AIDONE, Italy — They came in throngs. On Friday afternoon hundreds of residents from this tiny hilltop town in eastern Sicily excitedly trekked up the steep slope to the town’s archaeology museum to celebrate the return to Aidone of a treasure trove that was buried nearby some 2,200 years ago and illegally whisked away in more recent times.
This year this cache of 16 Hellenistic silver-gilt objects known as the Morgantina silver was on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. For decades archaeologists, magistrates and eventually the Italian government had attempted to convince the museum that the pieces had been illegally excavated 30 years ago from Morgantina, an ancient Greek settlement whose ruins lie next to Aidone.
Their perseverance — as well as increasingly incontrovertible evidence — paid off, and the silver hoard was included in a 2006 accord between the Italian government and the museum for the return of several objects that Italians said had been looted from Italian soil. The silver was returned to Italy in February, but only now has it been restored to Sicily, installed in a freshly whitewashed hall alongside more mundane objects — a brass comb, an ancient coin, a large terra-cotta altar — also found in the house where archaeologists believe the silver was probably buried in 211 B.C. when Morgantina fell to the Romans.
“They’re beautiful works of art, they tempted a lot of people, but it’s right that they’ve come back to their proper home,” said one visitor, Alfredo Scivoli, who opened a bed-and-breakfast here in April, in anticipation of the tourists that local officials hope will be drawn here by the silver.
At a packed conference on the return of the treasure earlier in the day Pietro Giovanni Guzzo, the former superintendent of Pompeii and the first Italian scholar officially to study the silver at the Met more than two decades ago, said most of the collection dated from the third century B.C. and was used for religious purposes and for banquets. He said that it probably had been collected for its material value rather than for its artistic value, and together the items weigh only about 10 pounds.
Objects used for symposia, as the ancient Greeks called their drinking banquets, include a ladle with a dog’s-head handle (typical of Morgantina) and various drinking bowls. Scholars believe that the silver objects had been hidden inside two kraters (large bowls for mixing wine) decorated with feet depicting theatrical masks, and that secreting them away probably kept them safe for posterity.
“The silver can perhaps shed light on the brutal, dramatic circumstances of the final years of the Second Punic War and, seen within the framework of the house, we get a sense of the art and the material culture of Hellenistic Sicily,” said Malcolm Bell III, professor emeritus of art history and archaeology at the University of Virginia and the director of excavations at Morgantina. “They have truly been recontextualized, and that is really important.”
For decades too Dr. Bell was a leading crusader for the return of the treasure, and in Aidone, where his excavations brought seasonal work for many residents, he is very much a hero. “This is a very happy moment and deeply satisfying,” he said in an interview.
For Aidone the silver’s return means much more than righting a wrong.
For an economically depressed town that offers few employment opportunities and has seen droves of younger people seek their fortunes elsewhere, the Morgantina treasure presents new hope for the future.
Last year the Aidone Archaeological Museum became the permanent home to two archaic acroliths (statues usually made with wooden trunks but stone heads and extremities) that had also been looted from Morgantina. They had once been owned by Maurice Tempelsman, a New York businessman. The two statues — representing the mother-and-daughter goddesses Demeter and Persephone — now sit majestically enthroned, draped in evocative bespoke tunics by the Sicilian designer Marella Ferrera.
Another boost to the collection will come next year when the J. Paul Getty Museum’s villa in Malibu, Calif., returns a cult statue of a goddess that it bought in 1988 for $18 million. It too was probably looted from Morgantina. That statue — which has been traditionally identified as Aphrodite, though there is a growing debate over whom it personifies — will be disassembled for transport and then reassembled in its new home. In return Sicily will loan several works to the Getty.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Mayor Filippo Gangi of Aidone. The “extraordinary triptych” of artworks, he said, could “trigger an unprecedented economic development” in Aidone, exploiting too the town’s proximity to the Roman Villa del Casale, which boasts more than 4,200 square yards of late Roman mosaics and is already one of the most visited sites in Sicily.
A new outlet mall in Enna, the provincial capital, is also expected to draw crowds, said Sebastiano Missineo, the regional councilor for cultural heritage and Sicilian identity. “It’s all bound to generate wealth for the territory,” he said.
But not so long ago many locals moonlighted as tomb robbers. Mayor Gangi said it was “a once-tolerated sport,” and more than one person at the museum on Friday mused whether the original thieves, who have never been formally identified, would show up.
The new exhibition at the museum includes a 100-lira coin from 1978 found at the so-called House of Eupolemos, the modest abode from which archaeologists believe the silver was stolen. The coin suggested a time frame for the theft. The Met acquired the silver in two installments, in 1981 and 1982, for a total of $2.74 million from Robert Hecht, now 91, an antiquities dealer in New York and Paris who is on trial in Rome on charges of conspiring to deal in looted artifacts. (Silvio Raffiotta, the magistrate who led the legal attack on the Met 20 years ago, admitted that Italy’s “negligence and silence” were as much to blame as tomb robbers for the silver ending up in the United States.)
According to the 2006 accord the Met shares joint custody of the silver, which will travel between New York and Aidone every four years for exhibit. When the silver came to Italy in February, the Met received a recently excavated 20-piece Roman dining set from the Pompeii region.
The Morgantina silver is set to return to New York in 2014, but several archaeologists here suggested that the fragile artifacts were put at risk every time they traveled. This did not stop the Italian government from showcasing the set at the Shanghai World Expo this year.
The Aidone museum is small, without space for temporary exhibitions or multimedia stations, and roads to the town badly need repairs, said Enrico Caruso, who in September was appointed director of the new Archaeological Park of Morgantina. But all of its treasures belong in Aidone, he said, adding, “Here they are not orphans.”