Before modern technology existed, civilizations built incredible structures and sculptures that would live on in infamy. This is the Statue of Zeus at Olympia.
A statue of the greek god Zeus built from ivory plates and gold panels stretching 43 feet tall isn’t your typical construction project. While the sculpture is that of legend, very little is actually known about the artistic work beyond written texts. It was destroyed in the 5th century A.D. with no known replicas. All things considered, how was this elegant statue engineered?
The statue features a sculpture of Zeus sitting on a cedar throne, and the materials of the entire sculpture ranged anywhere from ebony to precious stone. Perhaps the marvel of the statue of Zeus is not the structural magnitude, but rather the sheer amount of ornamentation embellished on the statue. It’s no surprise that the statue was so elaborate due to the fact that it was proposed as the centerpiece to the stadium and temple at Olympia.
A sculptor named Phidias was selected to complete the over 40-foot tall statue, which would take him 12 years. The statue was built inside the temple at Olympia where it spanned from floor to ceiling. Phidias made sure to make its dimensions close to the internal dimensions of the building so that the statue appeared larger than it actually was. To give some parallel to modern times, the lincoln memorial is likely similar to how the statue of Zeus would have looked, but Zeus would have been twice as big.
The structure would have essentially have been hollow. Phidias used a wooden structure to place attachment points for ivory panels. He likely would have designed the structure in some form of grid pattern to allow for easier sculpting of the individual panels. Tools recovered from the site suggest that Phidias’ hand sculpted the entire statue.
In terms of engineering, the design was rather simple. The only aspect of the structure that proved to be troublesome was material maintenance. Olympia maintained a rather high humidity all year round, and Ivory cracks under high moisture conditions. To counteract this, there was a reflecting pool placed around the sculpture filled with Olive oil. Workers would be tasked with covering the statue with a healthy coating of olive oil to protect the ivory from wear. This also would have made the structure glisten, and the temple smelt like Italian food – but that’s beside the point.
There are a few theories that suggest where and how the statue was ultimately destroyed, but no matter the circumstances, all suggest that it burned down in a fire. Surprisingly, there were no replica statues ever found. This means that the only likeness we have of the statue today is seen imprinted on the face of roman coins. Material and construction aspects of the statue are given in various accounts of the project, all in written form.
Excavations did occur at the site of Olympia in 1829 where crews found remnants of the temple and the sculpture. The key components of what was found are now on display at the Louvre in Paris, where you can see them now.