Italian mayor launches underwater excavation to find third Riace bronze

Town of Riace is planning a museum, while a new investigation hopes to confirm whether there are more ancient Greek statues to be found

One of the remarkable Greek statues found in the sea off the Italian coast in 1972 by an amateur diver © Alexander van Loon

One of the remarkable Greek statues found in the sea off the Italian coast in 1972 by an amateur diver © Alexander van Loon

In a sensational discovery almost 50 years ago, Italian Carabinieri hauled two exceptionally well preserved ancient Greek bronze warriors out of the sea near Riace in Calabria. Now, Antonio Trifoli, the town’s mayor, is organising a major underwater excavation in a bid to find a third bronze. The search is one of several initiatives planned in Riace to mark the golden anniversary of the discovery next year, with a new museum, international conferences and a newly commissioned bronze statue all in the pipeline.

Discovered by chance by an amateur scuba diver, Stefano Mariottini, in 1972, the two fifth-century BC bronzes are now housed in a climate-controlled room at the National Archaeological Museum of Reggio Calabria. To date, there have been only two minor excavations of the site, and it remains unclear how the bronzes arrived at the Riace coast. One of several theories is that a Roman ship sank while transporting the statues from Greece.

The second statue that was found off the Italian coast; some believe there are further bronzes to be found © Alexander van Loon

Giuseppe Braghò, a Calabrian investigative journalist, is convinced that there are further clues, if not another statue, waiting to be discovered. In official statements in 1972, Mariottini told Carabinieri he had spotted “a group” of bronzes, adding that one had “open arms and one leg in front of the other”—a description that does not correspond with the two bronzes now displayed in Reggio Calabria. Furthermore, sonar inspections by researchers on a US ship in 2004 indicate there could be further substantial metallic objects near the site of the original discovery.

Braghò and Trifoli have assembled a ten-person scientific committee led by the leading underwater archaeologist Luigi Fozzati to conduct a fresh investigation of the site. Excavations are planned to take place before next summer in three phases, lasting at least nine weeks in total. They will focus on the locations where the US researchers detected metallic objects, an extended area surrounding the site of a 1973 excavation by archaeologist Nino Lamboglia, and an underwater medieval archaeological site. “One theory is that a ship carrying the bronzes sank in the 1500s rather than in the Roman era, so we want to check whether that could be true,” Braghò says. The project is expected to cost more than €350,000.

One of several theories is that a Roman ship sank while transporting the statues from Greece

Trifoli also hopes to create a multimedia museum in Riace devoted to the 1972 discovery. Though the original statues remain in Reggio Calabria, the new museum would display 3D images of the bronzes in “stunning” detail, he tells The Art Newspaper. With an initial budget of around €500,000, it could be housed in a building near the coast that was recently confiscated from the ‘Ndrangheta, the Calabrian mafia. The mayor says he is also in talks to establish a school of underwater archaeology at the venue with Fozzati’s support.

Further proposals for the anniversary include a literature prize, a new statue marking the point where the Greek artefacts were found, and two days of conferences with contributions from international archaeology and cultural heritage experts.

However, it is not yet clear how the town will foot the bill for its ambitious celebrations, which are estimated to cost €2.5m in total. Riace has requested financial support from the regional government of Calabria but may not receive a decision until after regional elections on 3-4 October, Trifoli says.

Despite the uncertainty, Braghò vows that Riace will secure alternative funding sources if necessary. “We have a lot of interest from private sponsors,” he says. “The bronzes are famous all over the world and many people would love to help us find another.”