The Eighth Wonder of the World

Pergamonmuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The recent story of the Pergamon Altar

“A work so large and magnificent has been given back to the world,” wrote Carl Humann (2nd from right), who rediscovered the Pergamon Altar, in 1879. “What we have found is not just a dozen reliefs but an entire era of art that had been buried and forgotten.”

The excavation of the largest known altar of the ancient world lasted two years, with the initial campaign coming to an end in 1880. By arrangement with the Ottoman authorities, the German archaeologists were permitted to take a part of the finds out of the country.

They were especially interested in the frieze panels, 94 panels of the Gigantomachy and some 2,000 fragments comprising in total around three-fifths of the whole frieze. Transporting them was extraordinarily difficult. Humann had stable chests and sledges built at the excavation site and dragged down the hairpin bends of the acropolis by buffalos. Then the finds were brought to Berlin by ship and train.

The Pergamon Altar arrives in Berlin

The new finds of the Gigantomachy relief were found so important that they were exhibited in the heart of Berlin, in the Rotunda of the Altes Museum. The frieze panels were each placed in front of the existing statues, which were pushed back against the wall for this purpose.

The scenes of the Great Frieze that could be identified were displayed at the great Berlin Art Exhibition of 1886. These mainly depict the major gods of ancient mythology. The high reliefs were displayed in a fragmentary state without any attempt to add missing parts, showing them to be authentic excavation finds. Most of the excavated objected remained in storage.

The finds from Pergamon were a complete sensation both for people in the museum world and for the public. This mass enthusiasm encouraged the director of the Collection of Classical Antiquities, Alexander Conze, to continue excavating the acropolis in Pergamon. As a result, more pieces of the altar came to light.

A museum for the Pergamon Altar 
The temporary housing of the Pergamon finds in the Altes Museum came to an end in 1901 when the first Pergamonmuseum was built. From then on there were two separate museums in Berlin in which Classical sculpture and architecture could be studied and looked at using different scientific concepts.

Putting the frieze fragments together in Berlin was like a jigsaw puzzle. In reconstructing the altar the architects followed the structure of similar ancient altars. Architect Richard Bohn, who had made drawings during the excavations, managed to deduce the original architectural structure from the mass of rubble and foundations.

The first museum reconstruction of the altar in the old Pergamonmuseum included construction of part of the altar with the reliefs of the Great Frieze inserted. Despite space limitations, the Great Frieze was for the first time erected completely and ‘architecturally correctly’.

The frieze ran around the reconstructed altar base and the reliefs could be viewed in the light coming in above from the side. The open staircase of the altar and the architectural feature of its columns above it were merely hinted at.

However, his exhibition was closed as soon as 1908 and the first Pergamonmuseum pulled down in January 1909. The foundations were fragile and the building was simply too small. The Director General of the Royal Museums, Wilhelm von Bode, planned the construction of a monumental new museum building. The excavation finds were put in storage, hidden away again from the public eye for many decades.

The move to the new Pergamon Museum 
Putting the 1907 museum design by the architect Alfred Messel into practice proved to be difficult. Swampy ground, the First World War and inflation all played a part in delaying construction. After many years of building work, the Pergamonmuseum was finally opened in 1930 as the youngest museum on the Museum Island. The three main halls contained reconstructions of Classical buildings. But the main attraction was without doubt the reconstructed west front of the Pergamon Altar.

Even before the museum opened, people attending the first International Archaeology Congress were able to inspect the laborious reconstruction of the west side of the Great Altar of Pergamon, with the Great Frieze, known as the Gigantomachy, on the surrounding walls.

The 20 metres wide open staircase, flanked by jutting projections, leading up to the altar was completely reconstructed with the building’s Ionian hall of columns. The reconstruction used original architectural elements as well as new elements.

For the friezes on the north, south and east sides of the altar base, modern complementary additions to the sculptures were dispensed with and the background panels, surviving as fragments, were filled in.

2.30 m high and 113 m long, the frieze has a relief area of around 260 m², decorated with larger-than-life, almost three-dimensional figures.

The drama and pathos of this masterpiece of the Hellenistic Period thrilled visitors from the beginning. But just a few years later, at the start of the Second World War in 1939, the exhibition was closed again.

Destruction and reconstruction 

In 1941, for fear of air raids, the Pergamon Altar was at first protected with sandbags and boarding. A short while later the reliefs, some weighing up to 2.2 tonnes, were then taken down and placed for safe storage in the flak tower at the Berlin Zoo, a bunker with a museum storage depot.

The consequences of the war can be seen clearly in the Pergamonmuseum as everywhere else in Berlin.

Large parts of the museum and altar structure were destroyed in air raids.

The frieze panels of the Pergamon Altar could be salvaged, but fell into the hands of the Red Army at the end of the Second World War. In 1945 the Soviet Army captured Berlin and took most of the inventory of the Berlin Collection of Classical Antiquities. The friezes were taken off as war booty to the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg, where plaster casts were made of the altar reliefs.

Cleaning up for the comeback...

In 1958 the inventory of the Collection of Classical Antiquities was brought back to Berlin, where the whole of the Museum Island was now in the Eastern Sector of the city, and so in the territory of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). But there was hardly time to check the condition of the Pergamon Altar, which had been completely taken apart, or to restore it, since the provisionally rebuilt Pergamon Museum with the reconstructed altar room was reopened in October 1959 for the 10th anniversary of the founding of the GDR.

To counteract the imminent deterioration of the two thousand year-old art which were the result of the ageing of the restoration materials used in the 19th century and of transporting it, especially at the end of the war, the altar frieze was completely restored between 1996 and 2004.

This was the biggest restoration project for the Collection of Classical Antiquities since the establishment of the Pergamonmuseum.

The 120 panels were taken down and cleaned.

Old cement additions from the 19th century were removed and rusted dowels and anchors were replaced.

The old, dark-tinted concrete of the background was replaced with light grey limestone panels which allow the figures to emerge more dynamically.

Based on new archaeological findings, the friezes were in part reconfigured and complemented with elements from the depot store for which a place could not previously be found.

Tied up and packaged
Since 2013 the Pergamonmuseum has been undergoing a fundamental modernisation to transform it into a functional museum building according to modern standards. As the Great Frieze has already been put up and taken down several times in the past, the intention is to avoid any further rearrangement of the relief panels.

Safety measures for the precious world heritage – gods and giants are tied up...

...and surrounded by scaffolding.

So that the relief panels can be left where they are while building work is going on, intensive safety and monitoring measures are needed. The slightest movements of walls and floors in the vicinity of the Great Frieze are digitally monitored...

...and transmitted in real time to the people responsible for the Collection of Classical Antiquities. This means that in an emergency the experts can get there in time to take action. As well as this, gypsum marks are placed on the joints between all the relief panels which would tear at the slightest movement and so give a visible alarm signal.

Giants disappear...

...and are brought back to life – in a detailed projection in glorious colour. As long as the Pergamon Altar stays closed, there is a monumental alternative available for visitors; life in ancient Pergamon on a 30 metres high all-round screen.

This detailed panorama was made by Berlin artist Yadegar Asisi and his team. Archaeological input bringing with it the weight of 130 years of research was supplied by the Collection of Classical Antiquities. This gigantic, colourful panorama of the ancient city can be seen from autumn 2018 until the reopening of the Pergamon Altar, anticipated to be in 2023.

Pergamon Panorama

The interactive 3D model means, too, that the Great Altar of Pergamon can be explored in detail. With the support of the federal government and the scientists at the Fraunhofer Institute, the Collection of Classical Antiquities completed a laborious 3D scan in September 2014 before the extensive restoration work started – a fascinating visualisation of this more than 2,000 year-old masterpiece of Hellenistic art.


Credits: Story

Text: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz

Concept: Astrid Alexander
Editing: Astrid Alexander, Jutta Dette
Translation: Catherine Hales, Stephan Schmidt

© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz


Credits: All media
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