Telling the stories behind ancient objects: Inside the career of a University archaeologist
In the summer of 2019, Irene Bald Romano was digging through archival records researching Greek and Roman artifacts the Nazis had looted from archaeological sites, museums and Jewish collectors in Europe from 1933 to 1945.
Romano, a professor of art history in the School of Art and an expert on Greek and Roman sculpture, was looking at archaeological excavation records from Minturno, an ancient Roman site in the Italian region of Campania. Many artifacts from the site were unearthed in the early 1930s by a joint American-Italian team with the artifacts divided between the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and the local museum in Minturno, the latter looted by Nazi soldiers during the regime's brutal campaign.
Romano, who also holds a faculty appointment in the School of Anthropology and is curator of Mediterranean archaeology at the Arizona State Museum, was familiar with the sculpture from the site. In fact, during a more than 20-year tenure with the Penn Museum, she published details about the Minturno sculptures in a catalog of the museum's classical sculpture collection.
Now, as part of her research studying how the Nazis plundered antiquities during their regime, Romano sought answers about where some of Minturno's missing sculptures had gone. In searching through the online catalogs of major museums, Romano found one of them on the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston's website. It showed a photo of a Roman imperial portrait bust, likely of the emperor Maximianus Herculius from the late third or early fourth century, and text explaining that it was "said to be from" Minturno.
Romano turned back to a 1939 Italian report about the marble sculptures from the Minturno excavation. Going down the list of items, she came across a photo of the very portrait bust in the MFA Boston. Romano knew then that the head was not "said to be" from Minturno. Indeed, it was.
The records told the story. Archaeologists found the sculpture in 1931, Italian scholars documented it eight years later, and then, sometime during the war, it vanished. Italian museum specialists had already documented the disappearance of many artifacts from the local museum in Minturno during that period. Romano sent an email to MFA Boston's provenance researcher, notifying her of the discovery and recommending a closer look.
By October of 2020, the Roman portrait bust was removed from the MFA Boston's listed holdings, and in spring of 2022 it was sent back to Italy. Romano's email to MFA Boston staff effectively got the repatriation started, the museum noted in a news release earlier this year.
"That was an easy one," Romano said, recalling the episode recently in her office at the Arizona State Museum. "The evidence was clear, and the MFA Boston acted professionally and expeditiously to carry out their ethical responsibilities."
Such repatriations are not uncommon for Romano, an archaeologist and art historian whose name is among a list of experts authorities keep on speed dial to help identify stolen ancient Mediterranean artifacts. Her 45-year career of telling the stories of ancient objects has made her a leading expert on Greek and Roman sculpture and has taken her on countless trips to Greece and other countries to study objects at archaeological sites and museums.
"Dr. Romano's interdisciplinary expertise in archaeology, art history and provenience studies creates a fascinating and highly relevant bridge between art of classical antiquity and a broad range of contemporary issues," said Colin Blakely, professor and director of the School of Art. "The high-profile recognition her work has garnered is well deserved."
'Wow, this is it'
Romano's first visit to Greece came during a backpacking trip across Europe in the summer of 1971, after her sophomore year studying English at Manhattanville College. Romano and a friend, tired of train rides and big cities, hopped on a plane to Athens, then a boat to the island of Naxos, where they rented a house for several weeks.
"I thought, 'Wow, this is it,'" Romano said. "It was the natural beauty of the place that struck me first – the sea and the light and the marble and the mountains – and then I became curious about the culture."
She started taking classical archaeology and art history courses, topics that later became her minors. Romano worked on her first excavation in 1973 on the Spanish island of Mallorca.
Romano attended graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, where the Penn Museum and its collection of thousands of Mediterranean artifacts became her classroom. In the museum's storage rooms, surrounded by ancient Greek pottery, Romano and her classmates were trained in how to research collections of antiquities and decipher their meanings.
By 1976, she was back in Greece, this time as an archaeologist with the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, a U.S.-based advanced research center that trains graduate students and assists scholars in conducting fieldwork and other research in Greece. Romano also worked with a University of Pennsylvania team at Gordion, in central Turkey, the home of King Midas and his mythical "golden touch."
In grad school, Romano met her husband, David Gilman Romano, a fellow classical archaeologist who is now the Nicholas and Athena Karabots Professor of Greek Archaeology in the School of Anthropology. The Romanos have since logged countless trips to Greece. Their three daughters – Katy and twins Sarah and Elizabeth – practically grew up there, she said, adding that none of them has pursued a career in archaeology.
"We always have interesting topics of conversation, and sometimes debate, about the ancient world that continue virtually every day of the year," David Gilman Romano wrote recently in an email from Greece, where he still conducts fieldwork at the Sanctuary of Zeus at Mount Lykaion, southwest of Athens. "Never a dull moment!"
New scholarship on Nazi plunder
After 23 years in a variety of roles at the Penn Museum – ranging from intern to collections coordinator and curator of classical galleries – and then six years as executive director of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, Romano and her husband joined the University of Arizona faculty in 2012.
The American West is unlike any of their previous homes and the University of Arizona is a unique place to be an archaeologist, said Romano, who joined the University initially as deputy director of the Arizona State Museum.
"It's a very friendly institution where interdisciplinary research is really valued," she said. "The beauty of being an archaeologist here is you have at your disposal amazing scientific colleagues. For any archaeological research questions,you can imagine, you can find somebody at the UA capable of assisting you."
The University also allowed Romano to dive back into teaching after decades of mostly museum and administrative work. Among several classes she designed is one called Art as Plunder: The Spoils of War, the Formation of Collections, and Trade in Stolen Art. Romano's students in the course are often particularly fascinated with how and why the Nazis plundered art, a topic that the class takes several weeks to unpack.
To design the course, Romano dove into the large body of scholarship on Nazi looting, which led her to join the German/American Provenance Research Exchange Program for Museum Professionals, a program organized by the Smithsonian Institution and its German counterpart, the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation. From 2017 to 2019, the program formed a cadre of German and American museum scholars who now collaborate with one another to better understand Holocaust-era art looting and the methods and resources of provenance research, which includes investigating the objects' ownership history.
Romano helped the program expand its focus on the Nazi plunder specifically of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern antiquities – objects such as sculptures, ceramics and bronzes, as opposed to, for example, fine art paintings. While the body of information on Nazi looting is vast, little is known specifically about antiquities. Romano and several of her exchange program colleagues set out to assemble a more complete picture of how the Nazis looted antiquities and what happened to them.
Eventually adding other scholars to the group, work continued well after the program ended in 2019. The findings of some 13 international scholars will be the focus of the forthcoming "The Fate of Antiquities in the Nazi Era," a special online issue of the RIHA Journal, published in Munich by the International Association of Research Institutes in the History of Art. Romano is the academic editor of the issue, which is expected to be published later this year.
The work, which was covered in January by The New York Times, is a significant step toward a better historical understanding of the consequences of the evil of the Nazi regime, Romano said. "The issue of stolen art and antiquities during the Nazi period certainly pales in comparison to the horrific loss of life and the genocide of the Jewish people. It is also important to document this topic as it relates to cultural genocide."
And, sometimes – as in the case of the sculpture at MFA Boston – this kind of research can help an item find its way home.
"When we can locate one of these objects and get it back to the heirs of its owners or the country of origin, it's very satisfying and rewarding," Romano said. "It's another little bit to make up for the wrongs that were done during that period."
A career focused on objects
Romano remains committed to telling the stories of Greek and Roman objects. Next on the list is a marble portrait head of Alexander the Great, which the Penn Museum excavated in Israel in the 1930s, now on display in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. Romano's monograph examining the piece is due to be published later this year by the American Philosophical Society.
Romano also helps students explore the roughly 800 Near Eastern, Egyptian, Greek, Etruscan and Roman archaeological objects in the Arizona State Museum's Mediterranean archaeology collection. The collection, used mainly for research, is not often highlighted in exhibits at the museum, which is renowned for its comprehensive collections of Native North American basketry and Southwest Indigenous pottery.
Returning items to their countries of origin or to the heirs of their original owners is a fortunate byproduct – but not the focus – of Romano's work, she said. The items themselves and the stories they tell about the Greek and Roman worlds, she added, will always keep her fascinated.
"I am interested in many aspects of ancient objects, especially the histories they tell about the lives of the artisans who made them, the manufacturing technologies and the people who owned or used them in particular places and time periods," Romano said. "The afterlives of these objects – where, when and how they were discovered in post-ancient times, how they entered private or public collections, and their uses in modern museums or private homes – are equally fascinating to me."