Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Parthenon under construction
The Paintings at Knossos


Gabi Dolff-Bonekaemper writes in a Getty Conservation Institute newsletter that the feeling generated at a sight has been described as the ‘genius loci’, or the spirit of the sight. This spirit “is often hard to describe… it makes people feel that they share past experiences, as if there were a direct access to history.” Is it possible to ensure that future generations can experience these sites in the same way our ancestors have? Do the costs of preserving an ancient site outweigh the benefits? Although it can be argued that the reconstruction of archaeological sites is unauthentic, restoration efforts should be employed as often as possible in order for the site to continue to transmit some semblance of its original message.

The Roman Colosseum has endured many centuries of wear and destruction. These days, it is estimated that only 20% of the original structure survives. In 1973 conservators began an $18 million dollar project to stabilize the amphitheater so that it was safe for tourists. However, they decided not to rebuild any of the theatre; all efforts are focused on excavation and restoration. Does the presence of a somewhat empty shell of the once magnificent structure keep the ruin from transmitting its history and its message?

The Grecian Parthenon is employing a method called anastylosis in which original material is used to reconstruct an ancient structure. However, often the original material is not available, or sturdy enough to support the ancient temple. In these cases, ancient material is filled with new Pentelic marble to provide stability, and scientists have recently determined that modern materials such as titanium clamps are more durable then iron in the maritime climate. Because the architects realize that the use of new material in the reconstruction is not ideal, the focus on the aspect of reversibility so that their actions can be mended in the future.This method of reconstruction seems to be a beneficial step up from the mere stabilization of the Roman Colosseum. The architects and conservators are rebuilding with as much original material as possible, and taking the idea of reversibility into account. The drawbacks, however, are also clear. The original conservators ripped any trace of non-classical stylistic elements from the site, limiting our current historical view. Centuries of material and evidence were removed in order to project a Parthenon that existed for a very limited amount of time. Does the removal of this evidence hide the truth from viewers? Is it projecting an untrue temple?

Knossos is the site of an ancient palace on the island of Crete. The site had been excavated multiple times throughout history, but in 1900, archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans took over the excavations. Although Evans was highly enthusiastic about the Minoan culture, he was largely self-taught, and not always scientifically precise. Evans hired artists and architects to restore the rooms he excavated. He dubbed the process ‘reconstitution’, claiming that he was preserving the site through reconstruction. Evans employed artists to reconstitute the throne room, however it is clear to modern archaeologists that these paintings are not based on any evidence, and are purely the imaginings of the artist. Much of the site seems to be influenced by styles popular during Evan's time such as art deco. Similar to the problems surrounding the reconstruction of the Parthenon, Knossos is a multi-period site that has been reduced to one point in history. In addition to this, the point in history that Sir Arthur Evans chose may have never existed, further complicating the quest for truth.

Now that we have looked at situations in which reconstruction is problematic, let us review its benefits. As in the case of the Parthenon and the Colosseum, these ancient sites provide society with a renewed sense of pride and nationalism. They are symbols for the country and for its rich history. Since these sights are such strong historic symbols, they also attract a lot of people, boosting local economy and recognition. Reconstruction lures these tourists to the site and also helps to ensure the preservation of the site for future tourists. Reconstruction can also serve as research for ancient building methods, which leads to an addition to the general knowledge of the world. These sites function as entertainment to modern tourists, and for that reason it is too idealistic to assume that they will continue to transmit their message in this age of technology. Archaeological sites must adapt to the changing tastes and fleeing attention spans of the modern world. However, it is immensely important to maintain scientific and factual integrity, and the concept of reversibility must always be taken into consideration. But in this age, there is nothing wrong with a gimmick. If a site needs to reconstruct in order to interest and educate the new generations, then it is step that should be taken. Yet it is important that the site looks back to the methods employed previously, and that they learn from the mistakes we have investigated.


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