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Restoring The Parthenon, One Puzzle At A Time

How Jeff Hurwit's Love Of Greek Art Led Him To An Advising Role In A NOVA Documentary

Nearly 2500 years ago, a military general named Pericles ushered in Greece's Golden Age as the leader of Athens, the largest and most powerful city-state in ancient Greece. Pericles, an influential promoter of the arts, science, philosophy, and democracy, was instrumental in establishing Athens as both the "cradle of Western Civilization” and the "birthplace of democracy,” as it's often referred to in modern times. As a tribute to the Athenian ideals of beauty and perfection, Pericles oversaw construction of the Parthenon, a temple to the city-state's patron goddess, Athena Parthenos.

Today, architects and engineers work furiously to restore the Parthenon to its former glory before it collapses into final ruin. The multi-million dollar Acropolis Restoration Project, started in 1975 by the Greek government, is charged with the painstaking task of restoring the Parthenon and other ancient structures on the Acropolis, the sacred Athenian "city in the sky.”

Despite vast technological advances made in the past 2500 years, today's engineers have had to learn quite a bit from the ancients in order to progress with the restoration. This learning process is one of the compelling reasons to study ancient architecture, says Jeffrey Hurwit, a professor of classics and art history at the University of Oregon. "I've devoted over 40 years of my life to studying classical antiquity, and I've done that because I find it valuable to me personally, because I believe that there are lessons there for us here, and because looking at Greek art simply thrills me.”

Hurwit, a lifelong scholar of classical Greek art, served as a technical advisor for the PBS NOVA documentary, "Secrets of the Parthenon.” The show, which originally aired on January 29th, 2008, documents the architectural mysteries encountered during the Parthenon's restoration. Hurwit's expert commentary appears in both the show and its companion Web site.

"The show is an investigation of specific puzzles in the design and construction of the Parthenon,” says Evan Hadingham, senior science editor for NOVA, in a University of Oregon press release. "But NOVA could not present such an inquiry without a broader perspective on the ancient Athenians and the political and social circumstances that led to this crowning achievement of ancient Greek culture. Jeff's main role in the film is to bring this broader picture of the Athenians to life, which he does in a brilliant, lively interview that we have woven throughout the program.”

The praise is mutual. Hurwit is delighted with NOVA's finished product. "It's the finest documentary about an ancient Greek subject that I've seen,” he says.

Journey to the Parthenon

Jeff Hurwit's love affair with Greek art took root at an unusually tender age. Growing up in Connecticut, he attended a private high school where he studied ancient Greek as a young freshman. His school's extraordinary foreign language curriculum led to his undergraduate work in classical languages and literatures at Brown University. As a college student, Hurwit traveled to Greece, fell in love with its art, and discovered his academic passion. Although he trained as a philologist at Brown, he studied classical art and archaeology in graduate school at Yale University. He's been an art history professor at the University of Oregon since 1980.

Hurwit's office in Eugene is a veritable library of Greek history, literature, art, and architecture. When asked a question requiring any sort of visual aid, he easily pulls half a dozen books off the shelves and flips to full-color photographs of ancient sculptures and buildings. The walls in his office not covered with bookshelves are decorated with full-length posters of Greek statues. There are even miniature replicas of a few statues gracing surfaces that aren't otherwise occupied by books and papers.

Hurwit describes himself as a classicist, someone who places ancient art in a cultural context. In this way, he's a kind of cultural anthropologist, only for a culture that existed two thousand years ago.

The expertise qualifying Hurwit for the advisory role on NOVA dates to 1987. That year, he published one of his seminal works, "The Kritios Boy: Discovery, Reconstruction, and Date,” in the American Journal of Archaeology. The manuscript is a forty-page treatise describing in detail the history of Kritios Boy, one of the most famous classical Greek sculptures, and how Hurwit dismantled and reconstructed it. He dismantled the statue to show that its fragments, discovered at different times and in different places, are truly parts of the same original sculpture. In the process, he also showed that a previous restoration attempt was faulty.

The Kritios Boy statue is just shy of four feet tall and depicts a young, pensive male standing upright. It exists today in two main pieces: the head of the boy, and the remainder of the body minus both arms and part of the right leg. In the late 1950s, the head and body were plastered together in an effort to conceal the unsightly seam between the two. In 1987, Hurwit removed the plaster to examine the head's interface with the neck. He found that the head locked securely into place on the body, implying the pieces indeed originated from the same ancient sculpture. He also found that the 1950s restoration had placed the head nearly a centimeter above its natural joint. The faulty restoration positioned the head so that Kritios' Boy's gaze was frontal, when in reality the eyes look downward in a more indirect and thoughtful manner.

Hurwit's work on the Kritios Boy led to his current expertise on the Acropolis. He became interested in the art and architecture of the Acropolis while analyzing the Kritios Boy and, since then, has written two books that are now standards in the field. "The Athenian Acropolis: History, Mythology, and Archaeology from the Neolithic Era to the Present” came out in 1999, and most recently "The Acropolis in the Age of Pericles” was published in 2004.

The Acropolis Restoration Project

Although the principles are the same, analyzing the fragments of the Parthenon is a much more daunting task than reconstructing Kritios Boy. The Parthenon, the largest structure at the time made entirely of marble, was conceived and built in less than a decade. Less than a decade after its completion, however, the abuse and destruction began. The Peloponnesian War commenced, lasting more than 25 years and culminating in Athens' fall to Sparta. A violent earthquake apparently struck at this time as well. Over the next two millennia, the Parthenon would be blown up, burned, wrecked with cannonballs, converted from a temple to a church to a mosque, and looted for its sculptures. Ironically, an overzealous restoration project in the early 20th century caused even more damage. The project installed iron clamps to hold together enormous blocks of marble, but without protecting them from the corrosive grip of Mother Nature. The iron swelled with moisture, leaving fresh cracks in the ancient marble.

At the outset of the Acropolis Restoration Project, the abused Parthenon lay in more than 70,000 pieces scattered throughout the ancient city. To make matters worse, each piece has a unique home in one of the Parthenon's inner walls, rooftop beams, or 46 columns. This is because the blocks of marble that form the Parthenon have slightly curved edges. If the ancient architects had constructed the temple using uniform rectangular blocks, for example, the pieces would be interchangeable to some degree. Interchangeable pieces could theoretically make the restoration a smooth and efficient operation, and could also explain how the ancient Greeks started and finished the Parthenon in a mere nine years. A primitive assembly line of stonemasons carving rectangular marble blocks agrees well with present-day notions of large-scale industry and manufacturing.

Surprisingly though, the modern restorers discovered that, in all the Parthenon, hardly a straight line or right angle exists. The floor of the Parthenon slopes gradually upward toward its center. Each of the 46 columns leans gently inward toward the center of the building as well. The marble beams that span the columns bow slightly, and the columns curve individually like flexed forearms. If one of the columns were the arc of a circle, that circle's radius would be nearly a mile in length. The result is that, to remain faithful to the Parthenon's original design, the Acropolis Restoration Project must find unique homes for all 70,000 orphaned fragments.

"The Parthenon is a 20,000 ton, 70,000 piece, three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle,” narrates the NOVA documentary. To put the puzzle back together, the architects use modern tools such as a computer database cataloging the size, corrosion, cracking patterns, and stain marks of all the fragments. Twenty-first century technology alone, however, has proven insufficient. The architects have also learned from the ancients, employing their techniques for locking together two marble blocks and sanding the seams to near-invisibility.

Perhaps even more surprising to modern engineering minds, the Parthenon's curvature was intentional. Hurwit explains in an interview published on the documentary's companion Web site. "Since the early 19th century scholars have studied and measured the Parthenon and demonstrated that the so-called optical refinements of the Parthenon, the deviations from the perfectly horizontal or the perfectly vertical, deviations from the straight and perpendicular, were in fact intentional,” says Hurwit. "They are not the result of the settling of the building over time.”

The exact reason for such intentional curvature has been debated considerably. A prevailing theory, credited to an ancient Roman architect named Vitruvius, has origins in the Athenian ideal of visual perfection. Hurwit describes the theory in the transcript of NOVA's online interview: "Vitruvius believed that a perfectly straight line carried over a long distance would appear to sag, and he suggested the upward curvature of the long steps of the Parthenon would counteract that optical illusion, making the line look straight.” Under this theory, the gentle curves of the Parthenon's surfaces simply allow the structure to be perceived as perfectly straight.

For his part, Hurwit thinks the effect is more anthropomorphic in origin. "I believe that the refinements were made to give the Parthenon an impression of being a living mass that responded to its own weight,” he says. The curves of the individual columns, for example, appear to bulge like human muscles in response to the weight of the immense marble roof. This alternate theory still speaks to the Athenian ideal of perfection, but encompasses a more humanistic interpretation than Vitruvius allowed. "And in that sense, the Parthenon strikes me as being a sculptural as well as an architectural achievement.”

Charla Lambert is a graduate student in Genome Sciences at the University of Washington.


Top: The Parthenon is one of the most architecturally influential buildings in human history. Here, a full-scale replica stands in Nashville, Tennessee's Centennial Park. Photo: Gary Layda

Bottom: Jeffrey Hurwit is a professor of classics and art history at the University of Oregon. Photo: Jim Barlow

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