Saturday, 16 January 2016

Ode on a Grecian Quarry

"Oi, I've invented earthquake-proof masonry!"
The showdown between Athena and Poseidon for the post of Guardian God of Athens took place on top of the Acropolis. Athena won, as she had to. The Athenians may have valued olive trees more than water, but it was more important that they prided themselves on being intelligent and technologically adept: Athena was defined by her strategic planning and wisdom, while Poseidon was in charge of elemental forces--waves, charging horses, the earthquake.

Athena’s temple, the Parthenon, was built so cleverly, on firm foundations and with elastic columns (slight sliding was possible between her column drums), that it was almost immune to earthquakes. Brainpower had defeated cosmological Force majeure.

Alex Rowson and Martin Gorst, Assistant Producer and Director
I thought I knew a lot about the Acropolis until this week. I went to Athens with a wonderful crew from Windfall Films to help make a TV documentary about the labour Pericles’ building project demanded. But I was not prepared for the psychological impact of my first ever visit to the quarries where the inhabitants of Athens (free, resident alien, or slave) sweated blood and tears for more than forty years hacking enormous slabs of marble out of the mountain.

Elias, with mallet, chisel & wedge
17 kilometres north-east of Athens, bitterly cold and wind-battered even though the weather downtown was warm, accessible only by dirt tracks and steep stairs etched into stone terraces, the ancient Pentelikon quarries awaited us. Elias, a local mason employed by Dionysus Marbles (supplier to the Acropolis Restoration Project), demonstrated the dangers of marble mining before the machine age.

With Eleni Phanariotou, TV Fixer Extraordinary
In the 5th century BCE, tens of thousands of tons were sliced off using only the strength of man and mule. It took days to cut them into roughly the shape needed for the temples. They were somehow slid onto rollers and hoisted onto carts, dragged  that long mountainside down to the plain of Attica, and then, by mysterious means, winched or dragged up onto the Acropolis itself. Most of the work had already been done long before designer Pheidias’ team could get on with the arty bit.

Athena's Olive at the Erechtheion where Athena & Poseidon share power
This seems to me to augment the argument that the bits of the temples crowbarred off by Lord Elgin’s servants ought to return to descendants of the people who did all that work. But it also made me think about the Athenians’ self-definition through mythology.  They were proud of being ‘autochthonous’— ‘sprung from their own earth’; it turns out that this was to echo the birth of the rocks that made their temples, themselves extracted from one Athenian summit and put on another. But since marble is made of compressed and twice-cooked seashells (Mount Penteli was once the bottom of an ocean), the sharing of the temples of the Acropolis between Athena and the Sea-God Poseidon suddenly made perfect sense.
Pheidias shows Parthenon artworks to Aspasia and Pericles, but much of the work had been done already

1 comment:

  1. Similar to the building of those magnificent cathedrals in Europe. Serfs would spend all their lives working on them and never live to see the final product.