Pending 'Coronavirus Apocalypse' Impels Man to Return Ballista Stolen From Jerusalem

While cleaning for Passover, the unnamed repentant dusted off the 2,000-year-old weapon he had stolen as a rebellious teenager from the City of David and gave it back to the antiquities authority

Ruth Schuster
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Various Roman catapult (ballista) rocks found along the Pilgrim's Road in the City of David, Jerusalem
Various Roman catapult (ballista) rocks found along the Pilgrim's Road in the City of David, JerusalemCredit: Clara Amit, IAA
Ruth Schuster

The end may or may not be nigh, but some people are stirred by the notion of impending doom to return antiquities they stole years and even decades ago to the benevolent authorities.

The latest archaeological artifact to be shamefacedly restored to the hands of the State of Israel is a ballista stone stolen 15 years ago from a dig in Jerusalem. The impetus? Not the usual apocalypse per se, but the coronavirus.

The unnamed penitent decided to return the 2,000-year-old weapon of warfare to the Israel Antiquities Authority because, he explained to the bemused authority, the coronavirus crisis leads him to suspect that “the end of the world is near.”

To be clear, the repentant thief didn’t slink into the offices of the IAA beating himself over the head with the stone ball. The IAA learned of the miscreant’s remorse via a third-party Facebook post by one Moshe Manies, who mediated the artifact’s return without disclosing the thief’s identity.

“It involved two ‘shababniks’ [rebellious teenagers], who, 15 years earlier, toured at the City of David site and came across a display of ballista stones, which were catapulted at fortifications,” Manies told the IAA.  “One of the boys took one of the stones home.”

The theft doesn’t seem to have weighed on his heart too heavily over the years. He married and multiplied, as people who do not steal archaeological artifacts do. But forget the stone, he did not.

While cleaning the house for the upcoming Passover festival, as is the norm, he found himself facing not only grime of the home but of his past.

The specific ballista rock that a penitent thief returned through a third party
The specific ballista rock that a penitent thief returned through a third partyCredit: Clara Amit, IAA

“Together with the apocalyptic feeling the coronavirus generated, he felt the time was ripe to clear his conscience, and he asked me to help him return it to the Israel Antiquities Authority,” Manies reveals.

Dead bodies and curses

It is regretfully not rare for antiquities to be stolen. In fact, it’s practically a profession – to wit, selling heisted archaeological artifacts on the black market.

Remorse is rare, but it happens. One of the more extraordinary cases was the return in 2011 of a meticulously engraved chalkstone ossuary dating to the Second Temple period.

Image of ancient Romans using a catapult to destroy the enemy's city walls
Image of ancient Romans using a catapult to destroy the enemy's city wallsCredit: Illustration by Shalom Kveller; Courtesy of the City of David Archives

The penitent, a resident of Tel Aviv, told surprised IAA staffers that he had bought it from an Arab trader “some time before” and had kept the antique box in his bedroom.

One day, a visitor shown the artifact told him that the beautiful box was in fact a repository for the reburial of bones left after the fleshly remains are no more, dated to some time just before or in the first century B.C.E., and shouldn’t be kept in the home but in a museum.

Truth be told, once he realized what the box was, our hero confessed to being revolted at the morbid thought of an ossuary that had once, presumably, contained a dead person’s mortal remains and preferred to get rid of it, the IAA explains.

Studying the repository, the IAA deduced that it had contained the remains of a Jew and had been fashioned in a stoneware workshop in Jerusalem, apparently between 10 B.C.E. to 70 C.E. The engraving was exquisitely done. The ossuary featured stone rosettes – a Jewish symbol at the time and a carpet of parallelograms.

The Second Temple-era ossuary that creeped out its illegal owner
The Second Temple-era ossuary that creeped out its illegal ownerCredit: Antiquities Robbery Prevention Unit, IAA

The IAA detectives suspect the ossuary had been stolen by grave robbers from a Jewish tomb in the Jerusalem area.

Penitence can also take its sweet time. In another noteworthy case, the staff of the Museum of Islamic and Near Eastern cultures in Be’er Sheva were surprised to find an abandoned bag left in the courtyard – and even more surprised to read the note left with it, unsigned of course.

Catapult stones from the roman assault on Gamla.
Catapult stones from the roman assault on Gamla.Credit: Dr. Dalia Manor, the Museum of of Islamic and Near Eastern Cultures

“These are two Roman ballistic stones from the archaeological site of Gamla,” the note read, referring to the site of an ancient town perched on a mountaintop by the Sea of Galilee, far to the north.

He had found the two stones at the foot of the hill, in what was a residential area 2,000 years earlier, the thief explained in the note.

The Second Temple-era town of Gamla sat on the top of this spur, which risessharply between two streambeds.Credit: Yaron Kaminsky

“I stole them in July 1995,” said the thief, who was nothing if not anal, “and since then they have given me nothing but trouble. Don’t steal antiquities!” he finished. The unknown penitent did not mention whether the trouble was from his conscience or some other source, such as his mother.  To be clear, over 2,000 stones for ballistae were found at Gamla.

“This is the site where there is the largest number of ballista stones from the Early Roman period,” Danny Syon, excavator of Gamla over years on behalf of the IAA, told Haaretz back in 2015.

“The Romans shot these stones at the defenders of the city in order to keep them away from the wall” and potentially breaking it with a battering ram. “The stones were manually chiseled on site by soldiers or prisoners.”

Finally, there is also the case of the priest from New York state, who asked forgiveness for a congregant who had purloined a stone from Jerusalem a decade before, and had suffered pangs of conscience ever since. The stone was returned and has been sitting safe in a warehouse ever since.

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