Mistakes and pollution have taken their toll

The material used, as well as the structure of the monuments, explained civil engineer Maria Ioannidou, the director of the Acropolis Restoration Service, makes the Acropolis highly resistant to erosion. Natural disasters and the aging of the material are only partially responsible for the present state of the marble. Most of the damage is in fact due to human intervention: namely atmospheric pollution and previous flawed restoration. Ioannidou pointed out that «earlier restorations chiefly involved the repositioning of sections, the cutting, sawing and affixing of surfaces of ancient pieces so as to join two fragments that were not of the same section. The wrong material was also used, such as iron and concrete, which has resulted in the further fracturing of the ancient structures.» «In the restoration carried out in the early 20th century, some of the ancient sections scattered around the site were used. The restorers did not use them all and they did not investigate or note their initial positioning,» explained marble craftsman Giorgos Vidos at the Propylaea work site. «Taking a more refined approach to the problem, we removed the restored column section from the iron which had rusted or had aggravated the state of the column with the formation of new cracks and also increased the risk of pieces falling. «We dismantled them and removed all the foreign material. Seeing the 1,000 dispersed fragments on the ground, we thought that some of them might match those used in earlier restorations. Indeed, we were able to restore sections by rescuing 25 to 100 percent of the initial material. We decided therefore to restore the pieces with the highest proportion possible of ancient material. Currently the restoration process involves getting an imprint of the fractured surface, adding the missing part with new marble and chiseling so as to obtain the geometrical shape, size and form of the ancient part.» Apart from having a deep knowledge of the ancient material necessary to match the fragments, members of the work site team also use other elements to assist them, such as copies of the tools used, the watermark in the marble, color and geometrical features in the slabs. «When matching the architraves of the north side of the Parthenon, the impression of plants on the marble helped us a great deal,» said architect Nikos Toganidis, chief supervisor of the Parthenon work site.» «Various plants grow among the monuments. The roots penetrate and corrode both surfaces of the marble. In areas where we did not have other constructive information, we made a gelatine copy of the traces in each marble and looked for the matching piece. Another element is the damage caused by the weather. Northeasterly winds prevail in Athens and the northeastern part of the Parthenon has suffered the worst wear and tear. The marble on this side is always more eroded and this helps us to position the parts correctly.» The Acropolis restoration team has come up against numerous and insurmountable problems as the construction and artistic ingenuity of the ancient craftsmen cannot be easily decoded by modern technicians. Toganidis’s experience is telling: «When we started to dismantle the ancient columns we discovered that the contact of the vertebra was flawless. The flawless leveling of the surfaces continues to impress and raise questions. The answer, provided by Professor Manolis Korres after painstaking research, is one of the most important breakthroughs in reconstruction over the last 10 years.» The main causes for the delays have been the unforeseen problems that the conservators have encountered. «In one case, the study recommended a new vertebra,» said Toganidis, before pointing to three fragments that were to be reassembled. «During the restoration we realized that three ancient pieces matched. We checked the measurements carefully and discovered that they fitted in the place where we would have made a new vertebra. This means we now have to find new marble whose watermarks will match those of the ancient marble and cut it appropriately so that it can accommodate the ancient fragments and affix the parts. This is like doing embroidery. If we had a whole new piece in 10 days we would have been finished. Now we need over a month and different people have to undertake the task.»