How Technology is Rescuing Greek Antiquities From Human Damage


Can we still visit ancient ruins without ruining them? We dig for answers in Athens.

First appeared as “Losing Our Marbles” in the June 2017 issue of Air Canada enRoute.

I wonder if this might be the last time I’ll set foot on the stone of an antiquity. Age–old grit rolls away underfoot as I make the short hike up the hill of the Pnyx (Greek for “tightly packed together”) on a warm midday in Athens. I’m reminded of the Hindu concept darshan, roughly translated as the spiritual benefit gained from seeing an authentic thing. It’s a sensation we all feel in our bones. The Pnyx was carved into a vast natural amphitheatre that became the site of popular assemblies at the height of Athenian influence, when such gatherings outgrew the nearby Agora. Little of the original site remains except for the bema, the podium carved into the stone overlooking the bowl. As I near it, I realize I’m the only person on the hillside. I’m standing less than a metre from where Pericles asked his fellow Athenians to respect one another’s rights, where Demosthenes urged 13,000 compatriots to stand up to Philip II. Nothing but a fraying shin–height rope separates me from the podium. I look around again – still no one. With one small step over the barrier, I could be exactly where Demosthenes stood 2,300 years ago.

May 27, 2020
Tourists gather on the Acropolis, seen through the columns of the Parthenon
Tourists gather on the Acropolis, seen through the columns of the Parthenon.
A supposed bust of Sauromates II
Supposed bust of Sauromates II, King of the Kimmerian Bosporus, second century AD, at the Acropolis Museum.

The urge to experience authentic history first–hand is nearly irrepressible. In fact it’s probably responsible for most of the 30 million visits Greece gets in a year. But I’ve come to Athens to see how antiquities are coping with the realities of modern tourism. For 2,500 years the Acropolis and its buildings have stood as reminders of this city’s role in creating the foundations of western society – democracy, philosophy, literature. But the intersection of tourism and antiquities makes for a complex relationship that pits the past against the present and the future. Issues ranging from crowd control to the intricacies of conservation have reared their heads everywhere from the Lascaux cave to Stonehenge to Ancient Egypt – Greece is deep in the middle of the fray.

Makis Kladios, a restoration worker at the Parthenon
Makis Kladios, a restoration worker at the Parthenon, who has worked on the Acropolis for 20 years.
The Temple of Hephaestus in the Ancient Agora
The Temple of Hephaestus in the Ancient Agora.

As she tugs at wisps of hair dislodged by the wind whipping through the Parthenon’s columns, her current worksite, Ministry of Culture and Sports archeologist Lena Lambrinou guides me over power cables and tools, and around car–sized blocks of marble. The Parthenon is perpetually under reconstruction; cranes and workers in hardhats are a permanent fixture. She points to lintels 10 metres above the west doorway, damaged by rusty rods that have cracked through the concrete, making the inner face look like a Soviet–era housing block on its last legs – the result of past restoration efforts gone wrong. To avoid such mistakes in the future, Lambrinou and her crew are using anastylosis, a more effective archeological technique to restore the towering Doric columns around us. The process involves filling the gaps with ancient marble from nearby Mount Pentelicus found on site in chunks ranging from a four–tonne slab to something the size of a fingertip. Laser scans are used to build plaster casts of the missing pieces, which are then replicated by marble masons. It’s like doing a 3–D jigsaw puzzle – exacting work, which I presume isn’t close to being finished. “It will be at least another decade,” shrugs Lambrinou, who suspects that by then the public may be denied entry to the Parthenon. “We have 1.5 million people a year who go through here, and over time, traffic melts the marble.” It’s true: the steps of the main entrance’s staircase are rounded and shiny, shaped more like shoulders than rectangles.

George Skalkotos working on a marble wall in Greece
Assistant professor Lampros Arachovitis at the University of Athens
George Skalkotos, a marble worker at the Parthenon, works on a new section of the wall.
Lampros Arachovitis, an assistant professor at the University of Athens, Faculty of History and Archaeology.

Before my trip, I stumbled upon a BBC story on the creation of facsimile antiquities by companies like Madrid–based Factum Arte, who are addressing the fact that the world’s most popular ancient sites are struggling with the demands of modern tourism. Using high–resolution scanners and other “non–contact methodologies,” Factum Arte has created stunning replicas of many major works of art, as well as, incredibly, physical sites. Their most famed work to date is a reconstruction of the tomb of Tutankhamun in Egypt (the tomb is suffering badly from human interaction, mostly through temperature and humidity). Factum Arte has installed an exact facsimile next to the real burial chamber, down to every fleck of paint, every scrape of stone, even the buried–under–tonnes–of–stone silence.

I suspect the future of tourism will continue to gravitate towards virtually real, one–step removed experiences. Not just because of issues of access, but because humans have a direct impact on fragile antiquities – and nobody wants to be the person melting the marble on the steps of the Acropolis.

The pan-Athenian view from Filopappou Hill
The pan–Athenian view from Filopappou Hill, with the Ancient Agora in the foreground.

On the Acropolis, you witness the purest light on the planet electrifying the Pentelic marble. You get a sense of scale, place, history...

Under a domed screen, I watch an interactive film created by a team of educators, archeologists and digital wizards that’s taking me on a stroll through the iconic Agora as it would have been when ancient Athenians conducted daily business there, when orators spoke, poets wrote, and Socrates taught within its walls. The film is visually impressive, but still retains a computer–generated feel, which is somehow hollow. I’m left waiting for that jolt of authenticity, that darshan high. I’m in Tholos, the immersive virtual reality theatre at Hellenic Cosmos, an educational institution housed in a building that looks and feels like a big public library on a busy street not far from the port of Piraeus.

“Our job is to forget original objects and focus on telling stories,” says Dimitris Efraimoglou, Director of the Hellenic Cosmos. Efraimoglou believes his reproduction is successful because “99 percent of the population will never be able to envision what the past was like. An archeologist might be able to go to a ruin and ‘see’ what it might have looked like, but most people can’t. We supply that.”

Artifacts from one of the University of Athens’ archaeological digs
The Odeon of Herodes Atticus at the Acropolis
Artifacts from one of the University of Athens’ archaeological digs.
The Odeon of Herodes Atticus, at the Acropolis, has seating for 5,000.

With its narrow streets and awnings over patio diners day and night, the restaurant–filled Monastiraki district is a lively place to meet Sylvie Dumont, Secretary and Registrar of the Agora Excavations for the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA). The soft–spoken Québécoise curates the archeological collection of finds from the actual Agora. Standing in this ancient complex beside Tholos, the site of the seat of the first governments, is thrilling in a fundamentally human way – it’s physical and emotional. Dumont shows me photos from when excavation began in 1931. What they uncovered was astonishing: the town square, the market, the court, as well as the Panathenaic Way, the main road that cut through ancient Athens on its way to the Acropolis. Much of it now exists as the ruinous outlines of what was there, but some of the buildings and their segments remain, such as the Temple of Hephaestus, the Doric temple dedicated to the gods Hephaestus and Athena. Because of its palpable human dimension, the Agora is magical and inspiring in a different way than the Parthenon – I can practically see what ancient Athenians were doing in their daily lives. Match point for the human imagination.

A restored sculpture with plaster cast on the Parthenon
A restored sculpture with plaster cast on the Parthenon.
Old archeology notebooks in the American School of Classical Studies at Athens
Old archeology notebooks in the American School of Classical Studies at Athens.

The work of Factum Arte and the Hellenic Cosmos raises profound questions for travellers. For one, if you can see a perfect facsimile, why bother with the original? Today, I can still travel to the Valley of the Kings and have the option to see the real Tutankhamun tomb, the fake tomb, or both. But is it irresponsible of me to visit the actual site (thereby contributing to its eventual ruin), or should I see the replica instead (denying myself the “real” thing, but being part of the solution that keeps the original intact)? On the one hand, the human footprint – both literal and figurative – is putting antiquities at risk. On the other, being in situ unquestionably stimulates the soul and connects visitors to a universal human experience. On the Acropolis, you witness the purest light on the planet electrifying the Pentelic marble. You get a sense of scale, place, history. And, not insignificantly, you support the local economy. But would these on–site qualities have the same value if you knew you were only there to experience a facsimile? And even more broadly, if human access is increasingly restricted, then what precisely is the point of the conservation?

The Roman Agora provides the classic backdrop for a streetside restaurant
The Roman Agora provides the classic backdrop for a streetside restaurant.
A man admiring the sunset from the Wyndham Grand roof top in Athens
Admiring the sunset from the Wyndham Grand rooftop in Athens.

I put these questions to Bruce Hartzler, IT Specialist for ASCSA. His office near the Athens Agora feels like a Silicon Valley start–up, with its undecipherable charts on the wall, giant Mac screens on every desk, and the requisite scruffy–chinned youngster in the corner banging out code on a laptop. Hartzler and his team are busy digitizing more than 85 years of records that have come out of the Agora excavation: pottery shards, cups, coins, fragments of statues, stones from walls, shattered bits of column, not to mention the actual excavation notebooks and drawings provided by archeologists over the decades. “I find that the better technology gets,” he says, “the more I believe in the power of the imagination. But yeah, it’s a really interesting question, the question of why do people travel. I think it’s to see the real thing. However good VR gets, it will never fulfill this basic human desire for the authentic. I don’t see travel going away any time soon.”

Maria Plianthou sits in front of restaurant Zampano in the Psirri district of Athens
Travel agent George Pandelopoulos in front of his business
Maria Plianthou, a server at Zampano restaurant in the Psirri district of Athens.
Travel agent George Pandelopoulos in front of his business, Academy Travel.

But we can’t just have everything we want, right? When I’m all alone atop the hill of the Pnyx, imagining myself as Demosthenes, what I really want is to step over the rope and take my rightful place on this historic site. But no. It is one step too far. I stay where I am and turn around to face the amphitheatre. I can see the throng. I can hear them. I can see Athens laid out at my feet. The Agora is below, with the Acropolis to the right, the vast Attic plain stretching to the north, the calm Aegean to the south. This is good enough. This is perfect.