Olympia (almost) burns...but Paris survives
First let me apologise for writing about the antiquities of ancient Greece, when so many people have died in the terrible fires -- probably almost a hundred casualties altogether so far. It reminds me a bit of the “bombing” of the Parthenon in 1687, which everyone now laments as the loss of a great building, forgetting the hundreds of women and children killed in the process.
But, conscience apart, even as I’m writing, it is not entirely clear what exactly has happened to which ancient sites in the Peloponnese.
The good news seems to be that the Greek and Roman remains of Olympia have escaped (and a lot of them, let’s remember, are of Roman imperial date and not from the fifth-century BC well-springs of democracy at all). The Greek Archaeological Service is very good on disaster planning, and almost certainly its fire protection devices, as well as the brave fire-fighters and a dose of good luck, played their part in keeping the site safe..
But the news reports have tended to concentrate on Olympia alone – when, in fact, there are any number of sites round about whose loss would be almost equally troubling in archaeological, even if not symbolic, terms. I think here of the temple of Apollo at Bassae on its romantic hillside (the temple itself is now covered with a strange almost post-modern tent, as you see in the picture). We still don’t know whether this has made it. Let alone the much less well known temple of the “Great Goddesses” at Lykosoura in the valley below. And that’s before we start to think about the Byzantine churches gone up in flames.
At this point I begin to feel grateful for the dispersal of antiquities around the museums of the world.
Suppose Olympia and its museum had actually gone up in smoke (and fire quickly turns marble to a little pile of lime). At least some of the sculptures of the key temple of Zeus would have been safe in the Louvre (like the one you see here). And if the temple at Bassae had been destroyed, then it would turn out to be a good idea after all that its sculptured frieze was in the British Museum in London.
This is not an argument about the quality of care these monuments are given whether in Greece or abroad (and almost all guardians of the Greek heritage -- Greek or foreign -- have something to be embarrassed about). It is more the “stuff happens” problem. Nature sometimes seriously messes up. In other words, like it or not in aesthetic or political terms, there is a very practical point to these Wonders of the World being split up.
There’s also an argument here for the old-fashioned plaster cast gallery. If the Olympia sculptures were to be destroyed in both Greece and France, then you would still be able to find a perfect set of replicas in the cast gallery of the Museum of Classical Archaeology in Cambridge (and in other plaster cast galleries the world over). Half a century ago many of these cast collections were themselves threatened with the (sledge-)hammer. Now we are a bit wiser about our fragile hold on the masterpieces of the past – and the need to protect them in a variety of guises.