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Last Updated: Tuesday, 23 March 2004, 10:01 GMT
New life for old Elgin Marbles?
One of the greatest artworks of all time is scattered in fragments across Europe. But there is now a way to view the surviving Parthenon sculptures together for the first time - a virtual reconstruction.

New life for old Elgin Marbles
They're still magnificent nearly 2,500 years after being carved, but the sculptures of the Parthenon are a bit like sad ghosts - pale, battered, half-lost and spread far and wide.

The fragments are strewn across 10 museums in eight countries. The Greeks are keen to reunite these in a purpose-built museum within sight of the ruined temple the frieze once adorned.

But the British Museum, the guardian of the Elgin Marbles - which were cut from the Parthenon 200 years ago - is reluctant to let its prized possession go. Its argument goes that half the Parthenon sculptures are lost forever, and the rest are so scattered and damaged that it is no longer possible to recreate them in any real sense. A better solution is a computer reconstruction, which will give a more complete sense of how the whole might once have looked.

Scanning casts of the Marbles (Picture - ICT)
The ICT team scans casts in Basel
The University of Southern California's Institute for Creative Technologies is at work on just such as project. It has produced 152 high-resolution models of the sculptures, and produced images which show each in its original position.

And work has begun on a separate scheme to laser scan each piece of the scattered stones at the National Museums Liverpool's conservation centre. Sculpture department head John Larson hopes to use the scans to produce marble copies.

Narrative in stone

All museums with parts of the sculptures have agreed to collaborate on the project, although it is not yet clear whether the Greek Ministry of Culture will take part.

Parthenon frieze reconstruction (Picture: Institute of Creative Technologies)

The work holds out the possibility of combining data from the surviving pieces, casts of fragments which have been destroyed, and expert reconstructions of those portions which have vanished.

There are hopes that one day all 524ft (160m) of the frieze, showing in life-like detail the men, women, horses and sacrificial animals which took part in the annual Panathenaic procession, may be depicted in images or 3-D replicas.

The pediments and metopes (vignettes in stone of mythological battles), may also be reproduced - and in colour, for it is thought that the Greeks made vibrant use of paint in their artworks.

Also able to be added in virtual reality are the metal attachments - harnesses, weapons, staffs and wreaths - which once adorned the originals.

Museum piece

Viewing the sculptures is like finding the photo album of a long-lost people who still influence our art, literature and democracy.

Pieces of the jigsaw: Click here

But where best to see a reconstruction of this treasure of the ancient world? No decisions have been made yet on whether copies - either virtual or replicas - will be available at the British Museum, although this could be a contingency plan should the Greeks' calls for return of the stones prove successful.

Architect Bernard Tschumi's drawing of the new Acropolis museum
The Greeks want to reunite the surviving stones

A new campaign to return to the Elgin Marbles to Athens has been launched. The Greeks have offered to accept the London sculptures as a loan - which would sidestep the issue of ownership - but the British Museum is reluctant to give up the stones.

Museum director Neil MacGregor says there is no need to discuss what to do if the Elgin Marbles go back to Greece - because they're not going. "The British Museum is the best possible place for the Parthenon sculptures in its collections to be on display."

Wherever the stones end up, modern technology has played its part in reviving ancient genius. The sculptures have inspired lovers of art and civilisation for centuries. Now, a whole new phase in their influence could be about to begin.

Shattered and scattered - the surviving fragments of the north frieze (image from the British Museum book The Parthenon Frieze)

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