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The Parthenon, said the 19th-century French engineer Auguste Choisy, represents "the supreme effort of genius in pursuit of beauty." (Aris Messinis / AFP/ Getty Images)

Unlocking Mysteries of the Parthenon

Restoration of the 2,500-year-old temple is yielding new insights into the engineering feats of the golden age's master builders

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.”

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