The recent story of the Pergamon Altar
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
...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.
...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.
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.