The Erectheion temple as seen today was built between 421 and 406 BC of Pentelic marble. This elegant structure forms an important part of the Acropolis complex.
Unfortunately, little is known about the original plan of the interior of this large temple, which was destroyed by fire during the first century BC and has been rebuilt several times since. However, the eastern part of the temple was dedicated to Athena Polias, while the western part, is believed to revere the archaic king Poseidon-Erechtheus. Outside, it has two porches. The entrance, facing northeast, is lined with six Ionic columns; whilst the porch on the southwest side is supported by the well known Caryatids.
The caryatids, and other decoration, that you now see on site at the Acropolis are accurate copies of what has been found and, in many cases, reconstructed, or “put back together”. Most of the original pieces are on display in the Acropolis Museum.
The site has of course suffered much in its long life; impacted by age, earthquake, fire, looting, war and even from early attempts to save it. It is though that by 1800 only about half of the original sculptural decoration remained.
Of course, the well-known story of rescue / removal of parts of the Acropolis, is that of the Elgin Marbles. Between 1801 and 1805, Lord Elgin, then British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire and acting with the permission of the Ottoman authorities, removed several sculptures from the fallen ruins and from the building itself. The caryatid, for which he is probably most known, was physically removed from the porch. If you look at the row of maidens, the removed one is the less damaged, more-obviously-a-copy one.
The originals of the caryatids can now be seen in the impressive Acropolis Museum, with a gap left for the “missing sister”. The original removed by Elgin is on display in the British Museum in London, where it has been since 1817.
There are still many arguments over the Elgin Marbles and Greece’s desire to have them returned. I feel sympathy for that wish, and the new Acropolis Museum would certainly be a good home for them. However, I don’t feel that returning them will change the story, or give us any new knowledge on the subject. They are in very safe hands at the British Museum, and are an important part of the whole story that that museum tells about Ancient Greece and the impact it had on other civilisations. And whilst the Elgin story continues, we all talk with more interest about the Acropolis, its background and about the care needed in preserving and learning about our amazing history.
Copyright Debbie Smyth, 17 March 2019
Posted as part of Lens-Artists