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The caryatids of the erechteion on the Acropolis in Athens are famous due to their great age but also for what seems like eternal presence on this spot. What you see today is not the original but faithful copies. The originals are in the New Acropolis Museum where now you can walk all around them and admire their beauty and intricate hairstyle, each different from the other. They inspired an architectural style found in many buildings. One is missing as it was stolen by the infamous bounty hunter Lord Elgin and sold for a pittance to the British Museum.

If you look at them standing up high on this portico it is difficult to appreciate them for their beauty. However by going to the New Acropolis Museum you can walk around them and see at eye level how well preserved the original caryatides are despite being 2400 years old.

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The Erechtheion (or Erechtheum) is an ancient Greek temple constructed on the acropolis of Athens between 421 and 406 BCE in the Golden Age of the city in order to house the ancient wooden cult statue of Athena and generally glorify the great city at the height of its power and influence. The Erechtheion has suffered a troubled history of misuse and neglect, but with its prominent position above the city and porch of six Caryatids, it remains one of the most distinctive buildings from antiquity.

The project to replace the damaged buildings of the acropolis following the Persian attack on the city in 480 BCE was begun in 447 BCE, instigated by Pericles, supervised by Pheidias. The results would include the Parthenon and new Propylaea on the Acropolis itself and an Odeion and the Temple of Hephaistos. The final piece to complete the magnificent complex of temples on the acropolis was the Erechtheion, begun in 421 BCE. However, the project was interrupted by resumption of hostilities between Athens and Sparta and the temple was not finally completed until 406 BCE under the supervision of the architect Philocles.

The Erechtheion, named after the demi-god Erechtheus, the mythical Athenian king, was conceived as a suitable structure to house the ancient wooden cult statue of Athena, which maintained its religious significance despite the arrival of the gigantic statue within the nearby Parthenon. The building also had other functions, though, notably as the shrine centre for other more ancient cults: to Erechtheus, his brother Boutes – the Ploughman, Pandrosos, the mythical first Athenian king Kekrops (or Cecrops) – half-man, half-snake, and the gods Hephaistos and Poseidon.

The sacred serpent (oikouros ophis), which was believed to be an incarnation of Erechtheus, dwelt in one of the western chambers and acted as guardian to the city. Well looked after, it was regularly fed with honey cakes.

As with the other new buildings on the acropolis, the Erechtheion was built from Pentelic marble which came from the nearby Mt. Pentelicus and was celebrated for its pure white appearance and fine grain. It also contains traces of iron which over time have oxidised, giving the marble a soft honey colour, a quality particularly evident at sunrise and sunset.

The whole building was originally surrounded by a 63 cm high Ionic frieze, but this has been so badly damaged that it has been impossible to determine even the general theme of the piece. What is known is that it was carved from Paros marble and attached to a dark blue (or grey) background of Eleusinian marble. Pediment roofs of wood and tiles protected the cella and north porch, while the south Caryatid porch had a flat roof. To the south-west of the building stood the sacred olive tree, a gift from Athena, for which she became the patron deity of the city. The tree can still be seen today and it is quite beautiful though not original.

The real stars of the Erechtheion are without doubt the Caryatids or korai as they were known to the ancient Greeks. The finely-sculptured figures are not unique to the building as other examples exist in the architecture of the Archaic period, particularly in Treasury buildings at sacred sites such as Delphi and Olympia. Their clinging Doric clothes (peplos and himation) and intricately plaited hair are rendered in fine detail. Their bold stance and the firm set of the straight standing leg give the impression that the task of bearing the weight of the porch entablature and roof is effortless. Rather cleverly, the straight leg also creates folds in their clothing remarkably similar to the flutes on an ordinary Ionic column. Originally, the figures raised slightly their robe with one hand and held shallow libation vessels (phialai) with the other. This may have been in reference to the fact that it was believed that the tomb of the mythical King Kekrops lay under the building, and perhaps the libations poured by the Caryatids replicate the practice of pouring libations into the ground as an offering to the dead. The Caryatids now on the acropolis are exact copies; five of the originals reside in the Acropolis Museum of Athens and the other is in the British Museum, London.

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