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The Acropolis' famed Caryatid statues get a much-needed face-lift

ATHENS--They're some of Greece's most celebrated beauties. And after nearly 2,500 years, it's perhaps only fitting that they're getting a face-lift.

The Caryatid statues, which until the late '70s propped up a section of the Erechtheion Temple on the Acropolis, are being meticulously cleansed of grime inside the museum where they're now housed.

Three goggle-wearing conservators zap away dirt from the marble maidens with custom-designed lasers, as tourists watch the operation on monitors. The restoration work is surrounded by a white fabric screen to protect visitors from laser beams, which can cause permanent eye injury.

One of the six Caryatids was removed by Lord Elgin in the 19th century and today stands in the British Museum. The other five were removed from the Erechtheion in 1979 to protect them from air pollution and acid rain, and replaced by copies.

Museum director Dimitris Pantermalis said the main reason for cleaning the sculptures on the spot was to avoid the potential hazards of moving them. But there's the additional value of offering tourists the spectacle of restoring some of the greatest glories of the ancient world.

“We want to offer visitors a backstage peek,” he said.

Visitors are impressed: “The fact that it was in situ, taking place in the museum, it does bring it home to you the actual level of care that is needed to bring these back to life,” said British tourist Trevor Richards, from Manchester. “It's like cosmetic surgery for statues, isn't it?”

It takes about seven months to cleanse each of the larger than life-sized statues, which were carved around 420 B.C. Work began in 2011, and is expected to be finished in June.

“The process removes all of the pollution, the smoke and everything that has settled on the statues for more than a century, and leaves intact the patina, that orange hue that the statues took on with the passage of centuries,” Pantermalis said. “It's done with very great care to avoid any possible damage.”

The Erechtheion Temple was sacred to the gods Athena and Poseidon, and associated with the first kings of Athens. In later times, it served as a church, a Frankish palace and a Turkish harem.

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