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The Parthenon & its Sculptures

In 2002, a conference on the Parthenon sculptures was held at the University of Missouri. Following that conference a book has been published, containing much of the material from the conference. Bryn Mawr Classical Review has recently published an in depth review of this work.

Bryn Mawr Classical Review [1]

Bryn Mawr Classical Review, 2005.11.10
M.B. Cosmopoulos, The Parthenon and Its Sculptures.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Pp. 214. ISBN 0-521-83673-5. $75.00.

Reviewed by Fiona A. Greenland, New College, Oxford
Word count: 2648 words

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The present book is a collection of papers that developed from the international conference “The Parthenon and its Sculptures in the Twenty-First Century,” held at the University of Missouri-St. Louis in April 2002 and organized by the book’s editor, Michael Cosmopoulos. The aim of the conference was, in the words of Cosmopoulos, “to create an opportunity for Parthenon specialists to meet and assess the current state and future direction of Parthenon studies” (“Introduction,” 1). One of the most pressing issues addressed by Cosmopoulos and the book’s contributors is the need for a new methodological framework in which to study the Parthenon marbles. In light of archaeological discoveries and rapid developments in the physical sciences, some age-old assumptions and theories about the decorative marbles on the Temple of Athena Parthenos need redressing. This book takes some promising steps towards achieving that goal.

A legitimate question to ask at the outset is whether another book on the Parthenon marbles is really necessary. The bibliography on this monument is extensive: the past 40-odd years alone have seen the magisterial publications of Frank Brommer in 1963, 1967, and 1977,1 [2] sophisticated reconstruction projects in Basel, London and Athens,2 [3] and innovative studies by Jenifer Neils, Joan Connelly, Panayotis Tournikiotis, and others.3 [4] Readers at all levels are well-served by a rich collection of publications in several languages, and the stunning photographs by Socratis Mavrommatis, as well as the lavish digital images in Tournikiotis’s volume, are incomparable. Is there anything new to say about the Parthenon marbles?

The answer is yes, as several of the essays here convincingly demonstrate. After a brief introduction by Cosmopoulos, in which he sets out the four main parameters comprising the methodological framework of the 2002 conference (formal analysis; new technologies; ancient cultural setting; diachronic studies), Sarantis Symeonoglou opens the discussion with, as he calls it, a new analysis of the Parthenon Frieze. Through close study of carving details, Symeonoglou tries to use hand analysis to differentiate the artists who worked on the Frieze. This is a method he has already applied to the sculptures of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia (“with a considerable measure of success,” he says), and which uses both typical and idiosyncratic characteristics of individual artists to identify and document them. Focussing on ten blocks of the Frieze, Symeonoglou painstakingly scrutinizes such elements as eyes, mouths, heads, feet, drapery, and horses’ bodies to pinpoint individual carvers’ work. He identifies three carvers, whom he calls Masters A, B and C, who worked on the ten blocks in question, and sets out the five stages of carving that they undertook to create the pieces. As Symeonoglou freely admits, these are preliminary arguments on his part and will remain tentative until the entire Frieze has been analyzed. If Symeonoglou is right, master carvers actually worked on the monument rather than simply supervised the work of apprentices (as was previously thought). Further, each Master seems to have had a speciality, or a flair for certain details — specialities that complemented each other. They called upon the craftsmen who worked under them to complete tasks when time was short and they (the Masters) needed to move on to other tasks.

Symeonoglou may offer a new way of studying the Parthenon Frieze, but his conclusions do not push the boundaries of interpretation. While it is true that we do not currently know how many individuals worked on the Frieze, the Master Carver model is standard. More provocative is John Younger’s essay, “Work Sections and Repeating Patterns in the Parthenon Frieze” (chapter 3). Taking on the same question (who carved the Frieze?), Younger offers a radically different answer. He, like Symeonoglou, undertakes a close technical study of the Frieze but concludes that they reveal “gangs of workers working from prepared sketches, transferring cartoons, repeating figures and poses, and making mistakes and rectifying them” (63). Younger also considers the work of modern Greek sculptors and their techniques — which are, he says, “basically the same as those that can be reconstructed for classical sculpture” (63). A central theme in Younger’s study is the repetition of figures and patterns, which he calls “dittography” (66-7). By employing repeating figures and transportable “cartoons” (75-82), carvers saved themselves time and ensured visual consistency. Even among strings of different figures, repeating pairs can be discerned (66). Patterns and models allowed the lesser-known craftsmen to follow a central plan. Repetition was not unique to the Parthenon Frieze, and its use here puts the Frieze in good company with the north frieze of the Siphnian Treasury, for example. Younger’s stated goal of democratizing the sculpting process and to “get away from the limiting notion of Master Sculptor” (83) is admirable, and his close observations of dittographic tendencies and carving mistakes do suggest the participation of rushed or less skilled carvers. But I was not convinced by his arguments that “gangs” comprising citizens and slaves were entrusted with major sections of the Frieze. Younger’s and Symeonoglou’s chapters work nicely together, though they disagree in their conclusions, to push readers to re-think the carving process of the Frieze.

The second chapter, “Classic Moments: Time in the Parthenon Frieze,” is Jenifer Neils at her best. Known for her work on the Panathenaic procession and the Frieze in particular (see 3 [4]), Neils here reconsiders “the narrative strategies used by the designer and (relates) them to Athenian ritual and social values” (43). Neils is primarily concerned with time: what is happening when in the procession, and how the progression of time is communicated to viewers. The time-space continuum may seem a radical idea within ancient Greek art, Neils says, but she points to precedents in sympotic vase paintings and the (now lost) mural painting of the Battle of Marathon in the Stoa Poikile in Athens that employ narrative techniques to imply the passage of time through their scenes. Neils carefully unpacks the cavalcades on the west, north and south sides of the Frieze (46-52), at times covering the same ground as Ian Jenkins’s 1994 publication.2 [3] She is interested in identifying specific units of horsemen and their tribal divisions so as to demonstrate that they are rooted in contemporary mid-5th century Athenian political reality rather than in myth. In other words, that the cavalcade takes place “now” (contemporary to the ancient Athenian viewer), and accompanies the viewer as he or she proceeds around the Frieze. The east and west friezes, however, present the more problematic “preparation” scenes (52-57), while the centre of the east frieze gives us a composition rooted in the “after” (57-60). The former Neils interprets as scenes of preparation before the actual procession, probably placed outside the city gates. The latter (“after” scenes) include the much-debated “Peplos ceremony”, which Neils argues is a depiction of the re-folding of the ritual peplos after the procession and the ceremony. The re-folding scene is important, Neils says, because it signals the success of the ceremony and the acceptance of the gift by Athena. I found this chapter particularly interesting because Neils tackles some difficult interpretive problems (namely, the preparation and Peplos scenes) and gives convincing if provocative solutions based on her deep understanding of the Frieze and its cultural and socio-political backdrop. Since Connelly’s 1996 article on the Peplos ceremony, this scene has invited much-needed rethinking. Neils’s arguments here push us to consider once again the significance of the scene and its placement within a larger narrative structure.

Chapter 4, “Pandora and the Panathenaic Peplos,” examines the relief scene on the base of the statue of Athena Parthenos and tries to place the scene in its wider artistic and cultural context. Noel Robertson sets out a close study of the (badly damaged) base relief and uses the evidence of vases to lead us through similar visualizations of the story of the creation of woman. Robertson takes on the important yet difficult question of why this particular story was chosen for the base (94-6), and concludes that it was, at its simplest, a link with the Great Panathenaea: “the only occasion when the statue and the base were seen by many people” (95). The argument follows that the story of Pandora’s creation was itself a cult myth that explained a festival ceremony. Robertson draws upon considerable knowledge of regional and ethnic differences in Greek ritual to assess the influences on the choice and manner of visual representations of cult and ceremony on the statue base and the Parthenon Frieze, and draws some new and intriguing links between base and Frieze. This is an illuminating chapter that will be certain to generate fruitful discussion on the symbolic relevance of Pandora’s creation to the overall theme of the Temple of Athena Parthenos.

In the book’s fifth chapter, Georgios Mostratos moves away from the main Frieze of the temple to look instead at the east pediment. Mostratos begins with the figures in the corners of the pediment, offering some new or unorthodox identifications (Figure D = Dionysos; G = Hekate; K = Artemis) and accepting several traditional ones. In studying the controversial central section of the pediment (now lost), Mostratos uses iconographic and structural evidence to piece together his reconstruction (120-30). He believes that the scene presented the final phase of the tale of Athena’s birth (the divesting of her arms) (120). Further, Athena would have occupied the position of honor (left of center) with no axial figure; rather, there was a supplementary element (“Athena’s olive tree or Zeus’ thunderbolt or both” (126)) to add significance to the myth. Zeus would have stood opposite Athena (right of center) with a much-smaller Nike, crowning Athena, flying between them (author’s reconstruction, 128). As Mostratos sees her, Athena in the east pediment was calm and unarmed, “holding her helmet and spear in her hands, probably wearing a peplos without aegis. This is the peaceful Athena — Athena Polias, who was the protector of Athens and the Athenian democracy” (127-8). The end of the chapter is devoted to a piece-by-piece discussion of fragments that have been tricky to identify. On the whole, Mostratos’s interpretation of the east pediment as calm and almost symmetrical offers an innovative argument that is as fun to read as it is intriguing to consider.

Chapters 6 and 8 harness advances in the physical sciences to shed new light on the Parthenon marbles. In “The Parthenon East Metopes, the Gigantomachy, and Digital Technology,” Katherine Schwab uses digital photography and image-based software programs to “see more clearly the preserved subtle details on the surface of (the east metopes)” and to understand better how we might reconstruct poses within a composition (150). One of the important points made by Schwab is that line-drawing reconstructions of ancient monuments can be misleading in that they present figures as flat. Digital technologies present a more comprehensive view of sculptured figures, showing depth and contours of figures that tell us more about their dramatic impact and carving techniques (155-6). Taking Adobe Photoshop as an example of a computer program that is helping to further our understanding of the Parthenon marbles, Schwab looks at metope East 6 and finds parallels in a fourth-century BC Attic funerary relief fragment in the Metropolitan Museum in New York (159-60). Doing so demonstrates the exciting promise of using computer technology in comparing fragments with well-preserved models and trying to piece together the original scene. I came away from Schwab’s chapter with the sense that she had not so much offered new interpretations as prepared her readers for a new methodological approach that will shape our studies of ancient marble relief in future.

Chapter 8, “Intraquarry Sourcing of the Parthenon Marbles,” is the shortest chapter of the book. It introduces readers to the high-resolution Pentelic marble database, a sophisticated tool that enables scholars to distinguish between the different major white marble sources. The chapter’s author, Scott Pike, explains the usefulness of this database: “Being able to establish the provenance of artifacts correctly enables archaeologists, art historians, and museum curators to place them in a temporal context, piece together ancient trade routes, gain insights into changing aesthetic values, and recognize modern forgeries, ancient copies, and dissociated fragments” (196). His case study — pieces from the Parthenon in the British Museum located to one of three small quarries on Mount Pentelikon — is an illuminating example of how the marble stable isotope database will assist archaeologists in correlating construction phases of the Parthenon with marble extraction from Mount Pentelikon. This is not the first database to attempt such things, rather a latest version that promises to answer detailed questions about marble sourcing for the Parthenon.

The penultimate chapter, “The Parthenon in 1687: New Sources,” considers several 17th-century sources — literary and visual — in judging how much of the original temple was intact at the time of the explosion in 1687. At the centre of the discussion is a new manuscript discovered by one of the chapter’s authors, William St Clair. The manuscript gives an account of a visit to Athens in 1699; its author is unknown. What it tells us is that in the twelve years after the explosion, little was done to shore up or repair the temple. At the same time, no further damage to the building was done by the Turks when they cleared out their equipment from the interior. One new piece of information to emerge from the text is that the Parthenon was not a monument of pure, white marble, but was indeed painted in parts (“gilded on the capitals” 174). The polychromy comments of the text are taken by St Clair and his co-author, Robert Picken, as evidence for paint traces on the marbles taken by Lord Elgin to London — traces that were later lost. At the end of the chapter, the full text of the manuscript in its original French, along with an English translation, is usefully included. Readers will find much of interest with respect to the aesthetic effect of the design and decoration of the building and certain frieze details that have subsequently been destroyed. This is an enjoyable chapter to read, and is helpful in providing a bigger picture of the Parthenon after so many detailed studies in the same volume.

The book is nicely put together with clear indices and chapter-by-chapter bibliographies. The (entirely black-and-white) illustrations are a mixed bunch: most are crisply reproduced, but there is such variation in the degree of exposure in many photos of the Parthenon marbles (some too dark, some too light) that crucial details are missed. The asking price of $75.00 is not justified by the quality of illustrations, so it is useful that the written contributions are at a level commensurate with that price.

Cosmopoulos’s latest volume on the Parthenon and its sculptures will benefit a wide range of readers. Art historians will appreciate the new narrative interpretations of Neils, Robertson and Mostratos, while archaeologists will find the methodological arguments of Symeonoglou, Younger, Schwab and Pike of interest (with overlap between the two groups, to be sure). This book won’t have the final say on the Parthenon, but it is a useful guide to the latest research on the monument and to where that research may lead.

List of authors and titles:

  • M.B. Cosmopoulos, “Introduction: The Methodological Framework of Parthenon Studies,” 1-4.
  • S. Symeonoglou, “A New Analysis of the Parthenon Frieze,” 5-42.
  • J. Neils, “Classic Moments: Time in the Parthenon Frieze,” 43-62.
  • J.G. Younger, “Work Sections and Repeating Patterns in the Parthenon Frieze,” 63-85.
  • N. Robertson, “Pandora and the Panathenaic Peplos,” 86-113.
  • G. Mostratos, “A Reconstruction of the Parthenon’s East Pediment,” 114-149.
  • K.A. Schwab, “The Parthenon East Metopes, the Gigantomachy, and Digital Technology,” 150-165.
  • W. St Clair and R. Picken, “The Parthenon in 1687: New Sources,” 166-195.
  • S. Pike, “IntraQuarry Sourcing of the Parthenon Marbles: Applications of the Pentelic Marble Stable Isotope Database,” 196-207.
  • J. Neils, “Conclusion: The Current State of Parthenon Research,” 207-210.


  1. F. Brommer, Die Skulpturen der Parthenon-Giebel: Katalog und Untersuchung. Mainz: Philipp von Zabern, 1963. Die Metopen des Parthenon. Mainz: Philipp von Zabern, 1967. Der Parthenonfries: Katalog und Untersuchung. Mainz: Philipp von Zabern, 1977.
  2. Basel: E. Berger and M. Gisler-Huwiler, Der Parthenon in Basel: Dokumentation zum Fries. Mainz: Philipp von Zabern, 1996. London: I. Jenkins, The Parthenon Frieze. London: British Museum Press, 1994. Athens: The Parthenon Reconstruction Project, sponsored by the Melina Mercouri Foundation and the Hellenic Ministry of Culture.
  3. J. Neils, Goddess and Polis: The Panathenaic Festival in Ancient Athens. Hanover, NH: Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, 1992. J. Neils (ed.), Worshipping Athena: Panathenaia and Parthenon. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996. J. Neils, The Parthenon Frieze. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. J.B. Connelly, “Parthenon and Parthenoi: A Mythological Interpretation of the Parthenon Frieze.” American Journal of Archaeology 100 (1996), 53-80. P. Tournikiotis (ed.), The Parthenon and Its Impact in Modern Times. Athens: Melissa, 1994.