ATHENS — Greek conservation experts have collected about 1,500 chunks of marble masonry scattered over the Acropolis hill so they can be replaced on the Parthenon in a 10-year restoration project starting later this year.
Blocks of all shapes and sizes are neatly stacked beside the 5th Century BC temple dedicated to Athena, goddess of wisdom and patron of the ancient city.
"It's been a vast three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle, identifying which of the pieces of marble lying on the hill actually came from the Parthenon, then deciding where on the building they belonged," said Nicholas Toganidis, an architect working on the project.
"The hill was covered with pieces of marble from different periods, from other temples and buildings, some erected when Athens was under Roman rule.
No Lighter Than a Ton
It took more than six months to identify and collect the scattered blocks, weighing from one to seven tons. They represent almost 10% of the temple masonry.
"At first it was daunting," Toganidis said. "One piece of marble looked just like another. But once your eye was in, you could recognize Parthenon pieces from their dimensions, the marble quality and the workmanship."
The Parthenon, a temple completed around 438 BC, was the crowning architectural glory of Athens in its Golden Age. It was decorated with superb sculptures by Pheidias, who also designed a 39-foot statue of Athena in gold and ivory that stood inside the temple.
Ravaged by time, war, looting and air pollution, and put at a further disadvantage by careless restoration, the Parthenon is viewed by more than 10,000 tourists who climb the rocky Acropolis hill each day in summer.
Suntan Oil Damaging
"The sheer volume of visitors can be a problem," Toganidis said. "One of the reasons for gathering up the scattered stones as soon as possible was to protect them. Just a trace of suntan oil from someone sitting down can damage the marble,"
Later this year, the archeologists plan to lay a special concrete floor over the Parthenon's worn marble paving. Then, a retractable French-made crane will be be moved inside the temple to start the restoration work.
The crane will take down blocks of marble weighing up to 10 tons each so that about 1,000 rusting iron clamps inserted by restorers early in this century can be replaced with non-corrosive titanium imported from Japan. The clamps expanded as they rusted, cracking the marble blocks.
Then the blocks will be returned to their original positions, along with those recently collected.
"Using the crane means we don't have to cover up the Parthenon with unsightly scaffolding and spoil the city's skyline for the next decade," Toganidis said.
Quake Moved Column
The restoration program also calls for removing more badly weathered sculpture from the temple and moving a 34-foot column shifted by an earthquake back to its original place.
Greece spends around $1.1 million yearly on restoration work on the Acropolis, plus the equivalent of $38,000 contributed by its European Common Market partners.
New marble blocks are being cut from Mount Penteli, 9 miles north of the city, at quarries close to those used by the ancient builders of the Parthenon.
Used as a Christian church from the sixth century and as a mosque after Ottoman Turks captured Athens in 1458, the Parthenon survived virtually intact for almost 2,000 years.
However, in September 1687, when Venetian forces were besieging the Acropolis, a mortar shell dropped right into the temple, used by the Turks as an ammunition store. Fourteen columns were blown out, along with much of the cella, the walled hall set inside the surrounding columns.
More damage was caused when the victorious Venetian general, Francesco Morosini, tried to pull down a sculptural group. Lord Elgin, a British diplomat, purchased and carried off most of the carved frieze blocks in the early 19th Century.