Restoring the Parthenon

R E S T O R I N G   T H E   R U I N
  • Undoing past doings
Before the restoration team could begin, they had to take apart, block by block, and repair nearly every piece of the Parthenon. That's because early restorers, most notoriously a Greek engineer named Nikaloas Balanos who led restorations from the late 1800s to the mid-1900s, put column drums and whole blocks back in the wrong place. Even more damaging, Balanos used iron clamps like the one seen here to hold blocks together. The ancient Greeks had done the same, but they had coated their iron with lead to prevent rusting. Balanos's uncovered clamps corroded and expanded, cracking and even destroying the marble.
  • Locating all original pieces

In order to create the most faithful restoration, the team has sought from the beginning to salvage whatever ancient marble blocks have survived. This has been easier said than done. Tens of thousands of original pieces exist, some scattered around the Acropolis, others around the world, and still others lost forever. Whatever pieces the team is missing they have to recreate.
  • Cataloguing remains

Korres's team created a computer database of all original pieces. By entering, in some cases, over 50 criteria to identify each piece—among them height, width, slope, corrosion, cracking, stain marks, and even graffiti—they hoped the computer could aid them in finding each remnant's original position on the building. But often differences in the pieces are so subtle that they must abandon the computer and match fragments by eye.
  • Determining where each piece goes

Although the Parthenon might appear to be geometrically straight and built from interchangeable parts, it is not. The ancient Greeks worked subtle curves into the columns, architraves, floors, and other architectural elements, possibly to make the building appear more "alive" or to counteract optical illusions of sagging that parallel lines (like roof and floor lines) can cause. As a result, each of the Parthenon's 70,000 pieces is unique and fits in only one place.
  • Acquiring new marble

To replace original pieces that are missing, because they either have been looted and are now in museums around the world or have altogether disappeared, the team has turned to the very quarry the ancient Athenians used. Just 12 miles from the Acropolis, the quarry is known as Pentelicon. Scholars estimate that in the time of Pericles, the Athenian leader who spearheaded the Parthenon's construction, workers cut 100,000 tons of marble from Pentelicon. The quarry remains a rich source of marble even today.
  • Shaping missing pieces

Before carving a new piece of marble to fill a gap, team members first fashion a plaster cast of the absent piece, like the brown cast seen to the far right here. As they have in many instances throughout this project, they then turn to an ancient tool and technique. They use an antique mason's device called a pantograph, seen here, to record the three-dimensional shape of the cast. They then painstakingly transfer that shape, point by point, to the new marble.
  • Carving new pieces

As in ancient times, the Parthenon workplace today is less a construction site and more a sculptor's studio. Master stonemasons do all carving by hand. Their expert skills are needed, because sometimes the difference between a piece fitting perfectly and not comes down to just a tenth of a millimeter, about the thickness of a human hair. Amazingly, the ancient Greeks themselves achieved this level of precision, in part by using highly sophisticated tools. Korres, by studying tool marks in old marble, has reconstructed ancient chisels and other tools that he believes were, in their day, sharper and more durable than similar tools today.
  • Finishing new marble

To level a new surface, the team's masons again turn to an age-old technique. They sprinkle sand onto the surface, then use a metal smoothing plate to work out imperfections. The plate is an ancient invention, its modern counterpart based on stone plates found on the Acropolis. Korres believes that those early plates could grind to a precision of one-twentieth of a millimeter. Today, final sanding of distinctive features such as the column flutes seen here is done by hand using sandpaper.
  • Mating two pieces

When it's time to fit a newly fashioned piece of marble with a broken or irregularly shaped ancient one, the team once again borrows from Periclean times. To ensure that the new piece exactly snuggles against the old, they coat the inner surface of the new marble with red clay. They gently push the two pieces together, then pull them apart. Points on the new piece that turn white—that is, where the clay is scraped off—indicate spots on the new slab that need fine-tuning. The operation is repeated dozens of times until the new marble precisely matches the ancient surface.
  • Aligning the drums

Stacking and aligning column drums is another challenge. When Korres's crew separates two original drums for the first time in 2,500 years, they discover the ancients' ingenious solution. When mating two drums, the Athenians carved two pieces of cedar, one fitting inside the other like a key into a lock. These were set into holes cut in the center of each drum; when one drum was lowered onto the other, the cedar ensured proper alignment. Here, architect Cathy Paraschi displays three pairs: an original set (at left, still smelling of cedar), a modern copy (stacked at center), and a pair made out of titanium for use in today's restoration.
  • Using modern equipment

Of course, Korres and his team rely on many pieces of modern equipment as well, everything from soaring cranes to lift multi-ton capitals to the top of columns, to diamond-tipped saws to cut through fresh marble in the quarry. But without the ancient tools and techniques, the project arguably could not reach the level of perfection that the ancient Athenians achieved.
  • Restoring a ruin

When the Acropolis Restoration Project began 30 years ago, Manolis Korres and his colleagues could have chosen to approximate the Parthenon's original state, adorning it with sculptures and friezes, and painting it in vivid colors. Instead, they decided to preserve what has survived for two and a half thousand years—a majestic ruin, a witness to what we needlessly destroy, and the beauty and perfection that we can create.

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