In the 1920s, the discovery of ancient ruins in Sicily, now the largest archaeological site in the world, was celebrated with excitement in British newspapers. The discovery of ancient ruins in Sicily was celebrated with the same enthusiasm that Howard Carter’s and Arthur Evans’s excavations at the Tutankhamun treasures and palace of Knossos. Although Hardcastle was not a natural “showman”, the name of the man who excavated this site, Alexander Hardcastle slowly faded.
Now, as an contemporary sculpture exhibition on the site he made his life’s work, Sicily’s Valley of the Temples, marks the centenary of his efforts, there is a fresh push to ensure Hardcastle’s achievements are remembered. The British author of a biography about the amateur archaeologist supports this.
“Unsung heroes are always a draw, but Hardcastle’s allure was his determined elusiveness,” said Alexandra Richardson, whose book, Passionate Patron, about this “quintessential Italophile” was published in 2009.
Hardcastle’s first encounter with the ruins of Agrigento came while on holiday with his brother after the end of the first world war as he walked across the unexcavated valley on the south-west coast. He was an amateur archaeologist and had served in the Royal Engineers. However, he became obsessed with the site and moved to the ruins to be near his family.
He then spent his large family fortune on the restoration of the site, dedicating 12 years to working in close collaboration with the Italian archaeologist Pirro Marconi. They focused their renovations on the eight columns of Demeter and Heracles’ temples, as well as the Greek temples Akragas and the original city walls.
“Resurrecting all of the fallen columns of the Temple of Heracles is Hardcastle’s most-cited project,” said Richardson, “but I think the digging, the clearance and restoration of the walls surrounding the complex perhaps helped give the idea of the scale and importance of the settlement.”
Dating from the 5th century BC, the Valley of the Temples is now a Unesco world heritage site and the world’s largest archaeological park. It covers 3,950 acres and includes the ruins of seven temples, city walls, an entry gate, an agora and Roman forum, along with necropoli and sanctuaries. The nearby city-state of Akragas, where Hardcastle also supported excavations, was founded in 582BC by Greeks from Gela, a colony 40 miles away.
A centenary display of sculpture at the Valley of the Temples by the Italian contemporary artist Gianfranco Meggiato, an admirer of Hardcastle, will continue into the new year. This great patron of excavations is still almost unknown in Britain.
“There’s a lot to his story that is not well-known, Richardson said. He was a military officer and did not have any archaeological credentials. Richardson also stated that he didn’t finance many discoveries. However, he had a lot of them, but none had the same headline-grabbing appeal as those made in Egypt and Crete. He was also not as showmanlike as Carter or Evans. But thanks to deep pockets and formidable drive, he was able to fund and firmly push along the works he deemed most worthy.”
Hardcastle was ruined by the Wall Street Crash in 1929 and sold all of his possessions, borrowing money from friends to continue the works. He was eventually bankrupt and had to sell his Italian house. It is believed that he suffered from a mental breakdown. In 1933 he died in an asylum in Agrigento, aged 60.
In recognition of his work Hardcastle was, however, granted the rank of Commander of the Order of the Crown of Italy. In recognition of his work, Hardcastle was awarded the rank of Commander of the Order of the Crown of 950Italy. A small group of writers and academics has recently established the Alexander Hardcastle Foundation in his honor and to mark the anniversary of his passing by a monument.
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