Sunday, March 21st, 2010
The Morgantina Treasure is a cache of 16 highly decorated gilt silver dishes from the Greek era of Sicily (before the 3rd c. B.C.). Its owner — who must have been a collector because the pieces are different styles and ages — buried it in 211 B.C. to keep it safe from the Romans invading Sicily during the second Punic War.
Italian art officials said the pieces form one of the most important Hellenistic silverware collections to have survived from Sicily. The pieces are known as “The Morgantina Treasure” after the name of the ancient Greek settlement where they were excavated, near what is now the Italian city of Aidone.
Angelo Bottini, the archaeology superintendent in Rome, said the objects were likely crafted by different artists and served different functions. Some, like the large bowls with mask-shaped feet, were likely used to mix wine with water during meals; others, like the plates, were likely used during ceremonies, officials said.
Morgantina was a prosperous Greek town from 1000 B.C. to 211 B.C. After the Roman takeover, the town faded away into farmland, and our silver-burying hero never made it back, so the silver stayed underground for 2000+ years, until looters dug it up from the Morgantina archaeological site in the late 70′s or early 80′s.
Malcolm Bell III was director of the Princeton team excavating the Morgantina site during that period. He saw first hand a group of unauthorized diggers working on a hill which was soon rumored to have been the source of a huge silver find. Looters were bold in those days, working without fear of repercussions under officials’ very noses.
They smuggled it out of Italy and as the same old story goes, indicted antiquities dealer Robert Hecht sold it over a period of several years (1981-84) to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He is thought to have made something like $2,700,000 from the Morgantina silver.
It was Malcolm Bell who ultimately nailed the provenance of the silver set. He saw it at the Met in 1988, then in 1996 was asked to excavate the reputed hill where the silver was found, then finally the Met allowed him to get a close look at the silver in 1999. He found an inscription that turned out to be a name, a name he knew from a house he had excavated in Morgantina.
That key piece of research (along with massive amounts of pressure from the Italian Culture Ministry and legal system) made it possible for Italy to reclaim the silver in the 2006 deal with the Met that also resulted in the return of the Euphronios Krater.
So now the Morgantina Treasure is on display in Rome for the very first time. It will be on display at the Museo Nazionale Romano through May 23. After that, it goes back home for the first time since it was so callously removed to go on display in Palermo’s Museo Archeologico Regionale.