For some 2,000 years, the ancient Greek city of Morgantina languished as a legend.
It lay buried somewhere beneath the rich rolling farmland and olive groves of central Sicily, its fate a familiar story but its exact location a mystery.
It wasn’t a natural disaster that obliterated this once-thriving city, not an earthquake or volcanic eruption, but the vagaries of war. In 211 B.C., during the Second Punic War, Morgantina backed the losing side, Carthage. The victorious Romans gave the city as payment to a group of Spanish mercenaries. Facing imminent death or enslavement, Morgantina’s prosperous residents buried their riches before the soldiers arrived.
The conquered city never regained its former glory and eventually fell into ruin. By the first century A.D., it had slid beneath history. Morgantina and its treasures remained lost until 1955, when archaeologists from Princeton University unearthed indisputable evidence: coins stamped by the city’s mint bearing the legend Hispanorum—“of the Spanish.”
In the decades since, painstaking excavation has uncovered a remarkably intact city plan with a great central square—called an agora—plus shops, temples, a theater, granary, and splendid villas with mosaic floors.
But Morgantina is being ransacked a second time. For as long as archaeologists have labored, so have night-time looters, known variously as clandestini or tombaroli (tomb robbers). With picks and metal detectors, they smash through burial chambers and ancient dwellings with impunity, searching for artifacts that will bring cash on the black market. Their wares enter a smuggling network and are illegally exported, the finer pieces destined for foreign museums or private collections.
For Malcolm Bell III, a UVA professor of classical art and archaeology who has directed the Morgantina dig since 1980, the wholesale looting has been an infuriating fact of life. But there is no way to patrol the sprawling 1,000-acre site, much of which is privately owned land.
Soft-spoken and bespectacled, Bell has devoted most of his professional life to this spot that, even today, is considered off the beaten track. He first arrived in 1967, as a young graduate student. Every summer, he returns to Morgantina with a handful of students from UVA and other universities to decipher a bit more of the lost city.
He’s endured threats and petty acts of vandalism for trying to protect the site from looters—“they’ve let the air out of my tires, smashed a window,” he says. Last summer, he and his students took the radical step of spending the night at the site to deter marauders, sleeping in the trenches. “It worked,” Bell says with a shrug.
Far from being a quiet, scholarly endeavor, Bell’s archaeological work at Morgantina has created huge ripples in the art world. His expertise and outspoken support for the preservation of ancient artifacts have made him one of the world’s most respected authorities on such matters. This same expertise has thrust him into a central role in one of the most notorious cases involving the international trade in stolen antiquities.
The looting at Morgantina is less flagrant than in the past, but it continues to exact a toll. Like so many vulnerable historical sites, the topography here is battle-scarred. Pottery sherds, bits of mosaic and terracotta roof tiles—rubbish to thieves, links to the past for scholars—litter the pitted site. With each theft, information is lost; another opportunity to learn about the past vanishes.
Especially notable finds have always been a source of gossip in the small nearby town of Aidone, two kilometers away, where visiting archaeologists and clandestini live in uneasy proximity. In the early 1980s, as Bell recalls, gossip circulated about an extraordinary set of silver objects that the clandestini had pillaged.
Among the bowls, cups and pitchers were two distinctive miniature horns. But the prize of the cache was a magnificent emblem depicting the sea monster Scylla in sculptural relief. In Greek mythology, Scylla hid out in the Strait of Messia off the coast of Sicily, wreaking revenge by sinking passing ships and devouring their crews. In this rendering, three dogs sprang from her hips and her female form ended in nightmarish fishtails.
It was a striking image, and Scylla would seem to haunt the case of the Morgantina silver, exacting a price on those who crossed her path.
In 1984, the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced with great fanfare a new acquisition: a 15-piece set of silver, likely from the third century B.C. It was, the museum opined, “some of the finest Hellenistic silver known from Magna Graecia.” It was less forthcoming about the provenance, stating rather vaguely that the objects could have been produced in “Taranto or in eastern Sicily” and that they were “presumably found together a generation ago.” The cover of the museum’s catalogue that summer featured the centerpiece of this collection: a finely wrought medallion carved with the figure of Scylla, hurling a rock.
The Met reportedly paid $2.7 million for the silver, in a deal brokered by Robert Hecht Jr., an international art dealer. Hecht said that he acquired the silver in Switzerland from a Lebanese businessman.
Malcolm Bell first laid eyes on the silver in 1987, when he visited the Met and saw it displayed in a corridor devoted to ancient gold and silver off the main entrance hall. He says he had little doubt where it came from. “I realized that it corresponded in its details to the description that had been circulated as rumor and gossip.
“I was amazed.”
The disk depicting the demonic Scylla was originally the bottom of one of the drinking cups. It’s a strange and interesting image, he says.
“If you stir the wine in the cup, you create a whirlpool—a Carybdis,” he says. “But it’s also a joke, because by the time you get to the bottom of the cup, you’ve drunk all the wine and are shipwrecked. Also, she’s throwing a rock at you, so it’s meant to be amusing for the drinker and his friends.”
Bell wrote to the Met that he had reason to believe that the silver was looted from Morgantina and asked to examine the collection. He also immediately informed the Italian authorities of his suspicions. But contrary to its usual open-door policy toward scholars, the Met stonewalled him. “They didn’t deny me permission,” Bell says, “just constantly put me off, set up obstacles.” After a time, his letters received no reply at all.
Ultimately, one of the most prominent clandestini in central Sicily, a professional graverobber named Giusseppe Mascara, would prove to be Bell’s unlikely ally.
In the end, the thief would tell the archaeologist where to dig.
Silvio Raffiotta, a native of Aidone, grew up watching the archaeological excavations at Morgantina, an experience that led to a lifelong fascination with antiquities. When he became a chief investigating magistrate for central Sicily, he set out to expose the shady network of clandestini that operated throughout southern Italy. The investigation into the Morgantina silver would consume him for more than a decade.
The actual diggers—mostly impoverished farmers who need money to support their families—receive very little for the looted items. Harder to pin down and prosecute are the nefarious middlemen who reap the biggest profit. Raffiotta put the greatest blame on these international traffickers, who smuggle the stolen goods to dealers in Switzerland, Britain and the U.S., having first created a fake paper trail of ownership.
A breakthrough in Raffiotta’s investigation came when Mascara was arrested on charges of antiquities trafficking. In an effort to reduce his sentence, he shared some of his career highlights. In sworn testimony, Mascara spoke about the night in 1979 when his acquaintances in crime found the silver vessels. He described them in detail, down to the sea snakes encircling the body of Scylla.
In 1996, bolstered by Mascara’s eyewitness testimony, Raffiotta presented the Met with his evidence. The Met called the accusations speculative and inflammatory, and questioned the credibility of a police informant. Perhaps Mascara had seen the Met’s catalogue with the image of Scylla on its cover. At any rate, museum officials said, it was impossible to say where the objects had originated.
Museums and private collectors are often at bitter odds with archaeologists and cultural ministries trying to reclaim their country’s historical artifacts. Archaeologists blame museums for encouraging the illegal trade by continuing to buy antiquities without authentic proof of ownership. Museums—most of which are said to follow an acquisitions policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell”—justify questionable purchases by saying that their actions have social value. They make items available for learning and study.
While the Met denounced the Italian police informant, Mascara, as a disreputable source, it also had to answer for its own connections. Robert Hecht was a notorious figure in the insular art world. In 1972, the Italian government declared him a persona non grata because of his alleged involvement in smuggled antiquities and barred him from the country for a decade. Turkey also banned him. Even the Met’s former director, Thomas Hoving, told the Boston Globe, “Almost anything that Bob Hecht sells has recently been dug out of the ground.”
Undeterred by the Met’s denunciations, Raffiotta chose another tack. He would prove that an illegal excavation had taken place. Mascara pointed out the spot where, so many years earlier, his associates had found the silver hoard. Bell set to work.
Bell and his UVA team began digging in the fall of 1997 and finished excavating the spot, which was the site of a house, in the summer of 1998. They found two holes in the dwelling’s floor, maybe two feet wide and less than two feet deep. At the bottom of one hole, the thieves had overlooked a tiny bronze coin, minted between 214 and 212 B.C.
“That was kind of amazing—a window, historically, into the burial of the silver,” says Bell. The coin provided what archaeologists refer to as the terminus ante quem—a date after which the silver was buried.
Bell also found a second coin, a 100-lire piece minted in 1978, which likely fell out of a looter’s pocket. That gave him another kind of bookend in time: one that told him when the silver was stolen.
The Met had bought the silver in two separate shipments, in 1981 and 1982. Reviewing the new physical evidence, Bell theorized that the silver was found at two different times, in two different places. The presence of the two deposits seemed to back that up.
A relatively minor clue would ultimately cast a whole new light on the longstanding official account of the silver’s origins.
In the 1984 catalogue, the Met’s distinguished curator of Greek and Roman art, Dietrich von Bothmer, described a Greek inscription, or graffito, that was hastily scribbled on two of the silver vessels. He translated it as “from the war,” probably a reference to the Second Punic War.
In 1999, Bell traveled to New York. After a delay of 12 years, the Met had finally granted him permission to examine the silver. He found the graffito perplexing and wasn’t entirely convinced of the museum’s interpretation. The lettering was very hard to read. “I came back and thought about it and looked at my sketches and thought, ‘This doesn’t make sense,’” he recalls.
Bell believed that the graffito was the possessive form of the name Eupolemos; the inscription, then, was a stake of ownership. Few family names of any kind are recorded at Morgantina, but Eupolemos happens to be one of them. The name is inscribed on a real estate deed, executed in the third century B.C., for a piece of land that happens to be near the spot where Bell and his team determined that the silver was looted.
Who was Eupolemos? Was he a refugee from Syracuse who fled with his possessions to Morgantina when that city fell to the Romans? Given their extraordinary quality, the pieces were likely produced in Syracuse, which was renowned for its silversmiths, Bell says. Was Eupolemos the owner of the house where the silver was buried? Whoever lived there was a wealthy farmer; the basement contained numerous large jars for storing grain.
“We have the possibility of learning something about the local society that we couldn’t otherwise have,” Bell says of the graffito. “The deed mentions the son of Eupolemos, and another name, Kratias. When I went back to the Met, I saw another inscription following the name of Eupolemos that could be an abbreviation for Kratias, who would be the father of Eupolemos.”
But all of this rich context—all of the connections and insights that Bell can make based on decades of intensive study—was missing from the museum’s exhibit. History is mute on this score. An object without its context, scholars say, is an object stripped of meaning.
In February, the protracted battle over the 2,300-year-old silver collection appeared suddenly close to a resolution. More than a decade after Italian authorities introduced evidence that clandestini had stolen the silver—and two decades since Bell first brought the troubling probability of a criminal enterprise to light—the Met was prepared to make a deal.
The institution announced that it would relinquish ownership of the silver in exchange for long-term loans of other Italian antiquities. Under the proposed deal, the Met maintains that the objects were acquired in good faith. Italian authorities are now reviewing the offer.
Robert Hecht, the art dealer who sold the silver to the Met back in the early 1980s, is by no means out of the picture. Now 86, he is currently on trial in Rome on charges that he acted as an intermediary between art thieves and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. He has denied any wrongdoing.
But the Getty case has elements of a classical tragedy—according to Bell, “a blending of nobility and error.” For Hecht’s co-defendant in the trial is Marion True, a former Getty curator who, Bell ardently maintains, spearheaded efforts to get the museum to cut ties with the illegal trade.
As for Bell, his outspokenness in these matters has earned him a new appointment as vice president for professional responsibilities for the Archaeological Institute of America—in other words, its chief ethicist. He expects to be digging again at Morgantina this summer.