Why are the Parthenon sculptures and Elgin casts important?
The fine carving of Pentelic marble into an extraordinary array of scenes, both human and divine, means that the Parthenon sculptures are now perhaps the most recognised sculptures from ancient Greece. They are particularly important to archaeologists because their original architectural context on the Parthenon means they can be securely dated and they are connected with the great ancient Greek sculptor Phidias.
They are among a relatively small cohort of sculptures to have survived from the renowned classical period of fifth century BC Greece and their fame grew enormously when Lord Elgin controversially brought many of the sculptures to London.
More positively, Elgin also had plaster casts made of the sculptures he left on the Parthenon. These have become important records of the state of the sculptures in the very early 19th century before modern pollution would hasten their deterioration.
What were you trying to find out?
I was trying to answer two main questions. Firstly, how accurately did the 19th century plaster casts reproduce the Parthenon sculptures – were they of good quality? And secondly, do the casts preserve sculptural features that have since been worn away from the originals – do they now represent a form of time capsule, faithfully reflecting the condition of the sculptures in the early 19th century?
How did you go about finding this out?
I created 3D images of both the Parthenon casts and sculptures using a Breuckmann smartSCAN 3D scanner. Then, I overlaid the 3D images of the corresponding casts and marble sculptures to highlight similarities and differences between the two.
What were your results?
I found that, in general, the 19th century casts reproduce the marble sculptures more accurately than expected and they definitely preserve some features lost from the originals – the 3D imaging helps us to identify these features.
However, archaeologists have also known for some time that the people making the casts would sometimes reconstruct damaged areas and I found more evidence of this practice than anticipated. It seems that features like the broken tips of noses were quite commonly ‘corrected’ in the casts of the early 19th century, although this practice became much rarer later in the century.
Why does it matter?
Plaster casts of the Parthenon sculptures spread around the world in the 19th century and creating such casts became a widely-used method by archaeologists to transmit and preserve 3D records of sculptures during this period.
This use of casts became less common in the 20th century with the growth of photography, concerns that moulding procedures might harm the sculptures, and more recently, the development of non-contact 3D digital imaging techniques. But many museums still house large collections of casts, often in storage. This work helps us to understand the important role that such casts can play as 3D time capsules but also shows that we need to study
Dr Emma Payne’s results were published in the latest issue of Antiquity.