For 230 years archaeologists believed that the 160 meter long Parthenon frieze depicted the Great Panathenaic procession which was held every four years in honor of the goddess Athena. The Parthenon was a temple dedicated to Athena and is a building which has greatly influenced western architecture.
Based on a study of the frieze and written evidence from papyrus wrappings on Egyptian mummies, a surprising new interpretation of the story played out on the frieze has come to light, suggesting that archaeologists need to look again at the architectural masterpiece.
Professor of archaeology at the University of New York, Joan Breton Connelly, discusses this new interpretation in her book entitled “The Parthenon Enigma.” As she says, “we now realize that the frieze tells a much more tragic story.”
In the early 20th century, a Greek scholar examining papyrus found with an Egyptian mummy, came across 250 lines of text, part of the lost play entitled Erechtheus by the ancient Greek writer, Euripides.
“These coffins end up being our best source of lost Greek texts,” said Connelly, who notes that the discovery of the sarcophagus containing the mummy was made in 1901, while the technology to remove the papyrus without damaging the mummy was not invented until 1960.
“I realized that Euripides was talking about what we see in the middle of the Parthenon frieze,” said Connelly. “It shows a family consisting of a mother, father and three daughters, preparing to sacrifice the youngest. It illustrates the sacrifice of a virgin.”
The entire Parthenon frieze is 160 meters long. Fifty meters are exhibited in the Acropolis Museum in Athens, 80 meters in the British Museum as part of the Elgin Marbles exhibition, one small part in the Louvre and smaller fragments in museums in Palermo, the Vatican, Heidelberg, Vienna and Munich.