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The Counterattack

In 1936 a younger member of the German Archaeological Institute, Walther Kolbe, dared to question the conclusions of Dörpfeld1 and Dinsmoor. He frankly stated that the alleged traces of the Persian fire are ”a legend.” He pointed out that the column drums imbedded in the north wall are pieces discarded during the construction of Parthenon III, and that the north wall itself was not erected before the Periclean age. He also questioned Dörpfeld’s assertion that there were traces of fire in the poros steps of Parthenon I. Kolbe suggested that Dörpfeld may have mistaken for traces of fire the red streaks that normally occur in this material. In order to prove his point more thoroughly, Kolbe attached, at the end of his article, the opinion of a mineralogist to the effect that the red streaks are a natural feature of the stone and that experiment proves that, far from being caused by fire, they disappear when the stone is exposed to fire. Kolbe did not date to challenge the prevailing opinion too radically: yet what he contended was enough to create a sensation when he delivered a paper at the International Archaeological Congress in Berlin in 1939. The reactions to Kolbe’s first article were violent. Not even Dinsmoor was pleased, even though Kolbe accepted the main point of his theory. He followed Dinsmoor in denying the existence of Parthenon I, but dated the substructure and Parthenon II immediately after the withdrawal of the Persians in 479 B.C., ten years after Dinsmoor’s date.

This date was put forth by Kolbe in order not to deviate too widely from the prevailing opinion, but it is a preposterous one. It is incredible that immediately after the Persian destruction, when a new attack was considered likely, the Athenians would have started such an ambitious project as the substructure and Parthenon II combined. Thucydides relates that at that time the Spartans had objected to the reconstruction of Athens’ walls with the argument that these walls would be of use to the Persians in case they took Athens a second time.

Although Kolbe presented a theory that had all the weaknesses of Dinsmoor’s, he had the courage to utter the statement: ”the pre-Persian Parthenon belongs to the realm of fairy tales.” Having stressed that the substructure must have been built in the same period as the southern wall of the Acropolis, he proceeded to dispose of all the arguments that had been used to date the substructure and the terrace of the Parthenon before the Persian invasion.

Immediately after Kolbe published the first statement of his position, the octogenarian Dörpfeld reacted by issuing with post haste a six-page broadside rebuttal. This rebuttal consists for the most part of a reiteration of the objections he had raised against Dinsmoor’s theory, but on the issue of chronology there is advanced a new and serious argument: If the work on the proto-Parthenon was initiated after the Persian invasion, it cannot be dated before the peace with Persia (449 or early 448 B.C.), because no construction of importance could be initiated in Athens as long as there remained the danger of a new Persian attack. In my opinion this argument is perfectly valid, but should have been used to lower the date proposed by Kolbe, not to raise it.

Instead Dörpfeld tried to defend a pre-Persian date for the proto-Parthenons. As I have pointed out, Dörpfeld in 1902 had spoken of evident traces of fire in the two poros steps of Parthenon I, but then in 1912 had shifted the position of these traces of fire to the poros and Karrha limestone steps of Parthenon II. When Kolbe denied that there are traces of fire in the poros steps, this being the only issue on which Dörpfeld had made a specific statement, Dörpfeld accepted Kolbe’s evidence to the effect that the red streaks in the poros limestone are not evidence of fire, but accused Kolbe of being unfair in making an issue of his occasional references to ”slight traces of fire” in the poros limestone. In reality Dörpfeld had stated that these traces of fire are ”decisive” (entscheidend). We may quote as proof of the meaning of Dörpfeld’s words the summation of his opinion written by Martin L. D’Ooge in 1908.2 D’Ooge observed that originally Dörpfeld had dated the substructure and Parthenon I as contemporary with the Cimonian Wall, but later had contended that they had to be dated before the Persian invasion; in relation to this shift of opinion D’Ooge explains: ”The most convincing proof for this belief Dörpfeld finds first in the marks of fire (formerly observed also by Ross) on the marble drums and on the steps of the building.” When D’Ooge wrote this line, nobody knew that Parthenon II and its steps existed. Dörpfeld, in answering Kolbe, shifted his ground by claiming that what was decisive were the traces of fire to be found in Parthenon II and blamed him for not having made reference ”to the clear and never questioned traces of fire on the marble steps and columns” of Parthenon II. Here Dörpfeld begged the question, because nobody had ever submitted a description of these alleged traces of fire. Hill had never mentioned them and Dörpfeld had never referred to them in a direct manner. By calling them ”clear and never questioned” he freed himself from the burden of identifying and describing them.

After Kolbe’s daring reopened the discussion on the chronology of the proto-Parthenon, other scholars presented further evidence to the effect that it must be dated after the Persian invasion. This evidence proves that Dörpfeld’s argument against Kolbe was sound; but it did not lead to the result Dörpfeld intended: the construction of the proto-Parthenons must be dated after 450 B.C.

In order to reply to Dörpfeld’s rebuttal, Kolbe asked another member of the German Archaeological Institute, Arnold Tschira, a professional architect, to examine the column drums of the north wall and all the similar ones found on the Acropolis. Several other column drums have been found scattered through the Acropolis, after Ross discovered a group of 12-15 to the east of the southeast corner of the Parthenon. Tschira produced a masterpiece of thorough and responsible research, in which he described and measured one by one 60 column drums, including 24 on the north wall.3 In doing so he repeated with more detail and more accuracy the survey conducted by Penrose. He was able to establish that all the drums have dimensions identical with those of the drums of either the peripteros or the western porch of Parthenon III. He excluded from consideration the drums of the eastern porch on the assumption, most likely incorrect, that the columns of this porch had a diameter different from that of the western porch.

Tschira proved that the drums are pieces discarded because fissures had developed in the process of cutting. Pentelic marble can easily crack while being hammered, because it contains mica flakes. Fissures of the kind that appear in the drums studied by Tschira appear even in some of the standing columns of the present Parthenon. Tschira reported how fissures can be observed in drums still in the rough, in partly-fluted drums and in some cases in fully-fluted drums.

Hans Riemann observed that a major achievement of Tschira was to exclude that the drums of the north wall were damaged after having been made part of a standing temple. Although today they appear broken with missing pieces, their mutual distance indicates that 20 of them had their full circumference when inserted into the north wall. Only 4 were inserted into the wall with a side broken off: of these, 2 were not fluted, one was partially fluted and only one was fully fluted.

Tschira not only established that the fissured noticed by Ross are not the result of fire, but by examining marble blocks from buildings known to have been destroyed by a conflagration, proves that fire causes a different kind of damage. Fire attacks the surface, causing a foliation of the outer layers, whereas the fissures of the drums begin from the core and often appear in drums that still have ”a well-preserved epidermis.”

Tschira, having proved beyond any reasonable doubt that the column drums belong to the Periclean temple (Parthenon III) and that the alleged traces of fire do not exist, felt free to move a step beyond Kolbe in rejecting the prevailing contentions: He reasserted the existence of Parthenon I and dated it after the withdrawal of the Persians, placing the construction of Parthenon II in the Cimonian age, that is, in the sixties. Tschira moved in the right direction, but was still trying not to oppose prevailing views too directly.

Tschira stated also that the reddish tinge is a natural feature of Pentelic marble, as it can be noticed by examining blocks still in the quarry. Under the action of fire Pentelic marble does not turn red but gray, as it had occurred, for instance, inside the western pediment of the Parthenon.

In order to understand why Tschira brought up the question of the reddish tinge of the Pentelic marble, one must consider Dinsmoor’s reply to Kolbe. Although Kolbe had followed Dinsmoor in denying the existence of Parthenon I, Dinsmoor felt incensed by Kolbe’s conclusion that the substructure and Parthenon I cannot antedate the Persian invasion. Dinsmoor asked for space for a rebuttal in the periodical that carried Kolbe’s first article in the Jahrbuch des deutschen archaeologischen Instituts, but most of his statement was directed against Dörpfeld’s arguments for the existence of Parthenon I.4 Only on the last page did Dinsmoor answer Kolbe on the question of the traces of fire. Dinsmoor asserted that the evidence of fire is provided by the reddish tinge of the Pentelic marble, but instead of describing it and identifying the places where it can be found, he appealed to the authority of Ross, Penrose and Dörpfeld. But none of these writers ever mentioned it, either on the pages given as reference by Dinsmoor, or on other pages of their works. I have quoted the pertinent lines of Ross in which mention is made only of fissures and calcification in the column drums. I have pointed out that Dörpfeld spoken only of traces of fire in the steps of poros and Karrha limestone. As to Penrose, all that can be said is that, in the passage referred to by Dinsmoor, he mentioned vases of red paint found near the column drums unearthed by Ross. The pots of red paint, used for tracing, indicate that the drums were in a workshop. Nevertheless, Dinsmoor concluded his article by declaring: ”These traces of fire which have been often noticed by me too, provide further proof, in case any were still needed, that the pre-Persian Parthenon built by Aristeides, is not a legend but a fact.”

The reply of Dinsmoor was factually incorrect and logically incoherent, but it was a call to arms to the humanists to resist the appeal to scientific arguments. Kolbe had been guilty of relying on the opinion of a mineralogist and Tschira had presented an argument that was strictly quantitative and technical. From that moment the question of the traces of the Persian fire ceased to be a matter of reason and became a matter of faith, like the question of the fire in Hell. Since Kolbe had quoted the expert opinion of a mineralogist to the effect that when poros limestone is exposed to fire it loses its natural red streaks, Dinsmoor chided him for quoting this kind of evidence. According to Dinsmoor the Persian fire was of a kind that cannot be reproduced in a laboratory experiment. Apparently Dinsmoor was taking a leaf from those theologians that declare that the fire of Hell is not an ordinary fire.

The greatest majority of archaeologists continue to affirm the existence of the traces of fire as a matter of faith. For instance, in 1952 the Austrian archaeologist Otto Walter, on one page of an article, admitted that the arguments of Kolbe and Tschira are possibly valid, but expressed skepticism ”because it is not possible for us to verify their objections” to the existence of the traces of fire. Then, four pages later, he asserted that ”we may recognize in the damages of the stones of Parthenon I and II the sacred marks of the fire-scars of the Persian destruction. But the issue is not whether there are damages in the blocks of Parthenon I and II, but whether they are the results of fire. Walter in substance argued that scientific evidence cannot be used in a matter that is ”sacred.” He ridiculed the scientific arguments used by Kolbe and Tschira, by mentioning that Tschira had, incidentally, reported that some of the step blocks supposedly showing traces of fire had been used by the Turks for the construction of latrines. By claiming that one should not argue about ”Turkish latrines,” Walter meant that for a humanist arguments based on the facts of natural science belong to the level of Turkish latrines. But it is rather the reasoning of Dinsmoor and Walter that belongs to the level of thought that one finds inscribed in latrines, Turkish and otherwise. For instance, since the mineralogist quoted by Kolbe had stated that the red streaks in the poros limestone are probably the geological remainders of algae, Dinsmoor ridiculed Kolbe for having allegedly said that algae lived in the poros foundations of the Parthenon. Walter and others followed in making sport of Kolbe and ”his algae.”

The belief in the existence of the traces of fire has become a matter of faith. Not to see them is proof of lack of humanistic spirit, just as in the time of Galileo it was a crime against the humanistic belief in the perfection of the heavens to see in the telescope sun spots or the mountains of the moon. The traces of fire must be seen by those who want to prove their orthodoxy. Dinsmoor attached to his article of 1937 a black and white photograph of the columns of the north wall, asserting that this photograph shows the traces of fire. Although this photograph does not prove anything except that the columns are there, in 1956 the French scholar Jean Baelen published a similar photograph with the following caption, which echoes Dinsmoor’s words: ”These traces of fire lighted by the soldiers of Xerxes can be touched and seen on what remains of the temple that was under construction when Athens had to be evacuated.”5 Let us go one step further and claim that we can still feel the heat!


  1. Die Neugestaltung der Akropolis nach den Perserkriegen” in Jahrb. arch. Inst., LI (1936).
  2. The Acropolis of Athens (New York and London, 1908), p. 79.
  3. A. Tschira, “Die unfertigten Saulentrommeln auf der Akropolis zu Athen,” in Jahrb. arch. Inst., LV (1940).
  4. Pesisitratos, Kleisthenes, Themistokles, Aristeides, oder Kimon: Wer hat den alteren Parthenon begonnen?” Jahrb. arch. Inst., LII (1937).
  5. Jean Baelen, La Chronique du Parthenon (Paris, 1956), p. 38.

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