We Visited Morgantina and Aidone, they were great

This June I had the chance to visit the town of Aidone in Southern Sicily. It’s a town that I’ve written and thought a lot about, so when we had the opportunity to pop up from teaching in Valletta for a long weekend, we jumped. Its fame comes as the result of a series of looting scandals.

The village and the archaeological site has been written about a great deal, but I haven’t come across many who have actually visited the site and the Muesum. For decades, the site it represented in a tangible way the competing interests of illicit looters and archaeologists. Archaeologists would excavate during the summer, looters would raid the site after they left. Year after year the cycle continued.

If you are reading this you probably have some strong feelings about where the Dea di Aidone (aka the Getty Goddess) should reside. This short essay is a collection of my own thoughts about the ancient site of Morgantina and the nearby town of Aidone.

To give a bit of the history as I understand it, the island of Sicily was subject to the control of many Mediterranean civilizations, and Morgantina’s history reflects this. Morgantina was founded perhaps seven or eight centuries before Christ. At some point it came under the control of Syracuse. Much of what now exists at this site reflects a city at the edge of the ancient Greek world. At some point in the third century BCE Morgantina may have chosen to throw their lot in with Carthage, a choice which likely proved costly when it was finally captured by Rome. Morgantina may have fallen on hard times, and the city itself seems to have been largely deserted by the First Century CE.

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The baths at Morgantina. Notice the painting on the walls

Thesite has been the subject of a number of archaeological excavations, mainly by American archaeologists, and also the target of antiquities looters who ultimately sent objects on through the illicit black market in antiquities. Many of the most beautiful items looted ended up in American Museums, notably the Getty and the Metropolitan Museum of art. This seems to me to be a notable correlation. How is it an accident that most summers for the last 60 years have seen american archaeologists digging at Morgantina, and also the museums of the United States acquiring works from the very site. Assigning blame to the archaeologists who dig there, the local officials for protecting the site, or the museum curators who

A detail from one of the 16 pieces of the "Morgantina Silver"
A detail from one of the 16 pieces of the “Morgantina Silver”

acquire this material seems unproductive for this short essay. But visiting the Museum in Aidone and the site of Morgantina I was struck by what a colossal policy failure the looting represents.

Silver was removed here by looters in 1979 or 1980. It was purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of art in 1981 and 1982. It was returned in 2010.
Silver was removed here by looters in 1979 or 1980. It was purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of art in 1981 and 1982. It was returned in 2010 and is on display in Palermo.
Mosaic from one of the houses on the hillside
Mosaic from one of the houses on the hillside

Visiting the site is really an outstanding experience. One that I would strongly recommend if you are in Sicily or nearby. You can pair a visit with the outstanding Villa Romana del Casale nearby and have a  great glimpse of both Roman and Greek art in Sicily. Other sites in Italy and the Mediterranean get more attention, and that might be what makes Morgantina special. Because if you visit, chances are you won’t have to fight through massive crowds at the blockbusting sites like Pompeii and elsewhere. Though there were a handful of visitors when we were there in June, we really had the site to ourselves.

The site rests on a long ridge, offering views north and east up to Mount Etna, with views of wheat fields in many directions. At the center is the large agora, surrounded by a theater, public buildings, the foundations of houses, and courtyards.

A view of the theater and agora at Morgantina
A view of the theater and agora at Morgantina

On the day we visited there were a dozen or so archaeology grad students busy with their work.

Earlier that morning we had already visited the archaeological museum in Aidone. It was stunning, and was a really special introduction. The highlight was the room displaying the Dea di Morgantina. Having seen the statue years earlier at the Getty, I wondered what if anything would be different. And the difference is of course the way in which the goddess was presented.

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The goddess has lots of company in the museum in Aidone

In many of the discussions of the return of the statue to Aidone, the statue is presented in isolation, all by itself in a cold white room. Part of that may be she is a big statue and getting a full photograph is difficult. But in the room there are other small goddesses on display from Morgantina. And the message is direct: she belongs here.

The Morgantina Goddess
The Morgantina Goddess

I was expecting a sleepy little museum, and in some sense it is. But the museum is full of material. The display cases had dozens and dozens of objects from nearby Morgantina. Looking out the window of the museum, you can almost catch a glimpse of the site of Morgantina itself. I got the sense this is where these objects belong. The museum itself left a little to be desired in terms of didactic material explaining what I was looking at. But I suppose that’s my fault for not taking more classical art courses when I had the chance.

IMG_3903 (1)The objects were delicate and beautiful in the way classical greek art at its best often is. The folds of clothing, the details on the everyday items all left you to wonder, if this was the kind of stuff that existed on the outskirts of the ancient greek world, what were the major cites like? I suppose I could have had  similar ideas and thoughts had we visited these same objects had they been at another museum elsewhere in the world. But when I saw the same goddess at the Getty in 2007, I just kept thinking this shouldn’t be here. The casual museum-goer may not care or IMG_3911take note of these things I guess. But there was a large Italian school group at the museum the day we visited, and a handful of other tourists like us. The museum is a great place to visit. It won’t get nearly the foot traffic and number of visitors that these objects wold probably see if they were in a larger city elsewhere. But at least in my view, that is ok. You had to earn the visit, and the pleasure of these objects a little bit. If you have the means and can visit, you’ll encounter a really special museum.

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Jason Felch & Ralph Frammolino, Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum (2011).

E.A. Freeman, History of Sicily from the Earliest Times (1891).

Chauncery D. IV Steele, Morgantina Treasure: Italy’s Quest for Repatriation of Looted Artifacts, 23 Suffolk Transnat’l L. Rev. 667 (1999).

Derek Fincham, Towards a Rigorous Standard for the Good Faith Acquisition of Antiquities, 37 Syracuse J. Int’l L. & Com. 145 (2009).

E.A. Freeman, History of Sicily from the Earliest Times (1891).

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