A Towering Statue of Atlas Emerges From the Ruins of Sicily’s Ancient Temple of Zeus

In the fifth century B.C.E., 38 looming sculptures of the Titan stood guard at the structure

Atlas Statue
Researchers have pieced together a 26-foot-tall statue of Atlas originally built some 2,500 years ago. Sicilian Regional Government

After 20 years of restorations, a 26-foot-tall statue of Atlas is once again standing guard at the ancient Temple of Zeus in the city of Agrigento (once called Akragas) in Sicily.

The statue, created in the fifth century B.C.E., was one of roughly 38 similar Atlas monuments built into the temple. They stood in a line between columns with their arms raised, appearing to hold the holy structure upright.

In Greek mythology, Atlas was a Titan who rebelled in a war against Zeus. As punishment, he was forced to hold up the sky on his shoulders. Unlike the mythological Atlas, however, the stone likenesses were unable to hold up Zeus’ temple forever. Ultimately, earthquakes and other events caused the structure to crumble.

For many years, pieces of the statues were scattered around the site amongst other ancient ruins. In 1812, Charles Robert Cockerell, a prominent British architect, first identified one of the Titan’s giant sandstone heads during a visit to Agrigento. A century later, in 1920, archaeologist Pirro Marconi became the first person to attempt to reconstruct one of the Atlases, which is now housed in the Archaeological Museum of Agrigento.

Reconstruction of the Temple of Zeus
This model reconstruction of the Temple of Zeus shows how the Atlas statues were originally positioned. Poudou99 via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0

The seeds of the current project began in 2004, when the Valley of the Temples park conducted a sweeping research campaign at the site. Experts cataloged 90 fragments from at least eight Atlas statues.

“The idea was to reposition one of these Atlases in front of the temple so that it may serve as a guardian of the structure dedicated to the father of the gods,” Roberto Sciarratta, the director of the Valley of the Temples park, tells the Guardian’s Lorenzo Tondo.

But rebuilding Atlas in a standing position was particularly challenging, as researchers couldn’t simply stack the pieces of the statue on top of one another. Instead, they attached the fragments to metal shelves, which are supported by a larger metal structure.

The restoration has faced scrutiny ever since officials first announced it several years ago.

“No archaeologist would endorse the use of ancient sculpture, no matter how fragmentary, to create a modern sculpture, even if the purpose is to highlight the site’s antiquity,” C. Brian Rose, an archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times’ Franz Lidz in 2020.

But officials like Renato Schifani, the Sicilian governor, think that the statue’s resurrection is a commendable feat.

“Today is an important day for Agrigento and for all of Sicily,” says Schifani in a statement, per Google Translate. “This stone giant of ancient Akragas, which after many years of studies and research we can observe in its natural position, is the heart of an important museum project of the entire area of ​​the Temple of Zeus."

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