The ivory face

Its among the most precious objects ever found in Italy. And: a figure which is certainly one of the most important which the ancient world has given us. Antonio Giuliano, professor emeritus at Tor Vergata university in Rome, has no doubt about the exceptional nature of this ivory face, found by a tomb-robber digging at the site of a first-century BC Roman villa on the outskirts of Anguillara (Lake Bracciano).

The significance of the discovery lies in its rarity. In ancient times, it was exceptional to carve a life-sized statue of ivory and gold, a combination known as chryselephantine. Only the most privileged could commission such a work. Croesus, king of Lydia, before 550 BC dedicated three ivory and gold statues to the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi in Greece. These were discovered in 1939 by French archaeologists, but have only recently been on display at the Delphi museum. The legendary 12-metre-high Athena Parthenos, which was executed by Phidias using 1,000 kg of gold and dedicated to Athena in 438 BC by the Athenians for the Acropolis, has never been found. In 435 BC Phidias created another chryselephantine statue for the temple of Zeus in the sanctuary at Olympia. Not a trace of it remains. In Rome there are records of between 60 and 70 ivory statues in the city in the fourth century AD but none of them have ever been found.

How I found the face

September is the month of Jupiter and Ive always made my greatest discoveries in September. Claiming the god of Olympus as his guiding star, Pietro Casasanta, 65, from Anguillara, well-known to the police as a plunderer of archaeological sites and for illegal traffic of ancient treasures, is now famous for one of the rarest discoveries of recent years: a bigger-than-life-sized ivory mask. Another of his great finds as an expert tomb-robber is the legendary Capitoline Triad, nabbed as it crossed the border to Switzerland. On exhibit at Castel S. Angelo for a long time, the sculpture now resides in the archaeological museum of Palestrina.

I made the greatest archeological finds of the century in the Mediterranean area, Casasanta claims, and no one can dispute that. The experts agree that this ivory mask is of exceptional rarity and quality.

In an exclusive interview in La Voce del Lago, Casasanta recounted how he made the discovery in a desolate field on the outskirts of Anguillara.

Its a site that had already been excavated by professionals. No one knows when or by whom. We found marble fragments of walls and pavements dumped in a cistern. When an area is cleaned up during a dig all the fragments considered useless are gathered in one place, so this told me that excavations had already been done. My theory is that it happened in the 14th century when for 30 years the Orvietani plundered S. Maria di Galeria for the marble to build the cathedral in Orvieto. The field was absolutely clean, with only bits of glass and shards of precious marble.

Why dig where you knew it had already been done?

Every year Id go there after the field was ploughed and before the autumn rains in search of ancient coins and any precious pieces. Then I spotted a few fragments of agate, still backed with the mixture used to glue them together. It occurred to me that they could be part of the decorations of a chryselephantine statue. It was like a dream. I also noticed fragments of rare pavonazzetto marble, which indicated a villa of wealth. I brought a mechanical excavator and we began.

We found the cistern, which also contained a part of a bas relief measuring 140 cm by 70 cm representing the Three Graces, of the kind known only at Pompeii. After a second try, about two to three metres from the cistern, we found the ivory pieces. I saw the mask emerge in the shovel. The other ivory fragments were a hand with only two fingers and pieces of a wrist, together with four Egyptian statues, the largest 80 cm high, the others 20-40 cm. At that point we started digging by hand. This site must have been extremely rich for those who got there before me. Since the ivory and Egyptian statues were pagan idols to the diggers, that is probably why they were left behind. The ivory statues were stripped of their gold and dumped along with the Egyptian statues.

How did you sell them?

I spread them out on my table at home in Anguillara and the dealers came. I sold the works to a single client, for $10 million, about L.20 billion. But all I got was L.800 million out of the deal. When I realised thats all Id be paid, I decided to get even and went to the carabinieri. Thanks to my assistance the dealer an Italo-Cypriot was located in Munich. The carabinieri searched his place but found nothing. Hed already sold everything for L.30 billion. An antique dealer from Zurich was arrested in Cyprus, and revealed that the collection was in London. And thats where the mask and the Egyptian statues were finally found. And brought back to Italy.

Going on trial

Ive already been on trial for the Capitoline Triad, and condemned to one year under house arrest. Thats the recognition I got for having found one of the greatest archaeological treasures of this country. And soon Ill be sentenced to another couple of years because of the ivory mask. The whole world is talking about this discovery, and wouldnt you think Id get some recognition from the local public authorities here in Anguillara? Ive been totally ignored by them. Ive admitted that the mask was found in Anguillara, because I want the town to benefit from this unique discovery.

This article was first published, in Italian, in La Voce del Lago in January 2004. It was translated by Florita Botts.

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Picture: The larger-than-life-sized mask was discovered in 1994 by a notorious local tomb-robber.