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Why do Virtual Heritage? March 13, 2008
by Donald H. Sanders

The Temple of Athena Polias


Rendering from the virtual reality massing model of the Acropolis showing a possible reconstruction of the Old Athena Temple and how it dramatically changes the site's general spatial dynamics (© 2003 Learning Sites, Inc.)

Over the millennia since the Bronze Age, the Athenian Acropolis has been re-configured numerous times. Most familiar to us are the fifth-century B.C. monuments, the Nike Temple, Erechtheum, Propylaea, and, especially, the Parthenon. But our work there focused on the Parthenon's predecessor, the Archaic temple of Athena Polias, also known as the Old Athena Temple. Built in the late sixth century, it was destroyed by the Persains when they sacked Athens in 480 B.C. When it came to rebuilding the Acropolis, the major problem facing both statesmen and planners of the fifth century was, What to do about the ruins of the Old Athena Temple? Our partnering archaeologist Gloria Pinney summarized the question, "The old hypothesis, that they merely cleared away unsightly rubble to make way for the new buildings, was undermined by the spectacular display of burned column drums and pieces of entablature from the Archaic temple that was built into the north Acropolis defensive wall, in the character of a war memorial. Under these circumstances, the issue of the fate of the holiest temple of Athena on her Acropolis came sharply to the fore, leading us to question the all prevailing narrative that the ruins had simply been dismantled and its footprint left vacant thereafter. Did the void itself at the center of the Acropolis have the character of a war memorial? Or did the temple, in some state of ruin, remain there to the end of antiquity?"

Nearly two centuries of excavations had created a veritable mountain of evidence to sift through, including ancient inscriptions describing the function of the site and the Classical building projects, ancient writers describing the remains at various periods; sixteenth- through nineteenth-centuries travelers' paintings, engravings, and sketches of the buildings as they visited them; and 200 years worth of measurements of the buildings and topography. Wilhelm Dorpfeld's discovery of the foundations of the Old Athena Temple in the 1890s and his elevation drawings reconstructing the building offered a starting point.


Screen grab from the virtual reality model of the Acropolis showing the visual dominance of the Old Athena Temple and alignment of it to the Propylaea (© 2003 Learning Sites, Inc.)

We learned quickly that none of the sets of dimensions or elevations of the extant remains matched, leaving the buildings floating in relation to each other. Thus it was particularly challenging to set the existing Classical structures--the Erechtheum, the Parthenon, and the Propylaea--in 3D space accurately with one another and with the foundations of the Old Athena Temple. However, with the help of old photos in the Harvard University archives, we were able definitively to settle that relationship and to argue that the Old Athena Temple remained in ruins as a war memorial.

"We were not to produce an illustration," says Pinney. "The model's value resides in the same reasons why modeling is standard practice in schools of architecture--it provides a means of checking information and, most of all, of visualizing what one has in mind. It was important to reckon with the visual impact of the Archaic Temple upon the Classical structures surrounding it. Most of all, accurate modeling that took into account all available data revealed existing evidence to refute the traditional argument that the temple could not have stood in that location after the Persian invasion." In fact, using virtual reality, we demonstrated not only how the Classical buildings were built specifically to take the Old Athena Temple's ruins into account, and that the sacred ground was not left empty, but also that it remained the focus of the Acropolis, and survived, albeit incognito, amid the dense warren of Turkish houses that were summarily swept away in the 1830s without consideration of what might have remained even then of the holiest Athenian building.

Introduction & Conclusion Project 1

The Tantura Shipwrecks
Project 2

The Kyrenia Shipwreck
Project 3

The Monument at Actium
Project 4

The Northwest Palace at Nimrud
© 2008 by the Archaeological Institute of America