Thursday, 29 June 2006

Herculean task of restoring Acropolis

The Parthenon is clad in scaffolding as work continues on restoration of the Acropolis (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2006)

Letter from Athens
Patrick Comerford


In the heat of the summer sun in Athens, tourists pick their way across the rocky top of the Acropolis from early morning, crossing mini-rail lines, ducking under overhanging cranes and scaffolding on the Parthenon, and watching in amazement as stonecutters chip away at marble blocks and archaeologists push ahead with their efforts to restore the most important classical landmark in Greece.

According to Greece’s deputy culture minister, Petros Tatoulis, the long drawn out work on restoring the Acropolis should be largely completed by the end of next year. However, the Parthenon will be the last monument to be renovated, and the entire project will not be ready until 2020.

“This is a national effort for which money is no object,” Tatoulis says. Almost €18 million was invested in the project between 2000 and 2004, and a further €14 million is being spent in 2005 and 2006, the vast majority provided by the EU.

Earlier this year, Tatoulis hinted that the government might seek private sponsorship, breaking a taboo that has been in place since the conservation project began 30 years ago.

Tatoulis says work is “progressing at a satisfactory pace”, but so far, the only monument to have been fully conserved and partially restored is the Erechtheion temple, at the northern end of the Acropolis.

Scaffolding on the Parthenon, the Temple of Athena Nike and the Propylaea Gates will come down by the end of next year, but restoration work on the Parthenon may then resume, according to Dr Maria Ioannidou, head of the official organisation overseeing the works, the Conservation of Acropolis Monuments (YSMA).

More than half the marble blocks from the three monuments have been treated and put back in place, but there is still much painstaking work to do. “We are treating each piece as an individual work of art. There has not been systematic support for the Acropolis monuments since the age of Pericles, so any delay is justified. The essence is the quality of the work involved and not the time,” says YSMA president Prof Haralambos Bouras.

Three basic restoration programmes on the monuments are on target and are expected to be completed by the end of this year, according to Prof Bouras. The Parthenon, the Temple of Athena Nike and the Propylaea Gates have suffered from exposure to pollution and from damage caused by failed restoration efforts in the past.

Another view of the Parthenon, which will be the last monument to be renovated on the Acropolis. The entire project will not be ready until 2020 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2006)

However, new challenges continually arise as the restoration work continues. In the YSMA's latest annual report, Dr Bouras points out that the latest delays have been caused by problems on the periphery walls of the Acropolis.

Other problems include inscriptions which remain in the open air, as there are no final plans on where to move them and how to protect them. In addition, work on the Temple of Athena Nike is proving to be time-consuming, with two extra restoration techniques now being called for.

Greek officials say the construction of the long-awaited and much-delayed Acropolis Museum will be completed by next year and that it will open to visitors by the end of 2007. The original plan was to open the new museum in time for the 2004 Athens Olympics.

The museum, in inner suburban Makriyiannis, is just 300m (984ft) south of the rock of the Acropolis. It covers 23,000sq m, and the ministry of culture says the entire project will cost €129 million.

Archaeologists digging at the foundations discovered antiquities dating from the late Neolithic period to the seventh century BC.

A special place in the museum has been reserved for the Parthenon Marbles, which are still on display in the British Museum in London.

Project director Prof Dimitris Pandermalis expects that glass partitions will be placed in the hall built to host the Parthenon Marbles by the end of July, and that the glass enclosure will be finished by August. Some of the heavy sculptures will be moved from the old museum on the Acropolis during the summer months.

Visitors will gradually start gaining access to the halls of the new museum, even while the antiquities are being moved.

The museum consists of four basements, a ground floor, an inclined level on the ground floor which will host the findings from the Acropolis, and a first floor which will host archaic and post-Parthenon collections. The two-storey building will be capped by a glass hall allowing visitors unrivalled views of the Parthenon.

The 14,000sq m exhibition area will contain more than 4,000 works – 10 times the amount on display in the cramped museum on the Acropolis. Most have been kept in storage for decades, and thousands have never been seen before by the public. “We are talking about masterpieces that have never been seen”, including bronze and pottery artefacts found on the slopes of the Acropolis, says one senior project official, Nikos Damalitis.

All the 2,500-year-old Parthenon sculptures in Greek possession will be displayed on a full-sized model of the temple inside the museum, and the Greek government is renewing demands for the return of the Parthenon Marbles, 190 years after they were stripped away by Lord Elgin.

This half-page news feature was first published in The Irish Times on 29 June 2006