Underground tale told
Malcolm Bell and the case of the missing silver
The story begins about 3,000 years ago with the early settlement of Sicily, but Bell enters as a graduate student in the 1960s. Then a member of the Princeton University excavation team at Morgantina in Sicily, Bell is now director of the U.Va. excavations there and professor of art history at the University.
Founded about 1000 BC, Morgantina was on the losing side of the second Punic War. When it fell to Rome in 211 BC, the prosperous city covered almost 200 acres and had a population of about 10,000. Over time, it disappeared into a rich pastoral landscape dotted with small country houses, olive groves and orchards.
Today the city’s nucleus is an Italian national monument, but much of Morgantina still lies beneath privately held farmland.
When Bell became director of the excavations in 1980, looters were out in broad daylight. “The clandestine competition was working almost with impunity,” he recalled. With only moral authority over what was being done on private land, Bell could do little to stop them.
In the early 1980s, a rumor spread that looters had unearthed a remarkable treasure of gilt silver — a “silver service.” Bell had seen people working clandestinely on the hill where the rumors said the silver had been found.
The Met joins the story in 1984, when a catalog made public the acquisition of two lots of silver.
“I didn’t put two and two together until I saw the silver in the Met in the fall of 1987,” said Bell. “I knew that it corresponded to what we had heard about.”
In 1996 the Italian government asked Bell to excavate the hill where he’d seen the clandestine work.
“As we dug down, it was very disconcerting, because the soil was entirely churned up. What the clandestine workers had done was to start in one room, empty it out and then dig the room right next to it. Their strategy was to empty each room so they could get to the floor.”
When Bell and his crew reached the floors, they found two large holes that correspond to the size of the lots bought by the Met. They also found a 1978 Italian coin that helped pinpoint the time of the looting.
Inscription holds key to mystery
When, after several requests, Bell was allowed to examine the silver at the Met in 1999, he puzzled over a lightly scratched inscription on the bottom of two of the pieces. Translated by the museum curator as “from the war,” the words suggested that the silver had been buried as the city was being captured.
Instead of “from the war,” Bell realized, the word was the possessive form of the name Eupolemus. The name represented the owner’s claim to the silver.
“We don’t have too many names from ancient Morgantina, but we do have the name Eupolemus,” Bell said. A lead tablet in the Morgantina museum bears the name — and the tablet is the deed to a house in the area where Bell had found the looters’ tracks.
“It was almost like meeting the man. It was one of those moments of epiphany when you realize something makes far more sense than you had thought,” said Bell.
Bell has become a prominent figure in the discussion of how ancient works are collected and displayed. Today’s archaeologists are less interested in the treasures as lovely pieces in a museum case, Bell said, and “more concerned about the human contexts in which the works were created and used.”
Museums all declare that they don’t buy stolen antiquities, he said, but origins can be difficult to prove. “The dealers tend more and more to disguise the source,” he said. Many finds, for example, are attributed to Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s, when the chaotic political situation made it impossible to verify such a claim.
On January 19, 2001, the United States and Italy signed an agreement declaring that imported Italian antiquities not known to have been in existence before that date must be returned.
Bell was consultant to both sides in developing the accord which, he said, creates a sort of endangered species list that will make looting less profitable and therefore help protect ancient sites.
And that’s where Thomas Jefferson comes in. Bell was invited to the signing, which took place in a State Department reception room, under a portrait of the first Secretary of State.
“No one except for me, I think, knew that Jefferson was an archaeologist,” said Bell. Among his other accomplishments, Jefferson excavated a Monacan burial mound near Charlottesville and was the first to dig stratigraphically, recording what he found in each layer of the site.
“It was quite wonderful that Jefferson, who understood the importance of context for the study of artifacts, was the witness to this agreement.”
During the summer of 2001, Bell worked with volunteers, including two undergraduates and five graduate students from U.Va., in Morgantina’s agora. They excavated the earliest public building yet known there, a large rectangular structure of the late 5th century BC, and re-examined a sanctuary in the center of the agora, redating it “with very good evidence to the early third century BC,” Bell said. “The high-spirited team worked very well indeed.”