If you find time to visit only one of Athens’ many museum collections, make it the Acropolis museum. Right in the centre of the historic city, this award-winning museum houses over 4,000 objects from the Acropolis — the fortified hill in Athens, most famous for its fifth century B.C. marble temples. The Parthenon, in particular, is iconic. This giant marble temple has (either rightly or wrongly) become a symbol of Greece and its ancient culture, and its architectural style has been replicated many times closer to home: from the British Museum to the Bank of England. Furthermore, the sorts of marble sculptures and intricate painted pottery which came from this site and the surrounding area are almost as ubiquitously known. All of these —and more— are on show at the Acropolis museum. But there is one particularly curious object within the museum collections which is perhaps less well known — but which is just as fascinating. It sits on the second floor of the museum, just opposite the book shop and the museum café. Up the escalator, straight ahead, can’t miss it: a giant LEGO model of the Parthenon, the Acropolis hill, and the surrounding area.
This model was put together in 2013 by Australian LEGO builder Ryan McNaught, having been commission by Senior Curator of the Nicholson Museum, Michael Turner. It was made from over 120,000 bricks, and took more than 300 hours to put together. First displayed in the Nicholson Museum in Sydney, this remarkable object was transferred to Athens in 2014 and it has been on display ever since. It has long captured public attention, and Res Gerendae’s own Alina Kozlovski even reviewed this model on its first outing, back in the day. My favourite thing about this model, though, is that it tells so much history at once. We (and the collection of the Acropolis museum) may privilege the fifth century B.C. history of the Acropolis, but this hill has been occupied from right back in prehistoric times (since at least 1200 B.C.) up to the present day; and each new chapter has a rich and fascinating story to tell. The LEGO Acropolis meshes together all of these histories, and in this blog post I am going to look at some of those vignettes, alongside the histories, stories, and myths that inspired them.
However, I will start unashamedly with that fifth century B.C. Classical past. Right at the centre of the Acropolis hill, we see the Parthenon temple. This marble beasty measures 30mx20m, and in its partially reconstructed form it dominates the landscape of the Acropolis today. The LEGO model demonstrates that the Parthenon had two main rooms inside: to the west, a treasury room; and to the east a ‘naos’ or ‘cella’, which would have contained a giant statue of the goddess Athena. This statue was originally faced with gold and ivory, and was designed by the artist Pheidias. The statue does not survive today, but the LEGO model gives some idea of how such a sculpture might have been displayed within the temple. The whole building is also shown as simultaneously complete, and in a state of partial reconstruction. This represents both how the remains look to today’s visitors, but also how they are encouraged to imagine the building at the height of its Classical past.
The gold and ivory sculpture of Pheidias was not the only statue of the goddess Athena on the Acropolis hill, however, and just to the side of the Parthenon we see a wooden statue of the goddess. Every four years in a city festival called the ‘Great Panathenaia’, this statue was dressed in a wool garment called a ‘peplos’, woven by the women of the city, and carried to the Acropolis in a long procession. It is believed that this scene is depicted on the long marble frieze which originally adorned the Parthenon temple, a cast of which can be seen on the top floor of the Acropolis museum. Athena herself appears right next to the statue, locked deep in conflict with the god Poseidon. According to the myth, Athena and Poseidon fought to see who would be named the patron deity of the city. Athena offered the people an olive tree (also visible on the model!), while Poseidon gave them a salt-water spring. Here, they stand in contest with one another, as they would have done on the sculpted pediment of the Parthenon — a set of statues which originally sat underneath the triangular roof of the temple.
Down on the slopes of the Acropolis hill, we see the theatre of Dionysus. Here, the performance of a tragedy is well underway, and an audience of ancient Athenians watch on as they would have done during times of festival as far back as the sixth century B.C. The play in question seems to be that of Oedipus — made famous by Sophocles, and made infamous by Tom Lehrer. To cut a long story short, when Oedipus found out that he had killed his father and married his mother, he blinded himself and was exiled from his home city of Thebes. We see this moment in the LEGO model, as Oedipus drives a knife into his eyes and is surrounded by blood. The depiction, however, is quite anachronistic, as it was forbidden to portray scenes of violence or blood on the ancient stage — it was, after all, a place sacred to the gods. Back up on the Acropolis, we see another scene from ancient theatre, this time from the comedy of Aristophanes. Lysistrata and her band of women occupy the Acropolis, having gone on a sex-strike until the men of Athens agree to stop fighting in the Peloponnesian War. This blend of myth, history, and reality is fascinating, particularly as they stand shoulder-to-shoulder alongside historic figures such as Alexander the Great and Diogenes. If you want to find out more about the story of Lysistrata, Helen Eastman directed a rather excellent production of this comedy in Cambridge, back in 2016…
The Acropolis’ ‘other’ theatre is the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, over on the south western slopes. This monument was put up in the Roman period in 161 AD. It was paid for by the aristocrat Herodes Atticus, and was erected in memory of Herodes’ wife Aspasia Annia Regilla. It sounds a sweet story, until you realise that Herodes himself may have actually murdered Regilla…The theatre is still used today, and is one of the primary venues for the annual ‘Athens and Epidauros festival’. In the LEGO model, we see the monument in this capacity, complete with lights, camera, action, and Elton John. There’s even a snack van parked outside the theatre, selling souvlakia to hungry passersby. This rather tongue-in-cheek scene just a stone throw down from the Classical Parthenon is a good reminder that these monuments have a much longer history, and one which is still re-used and re-interpreted today.
And what about the space around some of these more ‘well-known’ monuments? Right at the foot of the hill, and between the Theatre of Dionysus and the Oden of Herodes Atticus, we find a stoa — a long, roofed building. This was probably just a long, shady walk-way for visitors to get between parts of the ancient Acropolis; but other ancient stoas also had space in them for small shops. Think about the opening few scenes of Disney’s Hercules, where different street vendors have their own little shops in the big town stoa…Further up on the slope, we see two groups of people on the ramp up to the Propoylaea, the monumental entrance way of the Acropolis sanctuary. The first group are Romans, and remind us that the Acropolis, its slopes, and the Parthenon have a long post-Classical past, after the ‘Golden Age’ of the marble temples. Did you know that the Parthenon was reused as a Christian cathedral, an Islamic mosque, and an Ottoman gunpowder store? The other group are part of a tour party, and they are some of the three million tourists who come to visit the Acropolis every year. At €20 a pop, that’s quite a healthy revenue for the Greek tourism industry…Up on the hill, we see a faux-Indiana Jones filming a in front of a TV camera. For any budding Joanna Lumley, Michael Scott, or Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, the Acropolis is an essential stop on a TV documentary tour of Greece’s capital — and the hill has also been a starring feature of more recent blockbuster features such as ‘The Two Faces of January’.
So, there you have it. Layers of history all pressed together into one single LEGO model. The piece by piece approach may have taken more than 300 hours to construct, but it is clear that there were in addition many hours of careful planning and research that took place around the actual building of the model. The LEGO Acropolis may seem at face-value like a quirky bit of fun, but it is also a useful template for showing us the much longer history of somewhere like the Acropolis, which we think we might already know. And if anyone can tell me what Gandalf is doing there, I’ll buy you a galaktoboureko…