When archaeological reconstruction is not a good idea

Last Thursday I arrived back in Athens after my trip around the Peloponnese, where I’ve been joined by my wife and a friend of ours. I lived in Athens for a year and a half while writing my PhD and returning always feels like something of a homecoming. I’ve been having a productive and enjoyable time – sampling the delights of Greek cuisine, wine and raki in the evenings, working in the library of the British School and visiting sites by day. I particularly enjoyed stolling up to see the Philoppapos monument and the Pnyx again – sites set in a surprisingly large area of undeveloped parkland to the west of the Acropolis where it’s possible to escape the traffic and the tourists and forget you are in a city inhabited by around four million people – at least that is until you reach the top of one of the hills and get a magnificent view of the seemingly endless urban sprawl.

Yesterday my wife and I had a very pleasant stroll around the South Slope of the Acropolis, another of the more peaceful archaeological sites, where you can see the remains of the late Classical  theater of Dionysos  and several other ancient buildings. There’s also an excellent collection of inscribed bases of statues that had been set up in the area, many in the Roman period, which makes them of particular interest toe me. We had a nice time and I managed to get a few new photos of things that I’ve probably already photographed before. I was, however, horrified, at the sight of a rather garish archaeological reconstruction project that’s being carried out in the area above the theatre.

When I last visited the area a few years ago it was still possible to see, cut into the rock of the Acropolis on eastern end of the southern face, a row of small caves, the largest and easternmost of which had been carved in antiquity into a regular square opening. Looking back at the photos I made then I can see that they’d already begun setting up marble pillars in front of the cave then. Now, the cave has been almost completely obscured by this modern building which is evidently going to be a complete reconstruction of the so-called Thrasyllos monument that was set up across the front of the cave in the late Classical period.

The caves above the theatre of Dionysus in 2009
The caves above the theatre of Dionysus in 2009
The cave above the theatre yesterday (2015)
The cave above the theatre yesterday (2015)

In Classical times, Athenian plays were performed in the context of a religious festival to Dionysos. Rich citizens would taken on the role of “choregos”, or financer of these productions, and plays were pitted against each other in competition for the best performance of that year within the two genres of comedy and tragedy. The winners were determined by popular vote and the winning choregoi were allowed to set up a tripod monument (a large bronze cauldron) somewhere on the road approaching the theatre. The choregoi were given a lot of freedom to decide what they wanted the base of their monument to look like and in the course of time they became increasingly grand. One is known to have taken the form of a small temple. The most famous is the Lysikrates monument that still stands in modern day Plaka, erected in the late 4th century BC. The Thrasyllos monument, which was constructed around the same time was another such choregic monument.

The Lysikrates monument in Athens
The Lysikrates monument in Athens

We know what the Thrasyllos monument looked like because it was drawn by visitors to Athens in the late 18th Century. It consisted of an architectural façade across the front of the cave with rectangular pillars supporting an architrave decorated with a frieze and dedicatory inscription. The structure supported a statue and, without doubt, the tripod monument itself. In Roman times (the period I am most interested in) Pausanias reports seeing a representation of Apollo and Artemis slaughtering the children of Niobe inside  the cave, which might have been a painting or a sculptural group or relief. The 18th century drawings show that by that time the front had been walled up, except for a door, and was in use as a chapel.

Drawing of the Thrasyllos monument by Le Roy. 1782.
Drawing of the Thrasyllos monument by Le Roy. 1782.

Just as I discussed for the Hellenistic Tower of the Winds in an earlier post, these drawings were a great inspiration to contemporary architects working in Europe and America and several buildings were modelled on the ancient monument. There’s a good discussion of the influence of the Thrasyllos monument on western architecture by Calder Loth here. I didn’t realise until now that the building had such a big influence. One of my favourite examples of a building modelled on the monument is this early 19th century folly in Temple Gardens, near Lincoln, which I’d very much like to see in real life.

Early 19th C folly based on the Thrasyllos Monument - in Temple Gardens, Lincoln
Early 19th C folly based on the Thrasyllos Monument – in Temple Gardens, Lincoln

Tragically the Thrasyllos monument was completely destroyed by the Turks during the Greek War of Independence when they tried to recapture the lost city and besieged the Acropolis in 1827.

The modern reconstruction project is clearly aimed at reversing this catastrophe by completely rebuilding the architectural façade. I don’t know whether any fragments of the original monument survive and will be incorporated in the reconstruction but, to judge from the pillars that have already been erected and the huge collection of marble blocks piled up at the eastern end of the Acropolis ready for use, it looks likely that the structure is going to consist near enough entirely of new material. The vast quantity of marble makes me wonder just how much of the ancient Acropolis they are actually planning on rebuilding! My wife said that the scene reminded her of a storage yard of a kitchen supplier.

Marble blocks and other building equipment at the east end of the Athenian Acropolis
Marble blocks and other building equipment at the east end of the Athenian Acropolis

Modern tourists to the site will soon be confronted with a modern replica of the Thrasyllos monument, in shiny new white marble that jars horribly with the mellowed, slightly yellowy stone of the truly ancient buildings on the Acropolis. I really cannot see much point to his reconstruction at all. Most visitors will probably have little idea that what they are looking at is not a genuine survival from the ancient world, though to be honest, I suspect that few will pay the structure much attention, overshadowed as it is – quite literally – by the majesty of the Parthenon and the other Periclean buildings. The project is hardly likely to attract new visitors to the Acropolis which is already one of the most popular archaeological sites in the word.

It also isn’t going to teach us anything about the building that we didn’t already know from the 18th century drawings and if we are looking to model the experience of viewing and moving around the building a computer reconstruction already exists. I very much doubt that visitors are going to be allowed to actually enter the caves because they have always been off limits. And while little will be gained by the reconstruction much will be lost – the only truly ancient thing about the monument – the cave to its rear – will sadly disappear completely from view. I’m reminded of a similar project at Epidauros, the site in the Peloponnese famous for its theatre. There, a fascinating, well-preserved and highly unusual ancient underground labyrinth, which was once on view to visitors, has been covered over by a completely modern marble reconstruction of the Tholos building that originally stood on top of it.

I have absolutely nothing against archaeological reconstruction if it is done well and if – for me the biggest if – substantial amounts of the original building still survive. I saw some excellent examples of reconstruction last week in my visit to Messene. I’m also a big fan of the reconstructed Stoa of Attalos on the Athenian Agora, which was carried out with great attention to detail and incorporates the entire rear wall of the original building, which had stood in tact into modern times. The Stoa allows visitors to experience what it was like to walk around such an ancient building, provides welcome shade from the heat in the summer and is a perfect location for the site’s museum. A few years ago I was also lucky enough to be taken to see the Parthenon reconstruction project, which is being carried out with meticulous care and will result in a building that consists of more than 2/3 original architectural pieces.

What I do object to, is the complete fabrication of ancient monuments, that have been lost to us, particularly when such projects mean that authentically ancient remains will no longer be visible. We cannot turn back the clock and undo the destruction wrought by Turkish gunpowder and i just don’t understand why we would want to.

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One thought on “When archaeological reconstruction is not a good idea

  1. From the Ministry’s description of the monument: “In the middle of the 19th century, while the Archaeological Society had scheduled the restoration of the monument, part of its architectural material was recarved and reused during the repair work of the Byzantine church of Soteira Lykodemou, now chiefly known as the Russian Church. The meticulous drawings by J. Stuart and N. Revett carried out during their visit in Athens in 1751-3, document the accurate form and dimensions of the ancient monument and along with new measurements of the surviving parts, formed the basis for the restoration project of the monument initiated in 2002.” (http://odysseus.culture.gr/h/2/eh251.jsp?obj_id=19820)

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