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Secrets of the Parthenon

Classroom Activity


Activity Summary
Students use a viewing guide while watching a program about the reconstruction of the Parthenon and discuss answers to questions related to the monument after watching.

Learning Objectives
Students will be able to:

  • recount the Parthenon's history.

  • describe methods being used by architects and masons to restore the Parthenon.

  • report how the original Athenian builders were able to complete the job so precisely and efficiently.

Materials for each student
  • copy of the "A Monumental Puzzle" student handout
    (PDF or HTML)

Built as a temple for the goddess Athena, the Parthenon was constructed during the Classical Period (circa 490-323 bce), which began upon the defeat of the reigning Persian Empire. This period encompassed the golden age of Greece, a time when literature, art, theater, and philosophy flourished.

With its many iconic features, the Parthenon—designed to symbolize the ideals of art, science, and democracy—was the first building ever to be constructed entirely of marble. The Parthenon includes subtle architectural refinements that together make it appear visually perfect, although there has been much debate about just why the builders incorporated these refinements. A year after the Parthenon was completed in 432 BCE, however, Pericles went to the citizens for funds to equip an army against the threat of Sparta. He suggested that, if necessary, the statue of Athena could be stripped of gold to provide the funds. The Spartans later turned the Parthenon into an army barracks. For the next two millennia, the iconic building was taken over by Romans, barbarians, Christians, Muslims, and Turks. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Europeans plundered its sculptures.

Efforts made to restore the building during the late 19th and early 20th centuries resulted in the catastrophic installation of iron clamps that would later rust. Rather than rebuild the structure to its original state, the current restoration team chose to preserve what has survived of the building. This has so far taken three decades and continues.

For more information on the Parthenon's history, see "The Parthenon's Many Lives," at

  1. Organize students into five teams. Assign each team a set of four questions. The questions generally follow the sequence of the film. You can assign the questions in their current sequence, choose a mix of simple and more complicated questions for each team, or allocate them by themes (i.e., history of the Parthenon, tools and techniques used by the original builders, steps taken to restore the structure).

  2. Distribute a copy of the student handout to each team before viewing. Discuss appropriate background information with students.

  3. Show the program and have students individually take notes on the questions their team has been assigned.

  4. After watching the program, have students meet in their teams to discuss their notes. Beginning with the first question assigned, ask teams to come to a consensus on an answer and record their response. Have each team continue this process until all of its assigned questions are answered.

  5. Have teams share the questions and answers that came out of their teamwork. (See Activity Answer for possible answers. Accept all reasonable answers.) Ask the rest of the students in class if they agree with what the team has presented. If students don't agree, ask them to explain why and provide evidence from the program that will support their opinions. When possible, expand upon a question or provide additional historical background for students.

  6. To conclude, discuss with students how the restoration team determined how the Parthenon was built. Discuss the nature of science and how team members recreated or discovered how the ancient Greeks were able to build the Parthenon so quickly, achieve such precision, and construct the Parthenon without overall architectural plans.

  7. As an extension, organize students into groups to research other temples of the Acropolis. Have students create posters that include a photo or drawing of each temple, when it was originally built, what its purpose was, and what happened to it. Find a map and description of all the temples at

Activity Answer

Suggested answers to the questions listed on the student handout:

  1. What was the name of the team assigned to restore the Parthenon? the Acropolis Restoration Project

  2. How long did it take the ancient builders to construct the original Parthenon? less than nine years

  3. What was the goal of the restoration team? To create the most accurate restoration by correcting damage inflicted by previous restorations and restoring, where possible, the thousands of fragments from the structure that have been found scattered on the Acropolis.

  4. How many pieces did the restoration team have to work with? more than 70,000

  5. What is architecturally unique about each of the 46 columns? Each one has a unique curve.

  6. What did the restoration team do to determine which blocks belonged where in the structure? Team members first catalogued and put in a database a number of variables for more than 5,000 pieces of the Parthenon and then executed a computer program to determine what went where. When that failed, an architect hand-drew each stone and used trial and error to place them in the correct order.

  7. Who was the leader who directed the effort to rebuild the temples of the Acropolis? Pericles

  8. During what period of Greece's history was the Parthenon built? the golden age

  9. What role did democracy play in the reconstruction of the temples of the Acropolis? The rebuilding of the temples was put to a vote of the people, who chose to rebuild the structures.

  10. In what way did the ancient builders use red clay to ensure that their pieces would fit together precisely? They applied red clay to the inside surface of one of the blocks to ensure there was a perfect match between pieces.

  11. How many different stonemasons were identified from the chisel marks? about 200

  12. How did the original builders make sure that the diverse workforce all used common measurements? Scientists propose that early builders may have had a way to convert measurements, as shown on a stone found on the island of Salamis depicting all the competing Greek measurements of the time.

  13. What role might the human body have played in Greek architecture? The ancient Greeks viewed the proportions of the ideal human body as inspiration for architectural proportions.

  14. What ratio was found to be prevalent in the Parthenon? 4:9

  15. How were the ancient builders able to sand their marble pieces so precisely? The builders used a metal plate and sand to grind surfaces to within 1/20th millimeter accuracy.

  16. What device did the ancient builders use to precisely align the Parthenon's marble pieces? The builders fitted together a block of wood that was placed in each half of the center of two column pieces being joined.

  17. How were the builders able to construct the curved columns without overall architectural plans? They may have used a scaled-down version of the entasis curve as a template for the entire column.

  18. What year was the Parthenon completed? 432 BCE

  19. What happened just one year after the Parthenon was completed? Pericles went to the citizens of Athens for funds to equip an army against the threat of Sparta, and suggested that—if necessary—gold could be stripped from the statue of Athena to provide the funds.

  20. Name the groups that took over the Parthenon for the next 2,000 years. The Romans, the barbarians, the Christians, the Muslims, and the Turks. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Europeans plundered the icon for its sculptures.

Links and Books

Web Sites

NOVA—Secrets of the Parthenon
Provides articles, interviews, interactive activities, and resources in a companion Web site to the program.

Ancient Greece
Features information about the history of the ancient Greek world from the Neolithic to the Classical Period, including art and architecture, mythology, wars, Olympics, philosophy, and kings and rulers.

Ancient Greek Architecture
Provides locations, building types, construction systems, styles, and more for a number of ancient Greek structures.

Greece: Secrets of the Past
Reviews contributions by Greek scholars to the fields of mathematics, astronomy, and the natural sciences.


The Complete Greek Temples
by Tony Spawforth. Thames & Hudson, 2006.
Includes a map showing the location of Greek temples, photos and diagrams of temple architecture, and descriptions of each site.

by Lynn Curlee. Atheneum, 2004.
Provides an introduction to Athenian history and discusses the Parthenon's purpose, proportions, construction, and slow destruction.


The "A Monumental Puzzle" activity aligns with the following National Science Education Standards (see

Grades 5-8
History and Nature of Science

• Science as a human endeavor
• Nature of science

Grades 9-12
History and Nature of Science

• Science as a human endeavor
• Nature of scientific knowledge

Classroom Activity Author

Developed by WGBH Educational Outreach staff.

Teacher's Guide
Secrets of the Parthenon

Video is required for this activity

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