Along the ridgeline under a broiling sun, the land is a fallow moonscape, pockmarked and littered with debris. Shards of a terra-cotta cooking pot, 2,300 years old and newly broken, lies next to a plastic water bottle abandoned a few weeks ago by a thirsty treasure hunter.
Morgantina, site of an ancient Greek city in the heartland of rural Sicily, is the battlefield of a nightly war between greed and scholarship. Greed is winning.
Malcolm Bell walked the ridgeline this week in a canvas hat and scuffed jogging shoes and pointed at a half-filled trench.
"This is a new hole, or at least it wasn't here 10 days ago," Bell said softly. "Here's a piece of a painted jar; 3rd Century BC, I'd say. You can see the maker's mark. That's the bottom of a basin, same period. Here's some roof tiles, and a piece of a millstone, and maybe a water jar, and some bits of other cooking pots. . . ."
From Morgantina, it is said, looters have stripped thousands of silver coins and, perhaps, masterpieces of sculpture. At particular issue is Greek statuary that may have traveled a smuggler's route from Morgantina to Malibu.
The government's director of antiquities in Agrigento, Sicily, believes that a dazzling, larger-than-life classical statue, believed to represent the Greek goddess Aphrodite and dating from around 420 BC, may have been clandestinely dug up and spirited away from Morgantina in 1979. It was recently unveiled by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu.
An Italian magistrate who has been investigating thefts from Morgantina discounts that story but says he has proof that the Getty has two other Morgantina statues, archaic specimens that are smaller but older and more valuable historically and artistically.
The magistrate, Silvio Raffiotta, says he is legally constrained from detailing his proof, but described the two statues Wednesday as being acroliths, made of marble and wood. In ancient times, the wooden sections, which have not survived, were covered by drapery. Raffiotta dates the statues to 525-500 BC. He believes the Getty acquired the marble faces, hands and feet about two years ago and has exhibited them since.
(A Getty Museum spokeswoman in Malibu said that in response to Raffiotta's comments, the museum removed from display Thursday several pieces fitting that description. However, the spokeswoman, Lori Starr, said the pieces were not owned by the museum, but were on loan from a private collector and would be returned to the collector. "Any discussion of the possible provenance of these objects should be between their owner and the Italian government," Starr said.)
The statue-hunting Italian magistrate, whose hobby is archeology, has found an ally in Bell, a University of Virginia archeologist who is director of a dig at Morgantina that has been the joy of U.S. scholars since the site was discovered by a Princeton team in 1955.
Bell said it is believed that marble pieces of female figures were clandestinely excavated in the area of the old necropolis in 1979. "Local reports indicate that the figures later left Italy," he said.
The ancient city, named Morgantina by the Princeton team, has a circumference of about four miles, but only a small central portion excavated by the U.S. scholars is fenced. The rest is farmland, some of it fallow and the rest in wheat and olives, just as it was in Greek times.
The Italian government, which by law owns all underground artifacts, has expropriated about 40% of the overall site and is attempting to protect it from marauders. The ancient debris, the modern refuse and the hundreds of small holes where treasure hunters have made illegal one-night digs are damning testimony to the shortcomings of the government's dusk-to-dawn patrol of Morgantina.
Free-lance treasure hunting, revolutionized about 20 years ago by portable metal detectors, is a popular pastime throughout a country where there are potential dig sites and the prospects of buried treasure far surpass the available money or the archeologists to systematically explore them.
At Morgantina, the typical search by so-called clandestini is for silver and bronze Greek coins, which may bring as much as $1,000 each. The treasure hunters routinely smash or discard ancient terra-cotta vessels that a scientist would take gentle hours to unearth.
"We have recovered some 10,000 coins," Bell said. "The clandestini have certainly got more than that. There are hundreds of Morgantina coins in big U.S. and European museums."
Museums that collect antiquities often find themselves embroiled in controversy over legal ownership and repatriation. As the wealthiest and most active American institution in the field, the Getty is particularly susceptible.
Officials of other American museums note that antiquities have been spirited out of archeological sites for centuries and that although laws regulating antiquities have tightened in recent years, Italian police have had little success in stopping the smuggling.
Most objects that come on the market today are not recent thefts, experts say, but pieces that have been in private collections for years. Their provenance is rarely complete, often consisting of nothing more than the most recent owner's records.
Museums and private collectors alike generally rely on reputable dealers to provide a warranty that the work has not been stolen and has no encumbrances or liens against it. Thefts from archeological digs are rarely well-documented, however, especially when the only proof of wrongdoing is a hole in the ground.
Throughout the Aphrodite controversy, the Getty has maintained that it scrupulously followed standard procedures and that the museum received no indications of irregularities until after it had signed a purchase contract.
The fruits of illicit treasure hunting at Morgantina and other sites around the Mediterranean may occasionally draw the international spotlight, but the search itself is strictly a blue-collar hobby.
"People who work for a living don't dig at night," said Raffiotta, who has tossed nearly 40 local peasants in jail so far this year after police found Morgantina artifacts at their homes.
A quirk of history has left Morgantina, founded as a Bronze Age settlement around 1,000 BC, particularly fertile ground for diggers of every sort.
Bell said Morgantina became Hellenized around 550 BC, about 200 years after the Greeks settled in coastal Sicily. In 459 BC, Morgantina fell to a Sikel (Sicilian) chieftain named Duketios. He proved to be a great builder, constructing a new city with a grid system. It prospered as an agricultural center.
When the Romans took the city in 211 BC, they exacted a fearful toll of its defenders and awarded Morgantina to Spanish mercenaries who had switched allegiance from Greece to Rome the year before.
Under mercenary rule, the population of Morgantina declined dramatically, leaving many homes in the newer western part of the city abandoned. A reduced Morgantina dragged along until the 1st Century, when the Romans imposed a land tenure system based on large plantations and the heavy use of slaves, making the city superfluous.
"Morgantina was pretty much left as it was from that time until the arrival of the Princeton team, and then the metal detectors," Bell said.
American researchers will be back at Morgantina next summer with their strainers, tweezers and soft brushes for new excavations at the central plaza of Duketios' city. In the meantime, Sicilian peasants with shovels will no doubt play moonlit counterpoint to the international murmur of judges and lawyers over the presumed spoils of Morgantina.
Times staff writer Suzanne Muchnic in Los Angeles contributed to this story.