The Chryselephantine Doors of the Parthenon

by Spencer Pope and Peter Schultz

Two scientists propose a speculative solution to a problem recently discovered in the Parthenon building account inscriptions. As restored, the accounts (IG 13 449, lines 389–94) specify the purchase and sale of a large lot of ivory quite late in the building’s construction. Where was this ivory used? Since it cannot readily be connected to Pheidias’ chryselephantine image of Athena, this material can be associated with the decoration of the Parthenon’s enormous cedar doors. In addition to a range of epigraphical and structural evidence supporting this hypothesis, the literary and archaeological data suggest a long tradition of adorning doors with gold and ivory in Greek sacred architecture. The Parthenon was a fundamental part of this tradition. Indeed, by creating a gold and ivory frame to complement and emphasize Pheidias’ gleaming statue, the Parthenon’s designers played on ancient expectations regarding divine images and enhanced the epiphanic effect of Pheidias’ masterpiece and the Parthenon as a whole.

It is well known that the Parthenon inventories list gold elements once attached to the building’s doors. Even so, this hardly proves that the doors were fully chryselephantine: ivory is not mentioned in the inventory account in specific connection with a set of doors. However, epigraphic evidence for the use of ivory in the building does occur in the Parthenon building accounts. How was this ivory used? We believe it likely that this precious material was originally intended for use on the Parthenon’s doors. This hypothesis makes good sense of the chronology and even better sense of the construction logistics. The fragile nature of the inlaid gold, often in the form of thin foil, would necessitate that the adornment of the doors occurred toward the end of the building process, especially when the dangers of theft or damage are considered. The precious adornment for the doors would have been one of the building’s finishing touches, carried out only after the Parthenon’s iron grilles were set in place between the columns of both of the porches; the grilles would have protected the valuable materials used for the doors, which would otherwise have been exposed.

Of course, this evidence is incomplete and can only suggest (not prove) that the ivory recorded at IG 13 449, lines 389–94 was scrap from the Parthenon’s doors. Even so, a survey of other building accounts and literary texts reveals a firm tradition of chryselephantine doors being used for temples and other sacred buildings both preceding and succeeding the construction of the Parthenon. The choice to adorn the Parthenon’s doors with both gold and ivory has ample comparanda both within and beyond the ancient Greek world.

(American Journal of Archaeology)

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