Ancient Morgantina, a Greek city on the edge of civilisation

Amidst the rolling hills and valleys of south eastern Sicily, in sight of Mount Etna and boasting panoramas over the surrounding countryside, sits one of the most important archeological sites in Sicily. The Ancient Greek town of Morgantina was an outpost of Greek civilisation, sitting on the boundary between Hellenistic civilisation to the south and the indigenous tribes of the north. At its height, in the 4th century BC, it was an affluent town of around 7,000 inhabitants connected by trade to the great city states of Ancient Greece: Sparta, Corinth and Athens.

Sitting on the Serra Orlando ridge, Morgantina commands a spectacular and strategic location. It had been populated for centuries before Greek colonists arrived sometime around the 8th century BC. Over the next 200 years, it was transformed into a typical Greek city, with the same style of urban planning that you’d have found throughout the Ancient Greek world: a large flat area was created for the agora or marketplace, baths, a rectangular street grid of residential houses, and an amphitheatre.

Ancient Greek city of Morgantina, Sicily, Italy

Ancient Greek city of Morgantina, Sicily, Italy

Marketplace, Ancient Greek city of Morgantina, Sicily, Italy

Marketplace, Ancient Greek city of Morgantina, Sicily, Italy

Kiln, Ancient Greek city of Morgantina, Sicily, Italy

Kiln, Ancient Greek city of Morgantina, Sicily, Italy

Marketplace, Ancient Greek city of Morgantina, Sicily, Italy

Marketplace, Ancient Greek city of Morgantina, Sicily, Italy

Ancient Greek city of Morgantina, Sicily, Italy

Ancient Greek city of Morgantina, Sicily, Italy

We arrived late in the afternoon after a visit to the Villa Romana del Casale and left the car in an empty car park. Unlike the heavily touristed Villa Romana, Morgantina was deserted. We had to hunt around to find someone so we could pay the entry fee. We were pointed in the general direction of the ruins, and set off in search of the ancient Greek city. We passed a few information boards along the way, most of the information on them had been obliterated by time and intense sunlight. Not an encouraging sign.

The reality is, that although this is a most extraordinary historic site, it feels unloved and certainly underfunded. It was impossible to know what we were looking at thanks to the poor signage, but that disappointment was dispelled by walking undisturbed through this magical and atmospheric place as the sun began to set. We could just make out the shape of Mount Etna through the haze way off in the distance. On a clear day it must be a magnificent sight.

We walked up to the top of a hill, at one time part of the city, but today it feels more like a natural viewing platform over the ancient heart of Morgantina. The vistas are pretty spectacular. The bird’s eye view that you get from on high is wonderful, from here you can see the layout of the city below, and despite the lack of information, you can piece together the workings of the city. We wandered down to walk amongst the ruins of this fascinating place, only the sound of sheep bells disturbed the peace.

We were too late to visit the museum dedicated to Morgantina in the nearby town of Aidone, and our journey the next day would be back to Catania, which meant that we’d miss seeing some of the ancient marvels that have been discovered, not always legally, at the site. One of these is the Goddess of Morgantina, a statue illegally removed from Morgantina before being smuggled to Switzerland. It would later become an US$18 million acquisition of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

Ancient Greek city of Morgantina, Sicily, Italy

Ancient Greek city of Morgantina, Sicily, Italy

Ancient Greek city of Morgantina, Sicily, Italy

Ancient Greek city of Morgantina, Sicily, Italy

Ancient Greek city of Morgantina, Sicily, Italy

Ancient Greek city of Morgantina, Sicily, Italy

Marketplace, Ancient Greek city of Morgantina, Sicily, Italy

Marketplace, Ancient Greek city of Morgantina, Sicily, Italy

Ancient Greek city of Morgantina, Sicily, Italy

Ancient Greek city of Morgantina, Sicily, Italy

The looted statue was finally returned to Sicily in 2011, but it isn’t the only Morgantina artefact to be illegally trafficked. A hoard of silver pieces from the 3rd century BC were also returned after finding their way to New York’s Metropolitan Museum in 1982. The American archaeologist, Malcolm Bell, who led the excavations of the city believes the silver pieces were, “most likely hidden beneath the floor of a house by a Greek man named Eupolemos, who was trying to protect his wealth from invading Roman armies.”

The pieces were sold to the Metropolitan by Robert Hecht Jr., an infamous American antiquities dealer. Before his death in 2012, he was on trial charged with conspiring to traffic looted artefacts. Hecht came to fame in the 1970s when he sold another piece to the Metropolitan, the Euphronios Krater looted from an ancient Greek tomb in Italy. The museum didn’t learn its lesson from that experience, or at least didn’t care to, but all these stolen antiquities are now back where they started.