It’s a curious and intriguing thought that at the height of World War II, the architect Gorham P. Stevens, then in residence as acting director of the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, busied himself with designing and making a plaster model of the Athenian Acropolis as it would have appeared in the first century BC. In spite of the many obstacles and dangers of the war in addition to the spiralling cost of the project (ultimately some $1700), Stevens managed after three years to complete the model in 1944, with the assistance of a skilled, unnamed plasterer. He presented the model in several papers in subsequent years and described on at least one occasion the difficult birth of the model: “there are many anxious moments in store for those who would sponsor the production of a model in the middle of a war” (Stevens 1946a, 558).
Prior to making his model, Stevens had published a number of seminal papers on the open spaces and “peripheral” areas of the Athenian Acropolis, such as the Periclean “entrance court” in front of the Propylaia and the votive monuments on the steps west of the Parthenon (Stevens 1936; 1940; see now Valavanis et al. 2021). These papers make good use of his magnificent drawings that illustrate different views, perspectives and sightlines of the monuments on the Acropolis. These drawings were also the basis for the later model (a good example is Stevens 1946c, 74, Fig. 1). The model itself offered many new opportunities to explore and play around with the architecture and landscape of the Acropolis and how individual temples, statue groups and votive monuments fit together and were experienced by people in the past. These issues occupied Stevens for the rest of his life, as seen for example in his later discussion of the “framing” of the Parthenon from below the Acropolis (Stevens 1962, and later expanded with i.a. digital means by Martin-Mcauliffe & Papadopoulos 2012).
In his own presentation of the Acropolis plaster model, Stevens weighed in with some highly practical considerations on the pros and cons of using it for educational purposes. While “there is hardly a better way of stimulating interest in the history of architecture than by means of the model…it should be small enough to be carried through the lecture room door” (Stevens 1946b, 558). Although Stevens intended to donate the model to the Acropolis Museum (then situated on the Acropolis itself), it now resides in the reconstructed Stoa of Attalos on the Athenian Agora.
It is today perhaps too easy to treat Stevens’s work and his model as only remotely useful and akin to other well-known archaeological eccentricities, or as belonging to the fundamental but highly positivistic tradition of “Bauforschung” where a scholarly-based reconstruction typically is the final conclusion of any study. We can also object to the use of white plaster to provide a seemingly “neutral” and “scientific” finish to the reconstruction. The context immediately after the war in Greece is even darker. As discussed by Yannis Hamilakis, prisoners in Greek concentration camps were then forced to make their own models of the Parthenon before they could re-enter society as civilised archeo-bodies (to borrow a phrase from Dimitris Plantzos).
But I believe that there is reason to be more upbeat and positive about Stevens’s model. I have previously discussed the different uses of reconstruction models in classical archaeology across a range of media, such as cork and wood, and especially how they feed into the intellectual trajectory of the Danish archaeologist Kristian Jeppesen and his work on the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus. However, these other models typically depict monuments in splendid isolation. The innovation of Stevens’s model was to represent the full archaeological landscape and the connective spaces between individual buildings (and to use it as a basis for thinking about these issues in much more detail). As such, the model paved the way for entirely new perspectives on Greek architecture: those of space, experience and movement. It is also an important predecessor to modern 3D models of the Acropolis and their attempts to capture its appearance in different time periods – and even more directly, to the prominent use of architectural models in the current Acropolis Museum where they greet visitors in the lobby.
Mammelis, C.P. 1950. Model of the Athenian Acropolis as it Appeared Towards the End of the First Century Before Christ. Unknown publisher.
Martin-Mcauliffe, S.L. & J. Papadopoulos. 2012. “Framing Victory: Salamis, the Athenian Acropolis, and the Agora.” JSAH 71.3, 332-361.
Stevens, G.P. 1936. “Periclean Entrance Court to Akropolis.” Hesperia 5, 443-520.
Stevens, G.P. 1940. The Setting of the Periclean Parthenon. Hesperia Supplement no. 2. Princeton, NJ: American School of Classical Studies.
Stevens, G.P. 1946a. “Plaster Model of the Athenian Acropolis: Restoration at the End of the First Century B.C.” BCH 70, 557-559.
Stevens, G.P. 1946b. “The Northeast Corner of the Parthenon.” Hesperia 15, 1-26.
Stevens, G.P. 1946c. “Architectural Studies Concerning the Acropolis of Athens.” Hesperia 15.2, 73-106.
Stevens, G.P. 1962. “Concerning the Impressiveness of the Parthenon.” AJA 66.3, 337-338.
Valavanis, P. et al. 2021. “Managing the Open-air Sacred Space on the Athenian Acropolis”, in J. Neils and O. Palagia (eds.) From Kallas to Kritias. Art in Athens in the Second Half of the Fifth Century B.C., 11-30. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.