The AIA mourns the passing of Malcolm (Mac) Bell III, active AIA member, former Governing Board Member, VP for Professional Responsibilities, Norton lecturer, and recipient of the 2016 AIA Gold Medal Award. We offer our deepest condolences to his family, friends, and colleagues. To honor Malcolm’s memory, we have reached out to a group of AIA members who knew him well to write this moving tribute:
Malcolm Bell III, Emeritus Professor of Art History at the University of Virginia and Director of the American Excavations at Morgantina, Sicily, passed away in Rome on January 7, 2024.
When it was cold in Charlottesville, Malcolm (Mac) Bell III walked along Rugby Road in a long, cloth coat and wool scarf. In the summer sun of Sicily his trademark was a floppy, faded, canvas hat. Alongside Italian politicians, museum officials, and carabinieri in their resplendent uniforms, he always seemed a little more rumpled than his companions; but he was the reason they were all gathered. This quiet, bearded man with squinting eyes—” a bespectacled scholar…of almost puritanical rectitude” as he was once profiled in the New Yorker—and a deeply polite yet persuasive manner had identified the very holes dug by clandestini when they found Eupolemos’ silver hoard. Because of him, those artifacts had returned to the small museum across from the old schoolhouse in the town of Aidone, at the top of a long, steep, winding road from the site of ancient Morgantina, where looters had dug them up decades earlier.
Mac’s father, Malcolm Jr., was a banker, local historian, and – along with his mother, Muriel – a celebrated photographer. He received a Freedom Fund award from the NAACP for his work promoting racial harmony in their hometown of Savannah, Georgia. As a student at Princeton (AB in English in 1963, PhD Art and Archaeology in 1972), Mac excavated at Aphrodisias (1961-1963), Morgantina (1967-68), and Cosa (1969). He held a Fulbright fellowship in Italy (1968-69) and stayed on as a fellow of the American Academy in Rome through 1970. Just before completing his PhD on the terracottas of Morgantina, he was hired into the McIntire Department of Art at the University of Virginia. By the time he retired in 2009, he had served as department chair (1979-1985), helped to establish the University’s first residential college, worked tirelessly in collegial governance, and taught, mentored, and inspired countless students.
In 1980, Mac took up the directorship of the Morgantina excavations. He embarked on a concerted effort to publish the results of earlier excavations and to answer new questions with new trenches. His own dissertation was published as Morgantina Studies vol. 1 (1981), and subsequent volumes on the coins, kilns, the protohistoric settlement, the Archaic cemeteries, and the Hellenistic and Roman fine wares have all now appeared. Like the best site directors, Mac carefully distributed sectors of the site and batches of material to talented colleagues (including the late Barbara Tsakirgis for the houses, Sandra Lucore for the North Baths, Jenifer Neils for the figured pottery, Justin Walsh on black-glaze pottery from Serra Orlando, Carla Antonaccio – Mac’s co-director – for the Archaic settlement, and many others). Mac himself devoted most of his attention to the agora, its monumental buildings, and the city plan. In 2022, Morgantina Studies VII, The City Plan and Political Agora, brought his 40+ years of accumulated knowledge and archaeological insights to the scholarly community. His scholarship embraced the wide dimensions of Greek and Roman antiquity, weaving together art, architecture, literature, history, epigraphy, numismatics, and fieldwork.
Like the best site directors, Mac got to know his many Italian colleagues and the local people of Aidone, the town closest to the ancient site. From them he heard stories of finds made in the not-so-distant past, but not through official excavations. Mac heard tales of silver vessels looted by clandestini, and in 1987, on a visit to the Metropolitan Museum he caught sight of silver objects that reminded him of the stories he had heard.
In 1997-1998, Mac oversaw excavation of the house where the clandestini had been active. In the courtyard he found two disturbed pits. At the bottom of one was a bronze coin of 214-212 BC, just before Morgantina chose the losing side in the Second Punic War and was handed over to Spanish mercenaries, presumably leading some wealthy citizens to hide their silver ware. He also found a 100-lira coin dated to 1978, just three years before the Metropolitan began acquiring what Mac could now prove was the two dozen-piece silver set from Morgantina. Almost a decade later, in 2006, the Metropolitan Museum and the Italian government reached an agreement to repatriate the silver hoard to Italy (along with the famous Sarpedon krater by Euphronios and other objects), and in 2010 the Morgantina vessels returned to Aidone.
At Mac’s urging, in 1997 the AIA successfully advocated for the forfeiture of a gold phiale, filing an amicus brief in the case “United States v. an Antique Platter of Gold.” The phiale was duly returned for installation at the Museo Archeologico of Himera, and the court’s favorable decision has had wide-ranging consequences. More such successes followed. The Getty Museum agreed to return an over life-sized, late 5th-century, statue of a goddess to Aidone in 2007. In gratitude, the town of Aidone awarded Mac with honorary citizenship in 2008. In 2009, two female heads belonging to acrolithic sculptures (Sicily’s tutelary goddesses, Demeter and Persephone?) were also restituted to Aidone through an innovative arrangement Mac brokered between the private collector who had acquired them and the University of Virginia. Even more recently, Mac spurred an investigation undertaken by Alex Walthall, Claire Lyons, and a team of archaeologists and conservators, which concluded with the return of a terracotta head of Hades for permanent display in Aidone. Mac’s instrumental role in each of these cases cannot be overstated.
For Mac, though, this was always about much more than just Morgantina and his local clandestini. As Professor-in-Charge at the School of Classical Studies at the American Academy in Rome (1990-1996), Mac brought together leaders in the Italian archaeological community with museum curators from many major American collections in a ground-breaking conference Antichità senza Provenienza. The resulting dialogue is widely seen as the catalyst for greater understanding of the issues surrounding looting, the antiquities market, archaeologists, and museums. Most concretely, it resulted in a bilateral agreement between Italy and the United States aimed at curtailing the illegal trade in Italian antiquities. The treaty spawned cultural agreements between the Sicilian Region and American museums, bringing ancient art from his beloved Sicily to public exhibitions in Los Angeles and Cleveland. Mac’s efforts always aimed toward the humanistic goals of sharing and cooperation. Not least, they directly led to important conservation collaborations to preserve and protect Sicily’s cultural heritage for the future. From 2003-2006, Mac served as the AIA’s Vice President for Professional Responsibilities; a position that only solidified his standing as our field’s moral and ethical compass.
In early January 2016, Mac came to San Francisco for the Annual Meetings of the AIA. The wool scarf was there; the cloth coat was not so necessary. He moved through the halls and paper sessions quietly but happily catching up on the research of friends, old and new. Then he mounted the stage to accept the Gold Medal Award for Distinguished Archaeological Achievement. We stood and cheered. We applauded his great successes at Morgantina, where even now his successors, led by Mac’s former student Alex Walthall, continue to draw new knowledge and understanding from the hard soil of central Sicily. We applauded a scholar whose crusades on behalf of the entire field of archaeology and cultural heritage were fought and won with fairness, determination, and great wisdom.
Now, with the news of his death in Rome on January 7, 2024, we remember these great achievements, but most of all we offer deepest sympathies to his wife Ruth, his son Raphael, and his daughter Maggie.