding tasks,” Korres says. “It may have taken as much as a quarter of the total construction time expended on the monument.”
With such fanatical attention to detail, how could the Parthenon’s architects have finished the job in a mere eight or nine years, ending somewhere between 438 and 437 b.c.? (The dates come from the inscribed financial accounts.) One key factor may have been naval technology. Since the Athenians were the greatest naval power in the Aegean, they likely had unrivaled mastery of ropes, pulleys and wooden cranes. Such equipment would have facilitated the hauling and lifting of the marble blocks.
Another, counterintuitive possibility is that ancient hand tools were superior to their modern counterparts. After analyzing marks left on the marble surfaces, Korres is convinced that centuries of metallurgical experimentation enabled the ancient Athenians to create chisels and axes that were sharper and more durable than those available today. (The idea is not unprecedented. Modern metallurgists have only recently figuredout the secrets of the traditional samurai sword, which Japanese swordsmiths endowed with unrivaled sharpness and strength by regulating the amount of carbon in the steel and the temperature during forging and cooling.) Korres concludes that the ancient masons, with their superior tools, could carve marble at more than double the rate of today’s craftsmen. And the Parthenon’s original laborers had the benefit of experience, drawing on a century and a half of temple-building know-how.
Moreover, the restoration team has confronted problems that their ancient Greek counterparts could never have contemplated. During the Great Turkish War in the late 17th century—when the Ottoman Empire was battling several European countries—Greece was an occupied nation. The Turks turned the Parthenon into an ammunition dump. During a Venetian attack on Athens in 1687, a cannonball set off the Turkish munitions, blowing apartthe long walls of the Parthenon’s inner chamber. More than 700 blocks from those walls—eroded over time—now lay strewn around the Acropolis. For five years, beginning in 1997, Cathy Paraschi, a Greek-American architect on the restoration project, struggled to fit the pieces together, hunting for clues such as the shape and depth of the cuttings in the blocks that once held the ancient clamps. Eventually, she abandoned her computer database, which proved inadequate for capturing the full complexity of the puzzle. “Some days were exhilarating,” she told me, “when we finally got one piece to fit another. Other days I felt like jumping off the Acropolis.” In the end, she and her co-workers managed to identify the original positions of some 500 of the blocks. Looming over each restoration challenge is the delicate question of how far to go. Every time the workers dismantle one of Balanos’ crude fixes, it is a reminder of how destructive an overzealous restorer can be. Asthe director of the Acropolis Restoration Project, Maria Ioannidou, explains, “we’ve adopted an approach of trying to restore the maximum amount of ancient masonry while applying the minimum amount of new material.”That means using clamps and rods made of titanium—which won’t corrode and crack the marble—and soluble white cement, so that repairs can be easily undone should future generations of restorers discover a better way.
There have been some bravura feats of engineering. The 1687 explosion knocked one of the massive columns out of position and badly damaged its bottom segment. A serious earthquake in 1981 damaged it further, and theentire column appeared at risk of toppling. The obvious procedure was to dismantle the column, one segment after another, and replace the crumbling section. Korres, hoping, he said, to avoid “even the smallest departure from the column’s perfection and authenticity of construction,” designed a metal collar that exerts precisely controlled forces to grasp a column securely without harming the stone. In the early 1990s, after the careful removal of the overhead blocks and lintels, the collar was suspended by turnbuckles (adjustable connectors) inside a mounted, rectangular steel frame. By tightening the turnbuckles, the team raisedthe 55-ton column less than an inch. They then removed the bottom segment—which they repaired with fresh marble to an accuracy of one-twentieth of a millimeter—and slid it back into position. Finally, they lowered the rest of the column into place on top of the repaired segment. “It was a bold decision to do it this way,” Korres says. “But we were young and daring then.”
Perhaps none of the Parthenon’s mysteries stirs more debate than the gentle curves and inclinations engineered throughout much of its design. There is hardly a straight line to be found in the temple. Experts argue over whether these refinements were added to counter optical illusions. The eye can be tricked, for instance, into seeing an unsightly sag in flat floors built under a perched roof like the Parthenon’s. Possibly to correct this effect, the Athenians laid out the Parthenon’s base so that the 228-by-101-foot floor bulges slightly toward the middle, curving gradually upward between 4 and 4 1/2 inches on its left and right sides, and 2 1/2 inches on its front and back. One theory holds that this slight upward bulge was built simply to drain rainwater away from the temple’s interior. But that fails to explain why the same curvingprofile is repeated not only in the floor but in the entablature above the columns and in the (invisible) buried foundations. This graceful curve was clearly fundamental to the overall appearance and planning of the Parthenon.
And then there are the columns, which the Athenians built so that they bulged slightly outward at the center. This swelling was termed entasis, or tension, by Greek writers, perhaps because it makes the columns seemas if they are clenching, like a human muscle, under the weight of their load. Again, some scholars have long speculated that this design might compensate for another trick of the eye, since a row of tall, perfectlystraight-sided pillars can appear thinner at the middle than at the ends.
No matter the motivation for these refinements, many early scholars assumed that crafting such visual elements imposed tremendous extra demands on the Parthenon’s architects and masons. (One wrote of the “terrifyingcomplications” involved.) No architectural manuals survive from the Classical Greek era, but today’s experts suspect the temple builders could add curves and inclined angles with a few relatively simple surveying tricks. “If you’re building without mortar, every block...must be trimmed by hand,” notes Jim Coulton, professor emeritus of classical archaeology at Oxford University. “Although tilts and curvatures would require careful supervision by the architect, they don’t add a lot to the workload.”
Still, how could each column segment be measured so that all would fit together in a single, smoothly curving profile? The likely answer was found not in Athens but nearly 200 miles away in southwestern Turkey. In the town of Didyma rises one of the most impressive relics of the ancient world, the Temple of Apollo. Three of its 120 colossal columns still stand, each nearly twice the height of the Parthenon’s. The wealthy trading city of Miletus commissioned the temple in the age of Alexander the Great, around 150 years after completion of the Parthenon. The gigantic ruins testify to a project of grandiose ambition: it was never finished despite 600 years of construction efforts. But thanks to its unfinished state, crucial evidence was preserved on temple walls that had not yet undergone their final polishing.
A few years after the Parthenon restoration began, University of Pennsylvania scholar Lothar Haselberger was on a field trip exploring the Temple of Apollo’s innermost sanctuary. He noticed what seemed to be patterns of faint scratches on the marble walls. In the blinding morning sunlight the scratches are all but invisible, as I discovered to my initial frustration when I searched for them. After the sun had swung around and began grazing the surface, however, a delicate web of finely engraved lines started to emerge. Haselberger recalls, “All of a sudden I spotted a series of circles that corresponded precisely to the shape of a column base, the very one at the front of the temple.” He realized he had discovered the ancient equivalent of an architect’s blueprint.
Then, just above the outline of the column base, Haselberger noticed a pattern of horizontal lines with a sweeping curve inscribed along one side. Could this be related to entasis, also evident in the towering Didyma columns? After carefully plotting the pattern, the answer became clear: it was a profile view of a column with the vertical dimension—the height of the column—reduced by a factor of 16. This scale drawing must have been a key reference for the masons as they carved out one column segment after another. By measuring along the horizontal lines to the edge of the curve, they would know exactly how wide each segment would have to be to create the smooth, bulging profile. Manolis Korres believes that the ancient Athenians probably relied on a carved scale drawing similar to the one at Didyma in building the columns of the Parthenon.
Haselberger also traced a labyrinth of faint scratches covering most of the temple’s unfinished surfaces. The lines proved to be reference drawings for everything from the very slight inward lean of the walls to details of the lintel structure supported by the columns. There were even floor plans, drafted conveniently right on the floor. As the temple’s stepped platform rose, each floor plan was copied from one layer to thenext. On the topmost floor, the builders marked out the positions of columns, walls and doorways.
The discoveries at Didyma suggest that the temple builders operated on a “plan-as-you-go” basis. “Clearly, a lot of advance planning went into a building like the Parthenon,” Coulton says. “But it wasn’t planning inthe sense that we’d recognize today. There’s no evidence they relied on a single set of plans and elevations drawn to scale as a modern architect would.”
Still, the Parthenon remains something of a miracle. The builders were steered by tradition, yet free to experiment. They worked to extreme precision, yet the final result was anything but rigid. A commanding building, with supple and fluid lines, emerged from a blend of improvised solutions.
But the miracle was short-lived. Only seven years after the construction of the Parthenon was completed, war broke out with Sparta. Within a generation, Athens suffered a humiliating defeat and a devastating plague.The story of the Parthenon resembles an ancient Greek tragedy, in which an exceptional figure suffers a devastating reversal of fortune. And from Korres’ perspective, that calamity is all the more reason to restore the greatest remnant of Athens’ golden age. “We wanted to preserve the beauty of what has survived these past 2,500 years,” he says. “A reminder of man’s power to create, as well as to destroy.”
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This story appears in the March/April 2017 issue of National Geographic History magazine.
During the 1700s, a European Grand Tour was a rite of passage for the sons of wealthy families. Lasting for up to three years, and taking in Switzerland, Paris, and Rome, the high point of this secular pilgrimage for most travelers was Greece. On arriving in Athens, the first sight these young tourists would look for was the Acropolis and its crowning glory: the pillared Parthenon, dedicated to the warrior goddess Athena.
Yet even as the Grand Tour became increasingly popular, laying the foundations for modern tourism, this great monument, studded with the work of the great Athenian sculptor Phidias, was at risk of disappearing entirely. Since the 15th century, Greece had been ruled by the Ottoman Empire, whose troops had converted the Acropolis into a garrison, and whose sultan, Mehmed II, had turned the Parthenon itself into a mosque, complete with a minaret.
In 1687, during a war fought between Venice and the Ottomans, the great monument was used by the Ottomans to store gunpowder. Exposed on the Acropolis, the Parthenon was a highly vulnerable target, and in September that year, a deadly blow fell: A Venetian mortar struck it, causing a colossal explosion that destroyed its roof, leaving only the pediments standing. Later, the Venetian admiral Francesco Morosini tried to remove sculptures in order to take them back to Venice. The pulley he was using broke, and the figures, including a large Poseidon, was smashed to pieces.
Morosini withdrew from Athens with the dubious of honor of having caused more damage to the Parthenon in just one year than it had suffered in the two millennia since Socrates and Pericles had watched its slow rise over Athens at the end of the fifth century B.C.
Parthenon in Peril
By the middle of the 18th century yet more of the ruined Parthenon’s decoration had been plundered. The site’s precariousness only encouraged travelers to carry off items, as many believed it would be razed to the ground before long anyway. “It is to be regretted that so much admirable sculpture as is still extant about this fabric should be all likely to perish ... from ignorant contempt and brutal violence” warned Richard Chandler, an English antiquarian, in 1770. A few years later, the Irish painter Edward Dodwell reported that huge quantities of marble from the Parthenon had been broken up in order to build cabins for a garrison. On hearing about the situation, many western travelers and collectors sought to acquire treasures pillaged from the Parthenon on the local black market in an attempt to “save” them from destruction.
Some collectors claimed this was perfectly legal, as they removed items with the connivance of the Ottoman authorities. Many collections of Parthenon statuary housed in the world’s museums today were acquired in this way. The most famous and significant was brought to London beginning in 1803 by the former British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, the nobleman Thomas Bruce—more commonly known as Lord Elgin.
Taking the Marbles
Thomas Bruce, seventh Earl of Elgin and 11th Earl of Kincardine, was an aristocrat with a promising political career. During the first years of the war with revolutionary France, he held various diplomatic posts in Vienna, Brussels, and Berlin. He returned to his native Scotland in 1796, where he built a splendid country mansion at Broomhall. The architect behind the project was Thomas Harrison, who shared his client’s passion for Greek sculpture and architecture. In 1799 Lord Elgin’s diplomatic services were again required—this time as ambassador to the Ottoman sultan Selim III, who was keen to foster allies from Europe who would help him boost his defenses against Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt, then under indirect Ottoman rule. Having married hastily in September 1799, Elgin set sail from Portsmouth with his new wife, the heiress Mary Nisbet, bound for Constantinople (now Istanbul). Before Elgin left, Harrison urged him to use his privileged position to get hold of drawings and copies of Greece’s great monuments. Lord Elgin agreed and enlisted a team of artists directed by the painter Giovanni Battista Lusieri.
On their arrival, Lord and Lady Elgin were lavishly received by the sultan. While his wife organized sumptuous parties, Lord Elgin sent Lusieri and his team to Athens to sketch ancient works of art, as requested by Harrison. Lusieri was given free rein to carry out his work—except when it came to the Acropolis. In order to gain access to the monument, the Ottomans demanded large daily payments, and they refused to let the painter set up a single piece of scaffolding. Lusieri then asked Lord Elgin to request a firman, a special permission from the sultan himself.
On July 6, 1801, Lord Elgin received authorization, not only to survey and take casts of the sculptures but also to remove whatever pieces were of interest to him—or at least that’s how Elgin interpreted this now controversial passage from the sultan: “When they wish to take away some pieces of stone with old inscriptions and figures, no opposition be made.” Having won the favor of the governor of Athens, Lusieri and his men dismantled a large part of the frieze from the Parthenon as well as numerous capitals and metopes. Finally in 1803, the huge collection of marbles was packed up into about two hundred boxes, which were then loaded onto wagons and transported to the port of Piraeus to await their passage to England.
The Marbles Go to London
Transporting the marbles to the United Kingdom was beset with problems from the outset. One of the ships was wrecked near the island of Kýthira, where the cargo of treasures lay on the seafloor for two years before being retrieved. Hostilities with France, and the possibility of the hoard falling into French hands, led Elgin to request that a British warship docked in the port of Piraeus near Athens take the heaviest sculptures from the Parthenon pediments. Elgin had managed to keep the marbles from the French, but the same could not be said about his own person: Crossing France on his homeward journey to London, he was impris- oned and remained in custody in Pau near the Spanish border for three years until 1806. Once back in London, he began new negotiations to get the Ottoman government to authorize the second shipment of statuary, which left Piraeus in 1809.
Having brought the statues and reliefs to England, Lord Elgin proposed putting them on public display—a noble idea that was undermined by his intention to “restore” the statues. Elgin hoped to re-create the missing sections of each piece. To carry this out, he put forward the name of the most important neoclassical sculptor of the time, Antonio Canova. Canova, a Venetian, refused to touch the treasures, protesting: “It would be a sacrilege for any man to touch them with a chisel.” From 1807, Elgin exhibited the marbles that had arrived in Britain in a house that he leased in Park Lane, near Piccadilly in London. The display was a sensation, attracting a huge number of artists and academics.
The costs of shipping the marbles were paid out of Lord Elgin’s own pocket. He calculated he had spent a total of £74,000 in expenses and bribes—more than a million dollars in today’s money. Despite his title, Elgin was not a very rich man, especially after 1808 when he faced a ruinous divorce settlement. Feeling the pinch, he put pressure on the British government to buy the collection. In 1812 he deposited the marbles in the home of the Duke of Devonshire and mobilized his contacts to talk up the value of the pieces and warn against the danger of them falling into foreign hands. In 1816 Parliament created a commission to assess Elgin’s offer, a decision that caused a huge stir in the press. The country was divided among those who considered they should be bought for the nation, those who considered them a waste of money, and those like the poet Byron who excoriated Elgin for taking them in the first place.
Holding On to Their Marbles
In 1816 the commission finally fixed the price of the marbles at £35,000 (approximately $500,000 in today’s money)—less than half Elgin’s asking price. Parliament approved the sale by a very tight margin: 82 votes in favor and 80 against. Lord Elgin, a staunch patriot, had turned down lucrative offers from other governments for the treasures, and argued all along that the marbles would add luster to Britain’s imperial image. Taking the long view, he was justified in anticipating the sense of national pride Britain would feel for the marbles, and in time it became commonly accepted that the nation had purchased them for a song. One of the greatest artworks in human history was now housed in the middle of London, a vital propaganda tool in projecting the image of the British Empire as civilized and benign.
After spending several years in a temporary facility, the marbles were moved to the Elgin Room in the British Museum in 1832. As the exhibition had an educational purpose, providing models for artists, the original pieces were displayed together with molds of the missing fragments. The originals, in fact, made up only around 60 percent of the whole display. In the 1930s work began on a new room that would display only the originals, whose surface texture and color had been altered due to a rigorous (but poorly supervised) cleaning in preparation for display. The Duveen Gallery, named after the businessman who financed it, was completed in 1938 but installation of the marbles was halted by World War II. During the Nazi raids on London, the marbles were put into storage, and the Duveen Gallery itself suffered serious bomb damage. The space was restored and finally opened to the public in 1962.
Since regaining independence in 1832, successive Greek governments have petitioned for the return of the Parthenon marbles. During her service as the Greek minister of culture between 1981 and 1989, the actress Melina Mercouri reenergized the repatriation campaign. The new Acropolis Museum of Athens, which opened in 2009, includes a specially designed space to house the marbles for the day—fervently awaited by many Greeks—they are reunited with other treasures from the Parthenon and the Acropolis. Not surprisingly, the British Museum has so far refused all requests to give up one of its most popular exhibits. The Parthenon marbles have become the most visible, and notorious, collection of Acropolis artifacts still housed in museums across Europe, often with the justification that such objects are emblematic of European civilization as a whole, not just of Greek heritage.