Thief Returns Roman Slingstones Used to Attack Gamla's Jews 2,000 Years Ago

Ancient artifacts of war brought me nothing but trouble, repentant thief mourns.

Israel Antiquities Authority

Better quite late than never: A repentant antiquities thief has anonymously returned 2,000-year old slingstones stolen from the ancient battleground of Gamla, a Second Temple-era Jewish city on the east shore of the Sea of Galilee.

The thief left the stones, which were about 15 centimeters in diameter, lying in a bag in the courtyard of the Museum of Islamic and Near Eastern Cultures in Be’er Sheva, with a note stating, "These are two Roman ballista balls from Gamla, from a residential quarter at the foot of the summit. I stole them in July 1995 and since then they have brought me nothing but trouble. Please, do not steal antiquities!"

The unknown penitent did not mention whether the trouble was from his conscience or some other source, such as his mother. He did say he'd stolen the stones from the residential quarter of ancient Gamla, in 1995.

The museum informed the Israel Antiquities Authority, which said it intends to add the swag to the national collection of Roman-era slingstones.

Gamla, a walled town precariously perched on the top and side of a crag, has been a rich source of ancient material of war. Almost 2,000 slingstones were found during archaeological excavations there.

Vulture in Gamla
Yaron Kaminsky

Ancient Gamla had been perched on the spur between two riverbeds. (Yaron Kaminsky)

"This is the site where there is the largest number of ballista stones from the Early Roman period," said Dr. Danny Syon, excavator of Gamla over years on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority. "The Romans shot these stones at the defenders of the city in order to keep them away from the wall, and in that way they could approach the wall and break it with a battering ram. The stones were manually chiseled on site by soldiers or prisoners."

Israel is littered with archaeological sites, and theft from them has been a pastime through the eons. But this isn't the first time a thief has regretted his sin. One returned item was a rare 2,000-year old Jewish coffin, which a resident of Tel Aviv had stored in his bedroom. He hadn't realized what it was, but when enlightened to its "morbid meaning," returned it, says the IAA. In another case, a priest from New York returned a stone taken from Jerusalem more than a decade earlier by a congregant, who asked for forgiveness.

The ruins of Gamla, which is part of a nature reserve, are also famous for being a nesting ground for rare Israeli vultures: Gamla used to advertise itself as “the only place in Israel where you can see the vultures from above."

As told by the 1st-century Jewish historian Josephus Flavius, in the early days of the Great Revolt (66-70 CE), the Romans took the city after a protracted siege. Roman commando units undermined one of the city's defense towers (its remains still stand) and the legionnaires poured in. Furious hand-to-hand combat ensued as the Romans pushed the Jews further and further to the cliff at the western reaches of their city. Rather than be captured, many of the Jews eventually jumped to their death into the ravine, according to Josephus. The parks authority has installed plaques at the lookout telling the story in Josephus’ own words.

The story of Gamla as told by Josephus (Photo: Yaron Kaminsky)