We recently returned from a wonderful trip to Athens and Crete for the Eid Al Adha holiday. I had never been to Greece before and was excited to see all the sculptures I had studied in college and roam around the buildings of the ancient Acropolis and Knossos. In Athens, our hotel was a stone’s throw from the Acropolis and in Crete, our 3-room inn was the old wine making building on a small winery.
The question of what is “real” and what is “fake” art dawned on us while admiring the six graceful Caryatids carrying the roof of the south porch of the Erechtheion.
We realized from reading the signage that we were admiring fiberglass copies and not originals. The five replicas had been cast in 1979 because the originals were deteriorating from the acid rain and city pollution. To preserve the maiden columns, the originals were taken inside to the Acropolis Museum and replaced with the replicas.
A sixth Caryatid had been taken by Lord Elgin in 1801-1804 and bought by the British Museum in 1816. By being stolen or protected, depending on one’s point of view, she didn’t face as much damage as her friends did.
It bothered me that the columns were “fake”. It bothered me that I was not gazing at the real sculptures. But, with the five caryatids preserved in the Acropolis Museum and the 6th taken away a century before, visitors could still see the beautifully carved faces and flowing draperies on the originals. And, we could appreciate this beauty more closely in a museum than out in the field.
The same questions arose at Knossos. Knossos is an ancient palace complex on Crete founded near two rivers about 8 kilometers inland from the Mediterranean Sea. The civilization thrived from around 3,000BC to 1,450 BC with its peak between 1,700BC – 1,450BC. Art and culture flourished during this time. Frescos depict women in luxurious clothing and jewelry being served by maids. Processions of men carry platters of food and drink in intricately decorated vessels. Carved stone seals depicting plants, animals and geometric shapes were used to indicate ownership. Games were found. And the famous bull jumping frescos showed one way the population enjoyed their free time. All these we examined and enjoyed in the Herakklion Archeological Museum – not on the site. The site had copies and fragments of copies on the walls.
Knossos was abandoned in the 1,300BC’s for unknown reasons and it became the story of legend.
Then, in around 1,900AD, Sir Arthur Evans “discovered” the palace. Within a few years, much of the site had been excavated and rebuilt. Evans brought his European background to his assessment and re-creation of the site. When encountering a second floor, he assumed it was a piano nobile, like that found in Italian palazzos and made sure to added palazzo elements, such as coffered ceilings, to the structure. Find a carved stone chair, assume it is a throne and call the space the assembly room for the ruler.
Everywhere you turn in the Palace of Knossos, you see concrete infill. You see painted columns and portions of frescos designed and re-created by Evans based on the fragments he found. You wonder if the walls you walk between really existed. You wonder if ramps and stairs led to the intended spaces.
Does it matter? By visiting this ancient site, you get a sense of what the spaces were like and what they felt like. You experience the size and scale of the complex. You get a feel of what the spaces felt like and see the original locations for frescos now housed and preserved in the Herakklion Archeological Museum. Does it matter that the stones on the floors and walls weren’t where they originally sat? Does it matter that the columns aren’t the originals?
I struggle with this question. It feels to me that it diminishes the place and the experience. It feels less real and less valid. But isn’t it important to preserve these sculptures, frescos and spaces so future generations can appreciate the past?
As we have considered this further, there is a range of issues here. If the Greek cultural authorities choose to move ancient sculptures into a controlled museum environment and replace them with copies, the sense of wonder associated with the Erechtheion site may be diminished, but the trade off in protecting the sculptures makes sense. Taking a Caryatid without permission, even if the result is that it survives in high quality condition is a more dubious proposition. And the fanciful recreation of archeological spaces at Knossos and the placement of replicas in positions known not to be original definitely undermines the visitor experience – exactly the opposite of what Sir Arthur Evans intended.
In the end, the preservation of cultural sites is about choices and cultural norms at the time of each intervention. Even during their periods of active use, these sites were constantly being modified, so there is no single “original” or “real” state in which to preserve them.
(We visited the Lassithi Plateau, which produces abundant fruits and vegetables and is known for its windmills. The other photo is from the port in Chania)