A treasured, 2,000-year-old Greek statue can stand tall in the face of a major earthquake, thanks to a team of University at Buffalo engineers.
The statue of Hermes with the Infant Dionysus now rests on a high-tech platform designed to protect the irreplaceable marble masterpiece from a powerful seismic force.
Faculty members at UB's earthquake engineering center helped make and test the platform for the Archaeological Museum of Olympia in Greece.
"You're protecting one of the world's great treasures. This is very fragile and can't be replaced," said Andrew S. Whittaker, a UB professor of civil, structural and environmental engineering.
The project involved a technology typically used to protect monumental structures, such as bridges, offshore gas platforms and airport terminals.
The work attracted international notice in the scientific and archaeological communities.
"It's the exposure of the university that was most important in this case," said Michael C. Constantinou, a UB engineering professor and project co-investigator with Whittaker. UB worked on the project with engineers at the National Technical University in Athens.
The Hermes statue is a national treasure, as precious to Greeks as the statue of David is to Italians, Whittaker said.
Art historians believe that the statue is the creation of the prominent Greek sculptor Praxiteles, carved sometime around 330 B.C., according to the museum.
The statue is 7 feet tall, with a 4-foot-high base, and together they weigh 6,600 pounds.
Hermes, the Greek messenger god, carries his brother Dionysus, the Greek god of wine. One of Hermes' arms - which may have held a bunch of grapes - and both legs had broken off, though the legs were replaced.
Originally, the museum protected the statue with a carpet and cushioning around its base. If the statue tipped over, the carpet ensured that it would break into large pieces and could easily be put back together.
Greek officials wanted to do more. "It can't be lost," Constantinou said of the statue.
The museum and the Greek Ministry of Culture initially brought in the university in Athens and later reached out to UB because of its expertise in this field, said Athina Athanasiadou, director of museum studies and cultural buildings for the ministry.
UB engineers have tested and analyzed a seismic-protective technology known as friction pendulum bearings.
The bearings used in this case weigh about 2,000 pounds each and consist of large, square pieces of metal connected by components designed to slide against one another.
When an earthquake hits, the bearings allow a structure to sway from side to side instead of falling over, a process known as seismic isolation.
The bearings are designed to support far heavier weights, so the UB engineers had to test them under much lower weight loads to ensure that they would work with the relatively small statue.
"This is really a boutique application of the technology," Whittaker said.
The UB engineers also developed computer software that allowed scientists in Athens to conduct simulated tests of how the statue might respond to the stresses and weight loads caused by an earthquake.
The testing was done on a tight schedule because Greek officials wanted the new platform installed in time for the Olympic Games, which were held in Athens last summer.
UB scientists tested the bearings in February 2004 at the earthquake engineering center on the North Campus in Amherst. Workers drove the bearings by truck to Toronto, from which they were sent by air freight to Athens.
Greek workers installed the bearings in March 2004. "They did a surprisingly good job," Constantinou said. "They understood that this is important."
There are four bearings, one placed at each corner of a large concrete platform that sits in a 5-foot-deep pit and supports the statue. In the case of an earthquake, the platform would slide on the bearings while the statue remains stable.