"Buried Treasure" would not be a misplaced description for
what has been returned to Sicily after thirty years.
Sometime around 300 BC (BCE) Greek artisans
in Sicily crafted a stunning set of silver dishes and other items, many
with gilt accents and decorated with mythological figures.
These were eventually purchased by a wealthy man named Eupolemos. To
discourage theft he had his name stamped into a few of the pieces, which
he and his wife used in their splendid home in Morgantina
in east-central Sicily. Much later, this would be key to identifying the
objects when they appeared farther from his home than Eupolemos would have
Founded by the Sikels, Morgantina flourished under
Greek rule, though Ducetius tried to "liberate"
the city in 459 BC.
Morgantina continued to prosper during the rule of Agathocles
(317-289) and Hieron II (275-215), when the objects may have been made in
Syracuse. During the reign of Hieron, in particular, such crafts flourished
there. The style is certainly similar.
Having rebelled during the Second Punic War, the town (two kilometres
away from what is now Aidone) was conquered and looted by Roman troops in
213 BC, but not before its citizens could hide some of their wealth. Somebody
– perhaps Eupolemos himself – hid the silver objects in a shallow pit covered
over with sandy soil. For some reason, many citizens abandoned the town,
or perhaps their children forgot about what their parents had buried. Perhaps Eupolemos
and his family were killed and their secret died with them. Maybe they were
resettled or imprisoned by the Romans in a place far away.
Independent records indicate that a wealthy man named Eupolemos resided
at Morgantina during this period in a house very near the site where the
silver was found, so it is presumed that he was the man whose name was incised
on the artefacts.
never know for certain, but a number of jewels and coins discovered at Morgantina appear to have
been hidden during this period, after which the city seems to have been
underpopulated for some time, becoming the home of some Hispanic soldiers from
the legions of Marcus Cornelius Cetego.
What remained of once-prosperous Morgantina was sacked by the corrupt
Roman governor Verres around 72 BC and finally destroyed by a vindictive
Octavian some four decades later. (Cicero successfully
prosecuted Verres for this and other crimes.) But for their recent discovery, the tale
of the sixteen objects – including bowls, cups, serving dishes, jewellery
containers, a dipper, perfume holders – would end there.
What occurs next is a story worthy of Indiana Jones, but without the
Nazis and guns.
The fate of the objects remained generally unknown to posterity until
1984, and it is here that the story of their discovery takes an unexpected
turn, and an object lesson to those institutions or individuals who acquire
undocumented antiquities from "private" sources.
In that year New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art announced to great
fanfare its acquisition (for nearly three million dollars) of the collection
from an antiquities dealer over the course of the immediately preceding
years. For the Italian authorities, who became aware of their presence in
New York in 1986, proving the theft was problematical: the treasure, the
product of illegal excavations around 1980, had never been properly catalogued,
nor had it ever been evaluated by archaeologists accredited to the digs
themselves. Yet since 1980 rumours persisted in the Morgantina area of a
great (illegal) find of silver objects at the site, and some of those rumours
described a few of the objects in fairly precise detail.
Upon investigation, an illegally excavated pit was discovered, covered
by loose soil. Expecting to find, at best, some small object or coin left
behind (Morgantina once boasted an important mint), investigators were surprised
to uncover an Italian coin dated 1978. Other factors were instrumental in
ascertaining the origin of the stolen objects, not least of which being
the incised name of the owner. Eupolemos could never have imagined that
his name on these objects would prove so useful so long after his death.
True, the Italians could not actually "document" the ownership
history of the objects, but neither could the folks at the Metropolitan
Museum, who bore the burden of proof. Nevertheless, nobody had ever doubted
their origin in Greece or Greek Italy. Their weights, for example, were
marked with the Persian-Selucid system widely used in Greek Sicily.
The collection is on display in the permanent collection
at the Morgantina archeological museum.
About the Author: Antonella Gallo, who
teaches art in Rome, has written numerous articles on arts and artists for Best of Sicily.