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From the Rubble of Atlases, a Colossus Will Rise

The Temple of the Olympian Zeus, also known as the Olympieion, was built using Carthaginian slave labor — presumably prisoners of war captured in the Battle of Himera. The dimensions were roughly the same as an American football field and its end zones: 340 feet long and 160 feet wide, and rose to a height of 120 feet, not including the foundation.

Evidently, the work was never completed. When Carthage conquered Akragas in 405 B.C. after an eight-month siege, the temple was still open to the sky, perhaps owing to the difficulty of building a roof to span the distance.

In detailing the enormity of the Olympieion’s scale, Diodorus wrote that the fluting of the outer columns was big enough for a man to stand inside. Unlike most pillars of the period, the temple’s were not free-standing but demi-columns, 23 by 46 feet, engaged in a continuous curtain wall to support the weight of horizontal architectural detailing that composes the entablature. If the scale model in the museum is to be believed, the Atlases stood on a recessed ledge in the upper portions of the bays, hands stretched above their heads.

The Olympieion’s unstately pile is the result of two millenniums of earthquakes and pilfering. During the mid-1700s, stonework was quarried and hauled away for use in breakwaters and jetties at the nearby town of Porto Empedocle.

The concept of the project has been criticized for violating professional standards and, perhaps, good taste. “No archaeologist would endorse the use of ancient sculpture, no matter how fragmentary, to create a modern sculpture, even if the purpose is to highlight the site’s antiquity,” said C. Brian Rose, an archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

Nowadays, a copy of the museum’s Atlas, cobbled together in the 1970s, lounges near the rubble, roped off from the public. “Many visitors believe the Atlas on the ground is authentic,” said Leonardo Guarnieri, a park spokesman, with a shrug worthy of Ayn Rand. “It is not authentic.”

He added that the hands of the new golem Atlas would be unencumbered. That ought to take a load off his shoulders.

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