Rescued from obscurity: UK archaeologist who restored Sicily’s glories | Heritage

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. It was hailed with much the same level of enthusiasm as was given to Howard Carter and Arthur Evans’s excavations of the treasures of Tutankhamun and the palace of Knossos. Not a natural “showman” however, the name of the man who excavated the site, Alexander Hardcastle, then 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. This is supported by the British author of a recent biography of the amateur archaeologist.


“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. An amateur archaeologist who had been in the Royal Engineers, he soon became obsessed and eventually moved away from his family to live close to the ruins.

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. Their key renovations were to the eight columns of the temples of Heracles and Demeter, to the Greek temples of Akragas and to 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.

Bronze statue of Sir Alexander Hardcastle at the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento, Sicily.
Bronze statue of Sir Alexander Hardcastle at the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento, Sicily. Photograph: Paul Shawcross/Alamy

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. Yet in Britain this great patron of the excavations remains almost unknown.

“There are several reasons why he is far less known than the others,” said Richardson. “He came from the ranks of the military and had no archaeological credentials and, although he financed a number of discoveries, no single one had quite the headline-grabbing appeal of discoveries made in Egypt or Crete. He also had none of the showmanship of Evans or Carter. 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.

Finally bankrupt, he was forced to sell his Italian home and is thought to have suffered 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. What is more, the square by the entrance to the Valley of the Temples bears his name, as does another Agrigento street. And recently a small group of academics and writers has set up the Alexander Hardcastle Foundation to perpetuate his memory and mark the anniversary of his death by his grave.

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