Sometimes something is so iconic, so lodged in our collective memory, its image so reproduced time and time again, that it becomes washed out, and decayed of meaning. It happens with everything great and old; consider van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” or Michelangelo’s “David.” The same thing certainly has happened to the greatest, most perfect construction of the ancients, the Parthenon.
What’s really exciting, in our age of infinite reproduction, is that the new sciences are completely refashioning the way in which we look at old things — reminding us of the genius and impossible craftsmanship that was necessary to create things of such greatness.
Smithsonian Magazine has an amazing article on new insights into the way the ancients constructed the Parthenon.
“The ancients spent a lot of time on another finishing touch. After the Parthenon’s exposed marble surfaces had been smoothed and polished, they added a final, subtle texture—a stippling pattern—that Korres says dulled the shine on the marble and masked its flaws. With hundreds of thousands of chisel blows, they executed this pattern in precisely ordered rows covering the base, floors, columns and most other surfaces. “This was surely one of the most demanding tasks,” Korres says. “It may have taken as much as a quarter of the total construction time expended on the monument.”
With such fanatical attention to detail, how could the Parthenon’s architects have finished the job in a mere eight or nine years, ending somewhere between 438 and 437 b.c.? (The dates come from the inscribed financial accounts.) One key factor may have been naval technology. Since the Athenians were the greatest naval power in the Aegean, they likely had unrivaled mastery of ropes, pulleys and wooden cranes. Such equipment would have been essential for hauling and lifting marble blocks.
Another, counterintuitive possibility is that ancient hand tools were superior to their modern counterparts. After analyzing marks left on the marble surfaces, Korres is convinced that centuries of metallurgical experimentation enabled the ancient Athenians to create chisels and axes that were sharper and more durable than those available today.”
Even if you’ve seen the Parthenon before, it’s time to look at again, with new eyes.