A picture can be worth a thousand shards--especially if it's been made by the The Museum of Reconstructions. This non-profit organization was formed in 1995 to use cutting-edge 3D computer modeling methods to recreate lost works of art. And in collaboration with archaeologists at Princeton University and the Greek Ministry of Culture, they recently finished their first project: a virtual restoration of the gateway that led into the Athenian Acropolis in the 5th century B.C., the Propylaia.

The Propylaia isn't as well known as the Parthenon it enclosed, but not for any lack of architectural value. Workers labored from 437 to 432 B.C. under the direction of Mnesicles to complete the main building and its two wings. And it stood for 2,000 years, until a series of explosions finished off it's finer details. In 1640, lightning ignited gunpowder stored in the structure's Ionic Hall, blowing off the roof; forty-seven years later, a Venetian siege claimed the neighboring temple of Athena Nike.

Since then, archaeologists trying to appreciate the full impact of the Propylaia have had a hard time, armed only with surveys and photographs. But these records--and some powerful computers--were enough for Digital Architect David Johnson and his team to render a stunningly realistic model. The group started with individual measurements of every known block in the Propylaia and the Nike Temple and then rebuilt them from the keyboard up. Many of these individual elements, including the fluted columns, proved mathematically complex objects to generate.

But the trouble was worth it. The results convey details about the Propylaia and its function that would be impossible to imagine standing amid the broken columns and cracked slabs that remain today. For instance, Classical architects frequently worked curved lines and slanted surfaces into the facades of buildings to make them loom even grander--optical tricks that have long been lost. And from virtually viewing the Propylaia, it is clear that the entrance was designed to look like a temple from afar although it likely served as a large, open meeting place.

Johnson and crew first exhibited the Propylaia model last December at the Archaeological Institute of America meetings in Chicago, and it made its online debut in May. But watch that space. The Museum of Reconstructions has plans for a dimensionally-accurate digital model of the Valley Temple of the Pharoah Khefre. Also under development are virtual reconstructions of Zangdok Pairi, the Copper Mountain Temple of Tibetan Buddhism; pre-historic earthworks of North America; and the pyramid complex of Senwosret III in Egypt.

The still images presented here are just the beginning. The Museum of Reconstructions hopes that within a couple of years, visitors to their site will be able to stroll--in real time, online--through their virtual reconstructions. Time, technology and money will tell. But Rod Richardson, president of the Digital Museum, points out, "That capability will not only forever change the study of archaeology, it will change the Web itself."